Liberals may argue that higher goals than fairness require equivalent rewards, even if individuals make very different contributions. They can make the case that “closing the gap between rich and poor” will bring about greater social harmony, since workers who are paid identically will feel less envy or resentment toward one another. According to this logic, “savage inequalities” (to use a favorite phrase of the redistributionist left) can lead to social instability, or even violent revolution. But that rationale breaks down if slackers receive the same money as pluggers—thereby providing even more obvious grounds for bitterness.
The left also preaches the need for compassion—urging special consideration for those who, through no fault of their own, can’t produce enough to fulfill their own needs. But asking for disproportionate rewards for the unfortunate argues for kindness or charity, not for justice. Forced compassion-- in the form of confiscatory taxes and bureaucratic initiatives-- crowds out the healthy human impulse to assist those in need. Generosity represents a marvelous human quality but when the generosity is enforced by weight of law it undermines other values – private property, hard work, pride and self-respect. Few of us feel virtuous because the government takes part of our weekly paychecks while the beneficiaries of official programs (like the idiotically ill-conceived “Food Stamps” bureaucracy) seldom feel grateful for the largesse they receive, or determined to end their dependence. The very idea of “entitlements” works against the old notion that public assistance should representative a temporary lift rather than a way of life.
The battle of ideas surrounding the radical elements of the president’s economic program to some extent amounts to a battle over language. Barack Obama and his followers describe their budgetary increases as “investments,” for instance, while Republicans see “wasteful spending.”
With the upcoming struggle over a new appointment to the Supreme Court, conservatives must never surrender the crucial word “justice.” The Obama agenda may pursue many things – greater regulation, a stronger social safety net, a leveling of the inequalities between the wealthy and the destitute, but it hardly amounts to a pursuit of fairness.
Leveling, after all, generally involves lowering peaks rather than lifting valleys. To some, the resulting equality may represent an end in itself, but in a world of hugely unequal talent, virtue and effort, that goal has nothing at all to do with justice.