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Fair versus Free

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The Federal Communications Commission seeks to enforce a “fairness doctrine” on radio and TV stations. We suffered numerous “fair trade” laws, until they were declared unenforceable. One businessman vies with another in proclaiming his faith in competition provided that it is “fair.”

Yet, scrutinize word for word the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and you will not find the word “fair.” The First Amendment does not protect the “fair” exercise of religion, but the “free” exercise thereof; it does not restrain Congress from abridging the “fairness” of speech or of the press, but the “freedom” of speech or of the press.

The modern tendency to substitute “fair” for “free” reveals how far we have moved from the initial conception of the Founding Fathers. They viewed government as policeman and umpire. They sought to establish a framework within which individuals could pursue their own objectives in their own way, separately or through voluntary cooperation, provided only that they did not interfere with the freedom of others to do likewise.

The modern conception is very different. Government has become Big Brother. Its function has become to protect the citizen, not merely from his fellows, but from himself, whether he wants to be protected or not. Government is not simply an umpire but an active participant, entering into every nook and cranny of social and economic activity. All this, in order to promote the high-minded goals of “fairness,” “justice,” “equality.”

Does this not constitute progress? A move toward a more humane society? Quite the contrary. When “fairness” replaces “freedom,” all our liberties are in danger. In Walden, Thoreau says: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” That is the way I feel when I hear my “servants” in Washington assuring me of the “fairness” of their edicts.

There is no objective standard of “fairness.” “Fairness” is strictly in the eye of the beholder. If speech must be fair, then it cannot also be free; someone must decide what is fair. A radio station is not free to transmit unfair speech as judged by the bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission. If the printed press were subject to a comparable “fairness doctrine,” it would have to be controlled by a government bureau and our vaunted free press would soon become a historical curiosity.

What is true for speech where the conflict is perhaps clearest is equally true for every other area. To a producer or seller, a “fair” price is a high price. To the buyer or consumer, a “fair” price is a low price. How is the conflict to be adjudicated? By competition in a free market? Or by government bureaucrats in a “fair” market?

Businessmen who sing the glories of free enterprise and then demand “fair” competition are enemies, not friends, of free markets. To them, “fair” competition is a euphemism for a price-fixing agreement. They are exemplifying Adam Smith’s remark that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” For consumers, the more “unfair” the competition, the better. That assures lowest prices and highest quality.

Is then the search for “fairness” all a mistake? Not at all. There is a real role for fairness, but that role is in constructing general rules and adjudicating disputes about the rules, not in determining the outcome of our separate activities. That is the sense in which we speak of a “fair” game and “fair” umpire. If we applied the present doctrine of “fairness” to a football game, the referee would be required after each play to move the ball backward or forward enough to make sure that the game ended in a draw!

Our Founding Fathers designed a fair Constitution to protect human freedom. In Thomas Jefferson’s ringing phrases from the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men … to secure … certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

This piece originally appeared in the July 4, 1977 issue of Newsweek and was reprinted in Bright Promises, Dismal Performances: An Economist’s Protest, a collection of his articles. Copyright 1983 by Thomas Horton and Daughters, 26662 South New Town Drive, Sun Lakes, AZ 85224. Reprinted by permission.

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    Milton Friedman was born in 1912 in New York City and was graduated from Rutgers University before taking an M.A. at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. at Columbia University. Professor Friedman taught for many years at the University of Chicago, where he was the Paul Snowden Russell Distinguished Service Professor of Economics. He has taught at the universities of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Columbia and lectured at universities throughout the world, from Cambridge to Tokyo. In 1976 he became a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. That year, Professor Friedman was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. Among his best-known books are "Capitalism and Freedom", "Monetarist Economics", and (with Rose Friedman) "Free to Choose" and "Tyranny of the Status Quo".