"Why does my brother have lots of boys to play with on our street and there are not as many girls?" my daughter asked. "It's not fair."
I provided the classic reply, "Life's not fair, honey."
What am I supposed to do? Buy the house for sale next door and sell it to a family with a girl at a below-market price?
Seriously, not everything can or should be controlled to ensure "fairness."
This simple, real-life example made me rethink the extent to which we should work toward so-called fairness. Viewing incidents as fair or unfair is a matter of judgment. To determine fairness, we must draw comparisons: How many boys on the street; how many girls?
We begin to worry about others having more than we have, and about how to take from those who have more to even it up. This focus on fair outcomes prevents us from seeing opportunity. If I am busy comparing what you have against what I have, then I cannot see what we might be able to make together. The focus is on a zero-sum game -- taking from one person to give to another rather than making something together. It's a view based on scarcity rather than opportunity.
This past weekend, my 10-year-old daughter went swimming with one friend and to a cookout with another. Neither girl lived on our street. While she was gone, my 8-year-old son asked: "Why does she get to go out with friends? That's not fair."
My response, "Life's not fair, call the boys next door."
Funny story with a serious message -- if we worry about always being fair, we will miss opportunities.
Nick Clegg, Britain's Liberal Democratic candidate for prime minister, is running on the slogan, "Change that works for you: building a fairer Britain."
Normally, a race between the Labor Party and the Conservative Party, the British general election has been upended by Clegg's rapidly rising popularity.
Clegg surged in the polls after the first televised debate on April 15.
"So don't let them tell you that the only choice is between two old parties who have been playing pass the parcel with your government for 65 years now," Clegg said in his closing statement. "I genuinely believe we can have a better, fairer country if we do things differently. Give real change a chance, trust your instincts, support fairness, choose something different that will give you and your family a better, fairer life."
The YouGov poll released April 27 reflected a close, three-way race, with the Conservative Party at 33 percent, the Labor Party at 29 percent and the Liberal Democratic Party at 28 percent. Prior to the debate, the Liberal Democratic Party had been polling in the mid to high teens.
While the theory of fairness might be appealing in the abstract, it gets muddy when applied to reality: Who determines what is fair and what is not? What is the goal -- fairness of opportunity or fairness of outcome? Clegg spells out his version of fairness on his Website, focusing on outcome: "No tax system should try to create total equality of income -- but it can and should help redistribute wealth and power, to alleviate the worst excesses of inequality."
This past weekend, on this side of the pond, the Democratic National Committee launched a 2010 midterm-election strategy with an e-mail campaign and posting a video by President Barack Obama.
"In 2010, it will be up to each of you," said Obama in the video, "to make sure that the young people, African-Americans, Latinos and women who powered our victory in 2008 stand together once again."
Watching this video, I felt bad for my father and for my husband, neither of whom had been asked to participate. Based on their age, sex and race, which were determined by God, they were excluded by Obama. This struck me as unfair, but then I remembered that life's not fair.
"It will be up to each of you to keep our nation moving forward, to keep working to fix Washington," Obama continued, "to keep growing our economy, and to keep building a fairer, stronger and more just America."
This is a preview of what is to come. The next two elections will be about fairness, with a focus on scarcity.
We will have to determine if we want to be the land of fairness or the land of opportunity -- we can't be both.