Commentary Magazine


American Equality

Arthur Brooks, the outstanding president of the American Enterprise Institute (and co-author, with me, of a forthcoming monograph on capitalism and morality), published a Wall Street Journal op-ed on fairness that ends this way:

There is nothing inherently fair about equalizing incomes. If the government penalizes you for working harder than somebody else, that is unfair. If you save your money but retire with the same pension as a free-spending neighbor, that is also unfair.

Real fairness, as most of us see it, does not mean bringing the top down. Yes, free markets tend to produce unequal incomes. We should not be ashamed of that. On the contrary, our system is the envy of the world and should be a source of pride. Generation after generation, it has rewarded hard work and good values, education and street smarts. It has offered the world’s most disadvantaged not government redistribution but a chance to earn their success.

That is true fairness, American-style.

One of the reasons Brooks’ piece is important is because he places economic issues in a moral frame and, rather than running away from the charge of “fairness” – which has been used as a battering ram against conservatives for decades – Brooks takes it head on and turns it to the advantage of conservatives. Brooks’ article helps explain why, in the words of Tocqueville, “equality in liberty” is vastly preferable, both economically and morally, to “equality in restraint and servitude.”

Call it true equality, American-style.