The Folly of Fairness
By Tibor Machan - May 05, 2010

So Bill Gates sold me some software when he was still in that business. He was then immensely rich, certainly compared to me. I was not compared to him. How unfair, you say? But Bill took his gains from this trade and used it to feed starving African children, while I used the software I bought from him to do something utterly trivial on my computer, like writing a dull column. Now was this a fair trade? Impossible to tell.

Trade is never fair – the entire notion of fairness is very difficult to apply to trade as would be the idea of blue or funny. When I purchase something I look for what I want and can afford, while those from whom I am purchasing stuff want me to pay the price they think the market will bear. So long as we both do this of our own free will, because this is what we want to do, not because some thug is standing behind us threatening to beat us up if we don't take his orders, we take part in free trade.

But what would show that we are taking part in fair trade? Frankly, I cannot even imagine, honestly! Fairness occurs when someone lives up to a promise made to several people, like a professor promises students that all the tests will be graded by the same criteria. Unless this is what the professor does, he or she will be unfair. Fairness will happen if the promise is fulfilled to those who received it. If, however, one is traveling on a highway, how would one be fair? How would one be fair if one went shopping in a grocery store? Buying the same number of items from each shelf? The same amount of meat as fish? None of this makes any sense even though it may appear fair.

If a rich country's citizenry sells its products to those in a poor country and both do this because that is what they choose to do, this is free trade but is it fair? Maybe those in the poor country would have preferred to shop from someone else, not those from a rich country. Would it have been fair if they could do that? Very doubtful that that is what amounts to fair trade. Suppose China subsidizes the farms of its citizenry and they can now sell their crop for less than they could without the subsidy. If non-Chinese purchase the crop, is that fair? Are customers supposed to know the history of how the crop came to cost what it does? The subsidies may be wrong, a rip-off but unfair? Why?

I just have no clear clue as to what fair trade or even fairness is supposed to be. I can understand fairness as it works in my family – get each of my children a suitable birthday gift (though not the same – that would be silly) – and even in my neighbourhood – I will not refuse to give a little help to those on my right versus those on my left. But already this is stretching it. Why is it fair if they don't need the same measure of help?

Somehow fairness has come to be a big deal yet clearly in the natural world it isn't. Is it fair that the lion can devour the zebra but not vice versa? Nor are we even close to being fair in our interaction with nature. Is it fair that we put pretty flowers in our homes but leave the weed outside? Is the demise of thousands of fish when a whale is feeding fair?

Is it fair that some women are cherished for their aesthetic appeal while others admired for their sharp wit and yet others get no love at all? Is it fair that some rock bands get featured on national television programs while others never leave their small towns?

As anyone can see, fairness is a mess and insisting on it is futile in all but very restricted contexts. Nonetheless politicians and pundits and theorists of all sorts keep harping on how people are being unfair, how countries are engaging in unfair trade, how some people's good looks or brilliant minds gain them fame and fortune while others get very little, etc., and so forth.

All this stress on fairness produces confusion, envy, and resentment.