Many people today assume that life is ideally supposed to be fair, so they take it as self-evident that others must be forced by law to provide various things from within their own resources, in order to make everything fair. In other words, everyone has to share nicely with those around them even if they don't want to. In the pursuit of fairness, other values such as liberty and the freedom to choose are relegated to the sidelines.
The assumption is that the pursuit of fairness justifies legal interventions that redistribute wealth, even when that entails an encroachment upon liberty. 'Because fairness!' is the modern rallying cry behind every legal intervention.
The desire to achieve a moral ideal in society is certainly compelling. Nobody, except maybe Pol Pot, wants the world to be a brutal and unhappy place. Most people would like to expend their efforts making the world a better place. The only problem is: Other People. When other people don't agree with your vision of the good life, coercion by force of law becomes necessary. And once you introduce force, a justification is required. You can't force people to pay progressive taxes without offering a sound justification for doing so.
Here's where many people embrace Rawlsian perspectives: Rawls offers conceptual tools to explain why it's unfair for other people to be richer than you. You must explain this very carefully, otherwise when you complain about other people having more stuff than you there's a risk that you might come across as being full of envy, jealousy and bitterness about other people's advantages in life. Which of course, you're not, you are all about the fairness and the justice and helping the poor. So, to Rawls.
Rawlsian theories are often described as 'high liberalism' to distinguish this form of liberalism from classical liberalism. Classical liberal philosophers like Adam Smith don't think law should concern itself with whether some people are richer than others, so if you're trying to redistribute wealth you must look to Rawlsian theories of 'justice as fairness':
If every social class should benefit from the way society is ordered, then some form of redistributive mechanism is required to shift stuff from the rich to the poor. This is why 'high liberalism' regards free markets with deep suspicion. In a free market, every horse starts the race from the same position (formal equality or equality of opportunity) but by the time the race is run, there are winners and losers and some horses sadly crashed out before finishing the race. This is obviously not fair, as it is attributable to 'arbitrary factors' that favoured one horse over the other e.g. one horse had the advantage of eating a better quality breakfast that morning. Sheer good luck.
The theory of 'luck egalitarianism' demands that people shouldn't have advantages over others due to sheer good luck because that's unfair. And no matter which way you view it, a free market is never going to produce equal outcomes, and so it follows that a free market is never going to be fair if equal distribution is viewed as essential to fairness.
Principled limits to fairness
It can be seen that even for those who are prepared to lay down their lives for social justice and equality for all peoples, there must be a 'principled limit' or 'realistic constraint' to their demands. This means that, being intelligent folk, they do appreciate that if you pursue the demand for justice and equality to its logical conclusions the quest for fairness will soon descend into farce. Is it fair that people who are taller than you, better proportioned or just prettier than you, should find life easier than you because they tend to be given a pass in situations where you don't get a pass?
Framed in that way, the idea behind realistic constraints is that reasonable people must, albeit reluctantly, tolerate certain limits in the quest for fairness. We are never going to be all exactly equal so we're going to have to choose our equality battles. Discrimination based on who is perceived to have model good looks is tolerable, while discrimination based on skin colour is intolerable.
But even taking into account such 'principled constraints', this seems to be a very odd way of approaching life. You wouldn't approach a race by saying that in an ideal world all the horses would finish the race at exactly the same time so that it's fair, but alas we must tolerate (in keeping with the idea of principled limits) the possibility that one horse might well outrun the others and unfortunately finish first because it was sired by a truly exceptional stallion.
If you look at a race that way, as an exception or principled limit to the idea of fairness, then far from celebrating, the jockey who wins the race should feel a bit guilty for allowing the arbitrary advantages of his own horse to put him ahead of the others. Why should he feel pleased, when he just got lucky with his horse? Rather than being proud of himself for what was was sheer good luck based on arbitrary advantages, he should apologise. Perhaps he could assuage his guilt by paying a higher rate of tax? The proceeds could be given to the jockeys who came in last owing to no fault of their horses' own. The slow horse can't help being slower, can it, it was born that way, so why should the trailing jockey be penalised? Sharing out the prize money might help redistribute things so that it's fair. Otherwise we should look at banning such races because they tend to favour faster and stronger horses. Luck-egalitarians find this very upsetting so something should be done to fix that. Good times...not really.
That way of looking at life is no fun at all! Where's the joy in that? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, my friends, not life, liberty and the pursuit of fairness.
What about those who are left behind?
Nobody likes being left behind or locked out of the winnings that fall on some lucky people in this life. Given the option, I'm sure my daughter would have preferred to be born as Charlotte Cambridge. Then she could live in Kensington Palace, wear pretty dresses, and never have to do any chores. Instead, she drew the short straw and ended up with me which, she assures me, is a terrible imposition. Now what? How should we go about fixing that unfair situation, hmm?
Here's a radical idea: not everything needs to be fixed. I know, shocking.
The Smithian concept of justice requires law to fix things when someone commits a crime, attacks you or your property, cheats or defrauds you, or breaks their contractual promises to you. That's it. For the rest we just have to get on with it as best we can. I'm sure my daughter will survive, too, and she might even find life surprisingly rich and joyful outside the palace walls. Even in the trenches, so many wonderful people abound.
This leads to the conclusion that human endeavour and progress is to be celebrated in all its forms. Other people's achievements are not something they should be sad and apologetic about, not even if it produces unequal outcomes. So what if it's unequal? Who cares? Run your best race, enjoy the run, breathe the free air, revel in your own abilities, and don't get consumed with bitterness if someone else ran faster or further. Unless you believe in the ridiculous economic pie theory of life, which posits that a larger slice for someone else means a smaller slice for you, then you must realise that the world is big enough to accommodate all of us with all our different talents.
If racing is not your thing, because you tend to be quite slow and ponderous and come last in all the races you enter, you can easily turn your attention to other pursuits. There are so many wondrous paths to follow: choose a different path!
In the age of internet this has never been easier: there is a free website and a free youtube video to show you how to do anything you take a fancy to. No matter how weird you are, there is sure to be an internet group of millions of people just like you, who dig your quirkiness. Greater happiness follows from pursuing your own path, instead of campaigning to be allowed to start running halfway down the track so that you have a fair chance of winning somebody else's race.
Scholar, Writer, and Friend