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What's Fair Isn't Always Equal

Date: Sunday, January 28, 2018 11:11 AM EDT

Throughout the past decade, hostility against growing economic inequality has gained ground. An increasing consensus seems to be gravitating towards the seductive demand for “fairness,” even by right-leaning politicians. When applied by progressives, the term refers to equal outcomes.

But how can we define fairness? American philosopher Robert Nozick might be useful here because the only way to achieve fairness without violating individuals’ rights is by securing procedural justice, not end-state justice.

Inequality and the Veil of Ignorance

Philosopher John Rawls was a great contributor to the present debate. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls derives his principles of justice from the contract tradition. Rawls believed that fairness cannot validly be deduced from intuition, and so he committed himself to develop a comprehensive theory. Utilizing sophisticated methods, he developed the difference principle that permits inequalities insofar as they benefit the least-advantaged. While alluring, such claims require thorough examination because they provide a strong case for an extensive government.

End-state principles of justice require continuous intrusion in the exchange of goods in order to satisfy the proposed measure of justice.

Regardless of how compelling his theory may seem, politicians should abstain from echoing this refrain. The Rawlsian supposition that people — subjected to the hypothetical experiment within the veil of ignorance — will favor an equal distribution if they were to be randomly assigned a position afterward, is highly questionable. The reason Rawls proposed this method was to avoid considerations of qualifications conducive to personal success. By “concealing” this information behind a fictional veil, Rawls makes people ignorant of their position. Accordingly, the personal bias is eliminated and people will agree upon the principles of fairness suggested by Rawls (A Theory of Justice, 136-142).

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