"Fairness" has assumed a prominent role in economic and political discussions lately. Pundits and politicians compare varous economic schemes as though fairness were a commodity in itself. I propose here though, that fairness is given too much deference. I submit that an economic plan that leads to the production of wealth, but that is perceived as unfair is better than a fair plan that leads to stagnation.
Fairness is often used as a synonym for justice. This confusion may be deliberate or not, but it is definitely unhelpful. Fairness is an attribute of a process, not an outcome, and is specifically refers to whether such a process is free from bias or improper influence. The outcome of a process may be just or unjust regardless of whether the process was fair. It is seemingly unfair that some basketball teams have players that are taller and more talented than others, yet if the game is played according to the rules free from bias or manipulation, the outcome, even if a foregone conclusion cannot be considered unjust. It may seem unjust that one person takes an entire jackpot for himself, but if the process is the result of a blind lottery or the flip of a fair coin, there seems to be no valid grounds for complaint.
The veneration of fairness as an end rather than as a desirable attribute of a means is the result a common oversight: desirable attributes are desirable first and foremost because they are useful. Fair processes are presumed to produce better results than biased ones, and fair competitions are presumed to produce more worthy winners than those that are rigged. Democracy, for example, accomplishes its purposes more readily when elections are fair than when they are not.
There are many experiences in life that are not fair, simply because there is no benefit of fairness in them. It is not fair that a model citizen develops cancer, while a criminal does not. The purposes and processes of biology are independent of social merit. Likewise, it may seem unfair that the daughter of an industry magnate has certain advantages over the son of a laborer, but this only become true if the latter proves himself more deserving of an outcome that he is then denied.
Fair processes are more likely to lead to just outcomes. Imposing fairness in outcomes is likely to produce only a moribund equilibrium, where no one dares much nor accomplishes much, because results are divorced from merit. And that is not only ultimately unfair, it is unjust.