Fair Contests Vs. "Fair" (Even) Outcomes

GOP antics teach key lessons about what fairness really means.

Posted May 17, 2017

When Trump says “The media has treated me so unfairly,” I’m reminded of the scorn heaped on liberals for giving first-place trophies to all the kids on the soccer team regardless of performance.

Winners all round may be an appropriate strategy for young children. It’s not appropriate for adults. Maturity recognizes fairness as equal opportunity in a meritocracy, not equal outcomes.

The impulse to cry “that’s not fair!” when losing is the mark of sore losers. They play to win and when they don’t, they cry foul saying, “you must have cheated!” pulling out of thin air any rationalization for their accusation. The all-purpose rationalization is: Games played fairly should always award victory even to the losers.

Calling the media unfair is not just sore-loser talk, it’s profoundly anti-capitalist, which is funny coming from the self-proclaimed champion of capitalism. But then it has become the posturing of choice, and not just for Trump. It’s at the heart of Fox News's “fair-and-balanced” ploy. They’ve been pouting from day one about the left-wing media, relentlessly demanding equal time for right-wing views. Though Fox dominates in viewership, it hasn’t let up about its supposedly uphill battle against the unfair liberal bias.

The bastardized view of “fair and balanced” as equal time for all positions, not equal time for all noteworthy winners in the battle for truth, makes a mockery of science, the rigorous meritocracy where the best theory wins. Fox demands that climate change deniers win and when they don’t for lack of scientific evidence, Fox cries foul, demanding equal exposure.

This sore-loser excuse is closer to communist than capitalist: “We deserve as much as everyone else regardless of how we perform.”

Mature definitions of fairness are not 50/50 outcomes regardless of merit. By that ridiculous standard, the Jews should have said to Hitler, “You want to kill six million of us; we want you to kill zero, so three million is fair.”

To which Hitler could have said, “No, actually I want to kill 12 million so six million is only fair.” Fox does something similar, taking ever more extreme positions to shift their bogus definition of fairness their way. That’s how “centrist” has become so skewed to the right.

It may seem odd to call their approach anti-capitalist, perhaps in part due to the influence of their relentless messaging. Their overarching strategy is pure projection: throw people off the scent by accusing your opposition of doing exactly what you’re doing.

At core capitalism is meant to be a meritocracy. It honors the trial and error process by which societies progress. Even Adam Smith knew it was no cure-all.  Today’s Republicans and right-wing Libertarians are capitalist the way that Stalin was a communist, embracing the theory only to the extent it rationalizes their crusade for self-interest.

Subsidies to big oil, pork barreling, voter suppression ­– these are all of an anti-meritocracy piece. Give their so-called capitalist strategies time to play out and we’ll see what it does to American competitiveness in the increasingly capitalist global economy. We’re already lagging behind China in alternative energy technology, the anti-capitalist right-wing movement will have us lagging way behind in no time.

The anti-capitalist right wing take-over has permeated the countryside. In “Strangers in their Own Land” Arlie Hochschild’s book on her five-year embed with the far right, we hear from right-wingers resentful of minorities for “cutting in line.”

A little natural history on the right has been playing since my primary work is in evolutionary biology: Life is a trial and error process. We are all trials in that process. Before humans, the trials had no allegiance to the process. It was a meritocracy based solely on performance. You don’t find lions cutting gazelles slack for trying hard to escape – no “A’s for effort.”  

Humans today are different, not just because we’re social creatures but social engineers. We understand the merit of the trial-and-error process. Our allegiances are now split. We’re committed to the trial and error process and to our own trials in it. We say “let the best one win, and it damned well better be me.”

We humans measure merit two ways, by performance and by effort. We may claim to do one or the other but we are all ambivalent, sometimes expressing our ambivalence in insidious ways. Republicans claim to be all about the trial and error meritocracy where performance is everything, an idea as old as “social Darwinism.”

They’re against handouts to the least among us. Still, they cut themselves slack every chance they get, tilting the trial and error game board their way. Claiming to be self-made, they ignore the legs up they’ve received. Big inheritors among them, like the Kochs and Trump, have no qualms about telling the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps the way they did. We are all equal in their posturing about a meritocracy, but some of us are more equal than others.

Trump is just the tip of a larger infection. Now that he has proved so rapidly reckless that even the most accommodating among us begin to see the pattern, he may be history soon, impeached by even our long-crippled meritocracy. Still, the infection will not disappear with him. Eyes on the prize: We need to focus not on the man but the mannerism that has taken over what once was the conservative party, playing at caring about a level playing field while tilting it aggressively their way. 


Hochschild, A. R. (2016). Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right. New York: The New Press.