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Back to the “F” word

Again, not that “F” word.  I talking about the word “fair”.

(Via Samizdata)  There has been a series of posts and comments over at Marginal Revolution (this one in particular) sort of vaguely hovering around taxing the rich.  I’ve found the comments most entertaining, primarily because the commenters who take exception to the following, obviously tongue-in-cheek suggestion

The solution to envy is not to tax the rich but to tax the envious…It’s envy which imposes an externality on the rich. Make the envious pay for their ugly preferences.

fall into two basic groups.  1) people who have issues with the economic theories alluded to in the post and in previous ones and, 2) people who don’t think it is fair that some people are rich. 

For example, from the first commenter:

The line between envy and injustice is a similarly thin as that between greed and desert. What those fond of talking about envy often refer to is merely the sense of injustice or unfairness felt by people intuitively unhappy at the distribution of goods.
Similarly, those who like talking about envy tend to dislike talking about greed. In both instances it comes down to our sense of what is fair and just and when someone has exceeded that line. You can tax who you think is envious if I can tax who I think is greedy.

(italics mine)

I have to tell you, this stuff just cracks me up.  People like this argue from the assumption that fairness can be objectively defined and that in any given instance, we should be able to decide what is fair and what isn’t.  In fact, fairness is completely subjective and is in large part dependent of the position and circumstances of the observer.  The key is the last line (i.e. …if I can tax who I think is greedy).

Frankly, I really don’t care about the concept of “fair” (or “social justice” for that matter).  What I’m interested in is the application of the concept.  And so, I offer my own definition of “fair” in the style of Ambrose Bierce:

Fair.  An ideal concept appealed to by persons who want something they didn’t earn.

Why is it not fair that some people are rich?  Why is it not fair that some people are poor?  Why is re-distribution of income fair?

If someone works harder, is smarter or just plain luckier than someone else, why shouldn’t they be able to keep the goodies they’ve gotten?  If it isn’t fair that some people have more goodies than others, does that mean we should all have exactly the same rewards in life.  Surely you know someone who is just plain lazy and could make better money if they would just apply themselves?  Should they get the same rewards as you?  Basically we are either talking about absolute equality of results for unequal effort or we are talking about punishing those whose wealth offends our personal sensibilities.  Because, unless we are talking about absolutely equal rewards no matter what the effort, the decision as to what level of “richness” is “unfair” is a completely personal whim.

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