As the showdown between Congress comes to a close, members of the Republican Caucus have referenced “fairness to all” as their ultimate objective for forcing a government shutdown and delaying agreement to extend the debt ceiling. This reference to fairness reminds me of a strong influence in my own intellectual journey, “Policy Paradox and Political Reasoning,” by Deborah Stone. [Note: updated versions of this book are subtitled, “The Art of Political Decision Making”]. There is an insightful chapter in this book that thoroughly discusses the concept of “fairness.” Democracy depends on such flexible concepts in order to reconcile competing values; values compete when desirable outcomes (like security and freedom) are in many ways pitted against each other when pursued.
Dr. Stone describes how she bakes delicious chocolate layer cakes, which she brings to class to spur debate on the most “fair” way to divide the cake. When I taught this concept at the United States Air Force Academy, I used the example of coveted covered parking spaces under the academic building, Vandenberg Hall. Stone outlines eight (8) definitions of fairness that are valid depending on how beneficiaries are prioritized, including need, merit, rank, desire, proportionality, and others. In other words, we have implicit values that prioritize who should have chocolate cake or covered parking. Should parking be distributed by age? first come, first served? rank? by academic department? voting? popularity?
The Republican Caucus referencing “fairness” may be a sign of flexibility or further entrenchment. The Affordable Care Act was passed and affirmed under Constitutional measures. For Republicans, “fairness” may mean respecting a law passed by the majority under valid process rules. It may mean opening select portions of the government important to the Republican Party. Or, “fairness for all” may mean respecting intense minority opinions that the law would impose super-Constitutional burdens and therefore should be repealed or not enforced. It all depends how you define “fairness.” I highly recommend Deborah Stone’s book if you share my fascination with these issues.