Fairness and the Totalitarian Impulse

Comedian Louis C.K. once received a disturbing lesson in “fairness” from his children. As he tells the story in one of his stand-up specials, his daughter once accidentally broke one of her toys, and then demanded that Louis break her sibling’s toy “to make it fair.”

Wow. From the mouths of babes, a perfect example of how the impulse to “fairness” — seemingly so benign in theory — in practice so often leads to disaster.

Nature, of course, is not fair. It dispenses talent, intellect, and luck unequally amongst the populations of the world. As a result, some people will always end up with more than others.  When government sets out to impose “fairness” on society, it is therefore faced with a dilemma. It is impossible to make some people smarter, luckier, more talented. It is equally impossible to take away those blessings from those who have inherited them. The only recourse for government then, is to destroy or confiscate the material rewards which so often accrue as a consequence of such qualities. Fairness to all, then, is really punishment for many.

This is the reason that political systems that have as explicit charter the imposition of fairness so often descend into totalitarianism — total government power is the only way to enforce total equality. In such a state, misery and material want will be the norm; everyone will be equally unhappy. Like Louis C.K.’s two kids, each with a broken toy.

We should keep all of this in mind when we hear politicians like Barack Obama lament the “inequality” in our society, and we should always look askance at their solutions to this alleged problem. Material equality does not necessarily mean prosperity or stability. As Charles Lane noted recently in The Washington Post:

Western Europe’s recent history suggests that flat income distribution accompanies flat economic growth. Which European country recorded the biggest decrease in inequality between 1985 and 2008? That would be Greece.