Most people care about fairness. Humans are, after all, moral creatures. And yet it’s mostly the political left that speaks of “fairness.” That’s unfortunate, because policies that flow from the left’s conception of “fairness” often harm those most in need of “fairness.” Conservatives can close this massive moral messaging gap with a more persuasive narrative about what’s fair.
President Biden is leading the way on the left. In his State of the Union address, he wielded “fairness” as a rhetorical cudgel, insisting on fairness anywhere and everywhere, including tax policy, antitrust enforcement and prescription drug prices.
The president doubled down in his budget. The White House justified nearly every component in terms of fairness, understood as “equity,” including housing, criminal justice and education. Democrats on the House Budget Committee released a report praising the budget for advancing … you guessed it, fairness.
The Department of Justice’s mission is to “uphold the rule of law, to keep our country safe, and to protect civil rights.” Still, the agency’s 2022-2026 strategic plan asserts a need to “ensure economic opportunity and fairness for all” as a key plank.
Expect the left to ratchet up their rhetoric as the 2024 election approaches.
And on the right? Mostly crickets.
The left’s focus on fairness is psychologically sensible. Research in moral psychology by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others shows humans are wired to care about “fairness.” It just depends on what’s meant by “fair.”
Research reveals that the left and right generally hold fundamentally different conceptions of “fairness.” The left sees fairness as “equity,” which prioritizes equal treatment and equal outcomes. Hence the growing dominance of the DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) narrative.
The right, by contrast, views fairness as “proportionality,” which focuses on individuals being rewarded in proportion to their industriousness, merit and contribution.
Conservatives tend to respond to appeals to equity fairness in one of two ineffective ways. First, they argue that “fair” policies are substantively undesirable or untenable. Even if the data is on the conservatives’ side, this approach doesn’t work because humans feel (not reason) first, and “fair” policies make us feel good.
Second, conservatives tend to package unpopular policies as “fair.” Consider the FairTax Act of 2023, which would impose a national sales tax of 23% in exchange for getting rid of the income and other taxes — a plan that even The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board called “masochism” and Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist labeled a “free gift to Democrats.”
Conservatives have a chance to pivot to a persuasive fairness narrative made up of three complementary parts.
First, conservatives need to advocate principles and policies explicitly and consistently on fairness grounds. Lean in by advocating proportionality as an American value. Consider income inequality. “How is it fair,” conservatives can ask, “to prevent people who work hard from getting ahead?”
These appeals will resonate. For example, a 2019 Pew Research Center survey showed that majorities of Americans of all ages agree with the statement that “Most people can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard.”
Second, conservatives can offer an alternative conception of “equality” as an opportunity. After all, America is founded on the pursuit of happiness. Policies such as school choice that promote opportunity are popular, too. A 2022 survey showed 72% of voters favor school choice.
Third, conservatives can highlight how the “fairness as equity” agenda actually harms those it is meant to help, including by increasing inequality. In an attempt to help the least well-off, the left advocates policies like tax increases and regulations. That results in scarcity of things felt most by the poor, such as jobs and housing. For example, the Institute for Justice has shown that occupational licensing makes it harder and more expensive for millions of low-income Americans to find work or open a business.
Indeed, advocates of an “abundance agenda,” fueled by the power of fairness-as-proportionality, have shown how it’s enormously beneficial to the least well-off, dramatically raising living standards and providing people with many more opportunities.
Read the full article at The Washington Times.