The young boy was having a hard way to go as he played his father in foosball. Finally, the lad exclaimed, "That's not fair!" Apparently, he expected to face an equally skilled opponent and the fact that his father had game experience as well as superior hand and eye coordination, constituted an "unfair" advantage.
The boy's definition of “fair” is not all that uncommon and that's part of the reason I limit my use of the word. Fairness and equality are elusive and elastic concepts, often times meaning quite different things to different people. Our national identity is framed by the words in the Declaration of Independence that states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ...” It's well and good to claim that equality is “self-evident” because you would be hard pressed to actually prove it. Also, at the time Thomas Jefferson penned those words, I don't think he was thinking about slaves and Native Americans, let alone the other half of the population – women.
In fairness to Mr. Jefferson, he was a pretty enlightened guy for the 18th century and no doubt, a 21st century Jefferson would have some updated views. Nevertheless, the problems with the ambiguity of equality persists. Changing the definition from equality of ability to equality of opportunity seems to be something we can agree upon, at least on the surface.
Looking deeper, opportunity is anything but equal and is directly linked to ability as well as other factors such as family upbringing, genetics, health, education, personal wealth, etc. Years ago, I gave a presentation as a Libertarian Congressional candidate to a group of college students at UC Santa Barbara. During a question and answer session they expressed interest in my views about disparity of wealth in this country. I told them that even if you could wave a magic wand and divvy up all the money so everyone got an equal amount, it wouldn't last very long. In a matter of hours, some people would go broke and others would get rich. They weren't thrilled with that answer but didn't disagree either. However, for most of the students, it only meant that government had to do even more to ensure that everyone got their “fair share.”
For those who talk about “leveling the playing field,” what they really mean is tilting the playing field to force some to run uphill. The idea is that if you make it more difficult for one group, it will make it easier for others. This strikes me as a strange approach if one is claiming to champion fairness.
For many, it's a no-brainer that the rich should pay for government with higher tax rates. How about paying for all goods and services according to wealth - wouldn't that be just as fair? Swipe your card and the price you pay is tied to your income. Maybe I can get that Maserati I've always wanted for a few hundred bucks or you could pay $12 for a pack of gum.
Automatically linking inequality with injustice lays a foundation for a culture of entitlement. Treating others respectfully and recognizing their right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is certainly worthwhile but it won't facilitate everyone getting what they want or think they deserve.
The young foosballer thought he deserved to play better than he did. If he continues with the game, developing his skills, in time he may become a superior player to his father. His advantage would then be quite fair.