During a recent Fox News Channel debate about the Obama administration's tax policies, Democrat Bob Beckel raised the issue of "fairness."
He pointed out that a child born to a poor woman in the Bronx enters the world with far worse prospects than a child born to an affluent couple in Connecticut.
No one can deny that. The relevant question, however, is: How does allowing politicians to take more money in taxes from successful people, to squander in ways that will improve their own reelection prospects, make anything more "fair" for others?
Even if additional tax revenue all went to poor single mothers — which it will not — the multiple problems of children raised by poor single mothers would not be cured by throwing money at them. Indeed, the skyrocketing of unwed motherhood began when government welfare programs began throwing money at teenage girls who got pregnant.
Children born and raised without fathers are a major problem to society and to themselves. There is nothing "fair" about increasing the number of such children.
A more fundamental problem with the "fairness" issue raised by Beckel and many others is the slippery vagueness of the word "fair."
To ask whether life is fair — either here and now, or at any time or place around the world, over the past several thousand years — is to ask a question whose answer is obvious. Life has seldom been within shouting distance of fair, in the sense of even approximately equal prospects of success.
Countries whose politicians have been able to squander ever larger amounts of a nation's resources have not only failed to make the world more fair, the concentration of more resources and power in these politicians' hands has led to results that were often counterproductive at best, and bloodily catastrophic at worst.
More fundamentally, the question whether life is fair is very different from the question whether a given society's rules are fair. Society's rules can be fair in the sense of using the same standards of rewards and punishments for everyone. But that barely scratches the surface of making prospects or outcomes the same.
People raised in different homes, neighborhoods and cultures are going to behave differently — and those differences have consequences. The multiculturalist dogma may say that all cultures are equal, or equally deserving of respect, but treating cultures as sacrosanct freezes people into the circumstances into which they happened to be born, much like a caste system.
While talk about "fairness" may provide a fig leaf to cover politicians' naked attempts to grab more and more of the nation's resources to spend, there is no assurance that raising tax rates on "the rich" will result in any more tax revenue for the government. High tax rates have too often simply caused wealthy people to put their money into tax-free securities or to send it overseas.
Four years ago, TV interviewer Charles Gibson pointed out to candidate Barack Obama that raising capital gains tax rates had on a number of occasions led to less capital gains tax revenue being collected — and, conversely, lowering the capital gains tax rates had on other occasions increased the amount of capital gains revenue collected by the government.
Obama readily admitted that. But he said that "fairness" justified a higher tax rate on "the rich." Yet how does a higher tax rate on paper, without a real increase in the amount of taxes actually collected, promote fairness?
However, raising tax rates on "the rich" pays off politically, even if the government loses revenues when the rich put their money into tax shelters.
High tax rates in the upper income brackets allow politicians to win votes with class warfare rhetoric, painting their opponents as defenders of the rich. Meanwhile, the same politicians can win donations from the rich by creating tax loopholes that can keep the rich from actually paying those higher tax rates — or perhaps any taxes at all.
What is worse than class warfare is phony class warfare. Slippery talk about "fairness" is at the heart of this fraud by politicians seeking to squander more of the nation's resources.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His website is www.tsowell.com. To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.