Speaking from the U.S. Capitol, President Barack Obama laid out his vision for the future during his State of the Union address. In a curious, perhaps unintentional, manner the president offered his position for a progressive course for the nation with the emphasis on fairness. “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules,” he noted.
But what does fairness mean and how does it influence the future course of events? Will the government be placed in the position of adjudicating fairness? Will fairness emerge from bureaucratic coercion? And is the casualty of fairness limitations on liberty?
Traditionally, fairness to the extent it was a precedent in our history was tied inextricably to opportunity, creating those conditions that give all people from any background a chance to succeed. Very often this claim existed more in the breach than in reality, but it was part of a vision that brought millions of immigrants to our shores and accounted for the success of uncounted citizens.
Occasionally the government played a role in this matter when arbitrary obstacles were placed in the way of opportunity, e.g., Jim Crow laws. But more often than not the heavy hand of government was unnecessary as long as the freedom of the individual was preserved. Freedom means, in effect, the ability to rise and to fail, the chance to seize the moment or let it slip by.
If one relies on government in order to achieve fairness — a somewhat dubious concept in the first place — a class of bureaucrats will enforce the rules of economic engagement. These people will decide who gets and who gives. Power will be centralized and absolute. Moreover, the tax system becomes an instrument for imposing redistribution arrangements.
Obviously the rich will pay more than the poor when it comes to taxes. That is self-evident. But how much more should they pay and how progressive should the system be? At the moment, the top one percent pay more than 40 percent of federal taxes. That is certainly disproportionate. Is it fair? Who is to say? And how much more would make it fair? It is also obvious that extortionate rates will drive many out of our tax system as they seek more reasonable rates abroad.