The Tyranny of the “Fairness” Cliché

Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, is a quick and breezy read. A series of essays on the ways in which buzzwords are used to short-circuit debate, Goldberg lets slip the dogs of snark and has a good time doing so, dropping zombie jokes (three in the first ten percent of the book alone, according to my Kindle) and thoughts on Weltanschauung with equal aplomb.

Progressives “hide their ideological agenda within Trojan Horse clichés and smug assertions that they are simply pragmatists, fact finders, and empiricists who are clearheaded slaves to ‘what works,’” Goldberg writes. He adds “saying you’re being empirical, and wielding numbers like so many stage props, doesn’t make you empirical, any more than me wielding a giant hammer and speaking Norwegian makes me Thor.”

Goldberg takes a whack at “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” “violence never solves anything,” “social Darwinism,” and other smugisms hurled by the left. He also takes on a few of the right’s favored tools for shutting down debate, including “slippery slope” arguments.

Of particular interest to me was the section on “social justice,” easily the least-meaningful phrase in the English language. As Goldberg notes, “A cry for social justice is usually little more than an assertion ‘for goodness.’ ‘Progressive’ has become a euphemism for ‘all good things.’” Employed with equal vigor by labor unions, the American Nazi Party, and universities of all stripes, the idiotically empty pairing of words is the close relation of that other phantom ideology: fairness.

We are often told that the rich must pay their “fair share,” even by the wealthy themselves. Stephen King recently wrote, “It’s not fair to ask the middle class to assume a disproportionate amount of the tax burden. Not fair? It’s un-f***ing-American is what it is.”

What it really is is “Un-f***ing-believable.” As in, not true. As in, the wealthiest already pay much, much more than their “fair share,” certainly if we’re talking about proportions. Stephen King’s a smart guy and a great writer and I love the Dark Tower books to death, but c’mon: He knows better than this. He must: The facts are pretty stark. Here’s the Mercatus Center’s Jason Fichtner on the subject:

For 2009, the most recent data available, to be included in the top 1 percent you had to report Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) of just under $344,000.

That same year, the top 1 percent paid 37 percent of federal income taxes. The top 10 percent … paid 70 percent, and those in the top half paid almost 98 percent of all federal income taxes. That means the bottom half paid about 2 percent. In fact, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, 47 percent of households pay no federal income taxes.

Some feel that businesses are keeping more than their “fair share” in earnings. Like caricatures straight out of an Ayn Rand novel, a group of elected mediocrities have proposed the creation of a “Reasonable Profit Board”:

According to the bill, a windfall tax of 50 percent would be applied when the sale of oil or gas leads to a profit of between 100 percent and 102 percent of a reasonable profit. The windfall tax would jump to 75 percent when the profit is between 102 and 105 percent of a reasonable profit, and above that, the windfall tax would be 100 percent.”

It simply isn’t “fair” that some businesses make more money than others, you see.

The doctrine of “fairness” undergirds the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance companies not refuse coverage for those with preexisting conditions, one of the (few) popular provisions of Obamacare. It’s so unfair that those with long-term health problems are denied access to health insurance that government interference is necessary.

As Andrew Sullivan recently put it, “the current dysfunctional and stratospherically inefficient U.S. healthcare system impedes economic freedom. … In my own case, I would definitely gain freedom with the ACA.”

In the pursuit of “fairness” and “freedom” and “liberty,” however, supporters of this provision end up limiting freedom by requiring one party to contract with a second party. Sullivan’s freedom comes at the expense of insurance companies who are forced to offer him insurance. They are then burdened with extra costs, meaning that, really, healthy members of whichever insurance plan he might join are burdened with higher costs.

It is at least slightly Orwellian to describe stripping contract rights from an entire class of private enterprises as a freedom-enhancing endeavor.

(And yes, Hayek found no conflict between “individual freedom” and the state’s “organiz[ing] a comprehensive system of social insurance,” but what he meant by “organize” is unclear. It’s fair to question whether he thought the government should force private businesses to sell their products to individuals—or require private individuals to purchase a product, for that matter.)

Fairness is the ultimate conversation stopper: No one opposes fairness, per se, we just have different conceptions of it. Given that the world is an inherently unfair place, perhaps it’s time we stop using “that’s not fair” as a gag to silence our ideological opposites. The tyranny of fairness—or, really, “fairness”—must be overthrown.

Sonny Bunch is managing editor of The Washington Free Beacon. He blogs about culture and politics at

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