President Obama’s current appeals to fairness — as in the wealthy paying their “fair share” and letting ordinary Americans have a “fair shot” at a middle class life — will likely do more harm than good for those of us who care about economic equality. A Gallup poll conducted in mid-December reports that 58% of Americans polled say that they do not see society divided into “haves” and “have nots” despite Occupy Wall Street’s efforts to highlight growing economic inequality. The references to fairness appear to be the Democrats’ attempt to capitalize on the rhethoric of the 99%, a tactic they should seriously reconsider as it will likely backfire with serious consequences to our nation.
Fairness is inevitably in the eyes of the beholder. In the President’s stump speeches, “fair” seems intentionally ambiguous, a political Rorschach inkblot test to align people behind broad political assumptions than an actual signal of agreement about what would create a level playing field in a today’s economy. The rhetoric of fairness divides people into beneficiaries of unjust policies or victims of them, without delving deeper into what actually unites and benefits everyone.
If the President and the Democrats actually want a more equitable distribution of wealth, then they should pretend they are managing a household or large family, rather than running a business. The responsibility of managing a family household includes more than just making sure that there is money to pay expenses. It also means caring for everyone in it with whatever resources you do have. It requires us to distribute and share our household’s resources in a way that makes it possible for the needs of individual members as well as the needs of the whole household to be met. The balance between the needs of individuals and the whole is necessary, because how we distribute the family’s resources has direct impact on the quality of how we relate to each other. Competition makes for tense family relations. Similarly, in a family it is hard to imagine tolerating a situation where some family members suffer without basic needs being met while others have plenty. When we live under the same roof, it is clear that our own wellbeing is intimately connected to the wellbeing of everyone else in household.
This dynamic of being interconnected and interdependent needs to drive political discourse and policy as well. Economic policies organize relationships between people in society. When we distribute resources — whether food, electricity or Social Security benefits — we create relationships between people. The ways in which both private wealth and public goods are distributed translate into the neighbors we have, the local businesses available in our neighborhoods and the quality of the schools our kids attend. In the academic world, economics may be about the distribution of scarce resources; but in the real world, economics is a *system of relationships* created by the distribution of resources. And it’s the quality of our relationships that lie beneath discussions about economic inequality. The relevant question is not “what is fair?” but rather “what economic relationships make it possible for us to get along and live together in peace?”
How we get along may seem irrelevant, idealistic or even naive given the ascerbic tone of today’s political discussions, but the quality of our relationships couldn’t be more important. Almost a hundred years ago, we had similar gaps between the wealthy and everyone else. Such inequities gave rise to violent labor protests and reform movements. While the ultimate ends of those social justice movements were laudable, violence in any form is costly and should be prevented.
Another recent Gallup poll cites that the vast majority of Americans believe we should focus on economic growth instead of closing the wealth gap. Unfortunately, that economic growth may be a long time in coming, given Japan’s decades-long recession-turned-depression and the foreboding economic chaos in Europe. Right now and for the long haul, we need economic policies that will help us live together peacefully regardless of whether the economy is booming or busting.
During hard times, families find ways to put aside differences, band together and support each other. When they do, they are able to tap into a resiliency that can withstand and outlast hardship. We rarely consider everyone in the country to be part of a common household, but what would it make possible if we did? What would we do differently if we took that responsibility seriously? Rather than using the rhetoric of “fairness” to pit people against each other, the President and other policy makers would do well to remember that economic policies create more than just wealth — they create relationships. And there are some relationships that will withstand economic hardship better than others.