Equality makes every list of American values, no matter who compiles it, but equality has many different meanings. Today, let’s consider the difference in meaning at the heart of Obama’s concept of fairness versus Romney’s: equality of outcomes versus equality of opportunities.
When Obama emphasizes “tax fairness” and cites the Buffet Rule, he’s talking about equality of outcomes. Of course, he’s far from advocating that everyone should be equal with respect to income and wealth. Rather, he is arguing that the rich should pay more taxes than they do now. It’s not fair that they don’t shoulder a bigger tax burden.
The gap between rich and poor is now at its widest ever. From 1997 to 2007, income grew by 275% for the top 1 percent of households, according to a 2011 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Income grew by 65% for the next 19 percent of households. The share of income going to lower-income households fell during this period. Overall, most of the growth in income since 1997 has gone to the top 1 percent of the American population.
Romney’s definition of fairness is equality of opportunities. For example, in April he said, “We will stop the unfairness of urban children being denied access to the good schools of their choice; we will stop the unfairness of politicians giving taxpayer money to their friends’ businesses; we will stop the unfairness of requiring union workers to contribute to politicians not of their choosing; we will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve; and we will stop the unfairness of one generation passing larger and larger debts on to the next.”
Which definition of fairness do Americans endorse? Almost all Americans agree that everyone should have equal opportunities in life. Liberals and conservatives alike agree on this value. But a large majority of Americans—80%—also say that the gap between rich and poor is too large. There is a difference by political ideology. Over 90% of liberals agree that the gap is too large—but two-thirds of conservatives (67%) also say the gap is too large. In other words, liberals and conservatives pretty much agree with both definitions of fairness.
Do you endorse equality of opportunities?
Do you endorse equality of outcomes?
If you had to choose, which is more important to you?
Note: If you would like to see the TIME story I mentioned yesterday, here it is. (Note: You’ll need to be a TIME subscriber to read the full story.)
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Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.