So I have spent some time on fairness and some on trust. I now want to put them together to show how fairness simply doesn’t work the way we would want it to if its goal were to provide some compensation for structural vulnerabilities. Today will be conceptual. Tomorrow, I’ll tell some true stories to illustrate the point. I hope you’ll bear with me because today’s post is a bit dense. I promise to reward your patience tomorrow.
Again, I must start with a qualification – a very big qualification. I am not going to point fingers, blame anybody, or come up with a big conspiracy to keep the disadvantaged down. Blame may be – certainly is – due in some cases. There might even be conspiracies. But these are not important. The truly important point is that the kinds of unfairness I will be discussing are intrinsic to American ideology – ideology that we more or less all accept. This ideology is, in fact, our secular religion, and is the (rather weak) glue that binds us together as a nation.
The ideology simply is American liberalism. I don’t mean political liberalism, with a big “L”, contrasted with conservatism. What I mean is the philosophical liberalism that is the core of our Constitution and our political and legal institutions, liberalism that Hume and Smith would have recognized as the fundamental Enlightenment ideals. The twin underpinnings of this liberalism are the familiar liberty and equality.
Now everybody knows that, at least in practice, neither liberty nor equality is absolute. Liberty exists for each of us only to the extent that, in our exercise of it, we don’t interfere with the liberty of others, at least too much. And equality – well, equality itself is simply a kind of comparative word. To say that two non-numeric things are equal is, without more, meaningless. We have to ask in what ways they are equal. In liberal philosophy at its most threadbare, we mean that people have equal liberty, the equal opportunity to exercise their autonomy. It is, of course, precisely this equality that limits liberty, for at some point our unrestricted exercise of our liberty would impede that of others.
I suppose, keeping with the great American philosopher John Rawls, as well as my own conclusions, one can see liberty and equality as consisting of a kind of political fairness. (Rawls actually uses his understanding of fairness to get to these principles which themselves come to instantiate fairness.) But Rawls’s notion of equality is a little richer than the threadbare liberal view I presented above, and so is mine (although mine is richer than Rawls’s). Without getting into it for the moment, I suspect most of you would also think of equality as consisting of a bit more than I’ve stated, if for no other reason than that, simply by looking around you, you can see people who are unable to exercise their liberties because of significant inequalities. Even those who believe that our understanding of civic and political equality should be nothing more than equal opportunities to take advantage of the world around us should see that disadvantage – vulnerability – may impede the abilities of others to do so.
One of the most important things that binds our society together is our trust in the fairness of our system. That is now to say, our trust that our society provides us with the equal opportunity to enjoy our liberty. It is that trust in our system that allows us to believe in the myth of the American Dream that I wrote of several weeks ago, the myth that anybody can rise in station simply by dint of talent and hard work. It is our trust in this fairness that keeps us living in peace.
But we trust too much. The liberal philosophical notion of liberty and equality as fairness leads to political and social institutions that are formally and structurally fair but in fact can lead to unfairness by perpetuating the status quo. Formal and structural fairness takes no account of permanent and structural vulnerability. Even when we try to shape our laws and norms to be fair in substance, we ultimately fail by reverting to formal and structural fairness. I will illustrate these points tomorrow.