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The Unfairness Doctrine

August 4, 2007

Tags Media and CultureInterventionismPhilosophy and Methodology

Various Democratic politicians, including Diane Feinstein, are considering reviving the fairness doctrine to rein in talk radio's "unfair bias." Unfortunately, it is just the latest abuse of a perennial political weasel word—fair.

Fair is a great weasel word because no one will admit to being against fairness, despite massive differences in what we mean by it. Fairness is in the eye of the beholder, and widely held views of fairness are mutually inconsistent. So it can always be employed in politics to confuse rather than clarify.

Consider some of the problems with the "fairness doctrine." There is no unambiguous way to measure what should count as sufficiently partisan to qualify opponents for equal time. Should radio callers' time be counted, or just the host's? What is an objection to an individual politician rather than an attack on a party? The result would be incredible government intrusiveness and tit-for-tat charges not resolvable until long after an election, if ever. But its huge costs (ranging from legal bills to being forced to give away a great deal of airtime to the threat of losing one's license) would stifle many American voices, just as before Ronald Reagan killed it in 1987. And why should only radio be subject to such restrictions—just because other media sources lean the "right" (i.e., "left") way?

The implication that fairness only involves the two major parties is also highly objectionable. There are not just Republican and Democrat views, so that fairness requires balancing one against the other. I do not belong to either party and both frequently violate my views. For instance, many times the only difference between party positions is who will steal from whom, while I object to using the government to steal for anyone or from anyone. Isn't it fair that I be given equal time (effectively giving America's founders equal time) whenever either party proposes to rob Peter to pay Paul (which Paul insists is fair but Peter insists is unfair)?

The fairness doctrine illustrates the political meaning of fair—"more for me or those I support." Politicians who want better coverage (or fewer attacks) make veiled threats against opponents to get it, backed by coercion, but they call it fairness to conceal the ugliness and threat to freedom of expression involved.

The fairness doctrine is but one example of self-interested political "fairness" claims, in contrast with market behavior, where the need for voluntary agreement rules out robbing others to give you what you want.

Just consider when you hear fairness claims. States that want more federal pork clamor for their fair share. Those who want to raise others' taxes to pay for what they want insist that they aren't paying their fair share. The majority in Washington argues that centralized federal programs are fair, while the minority argues that fairness requires leaving decisions to states and localities (then people switch sides when party control changes).

Repeatedly, "fairness" is abused to cloud issues and sneak policies past those our representatives supposedly represent, and give those in power still more power over others in the process. That is why, in public policy discussions, asserting fairness as a rationale should always raise a warning flag.

Advancing fairness, in contrast for helping some for harming others, requires not unfairly burdening other parties in the process. As Thoreau put it, "If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too." Unfortunately, the practically innumerable government "solutions" that undermine voluntary arrangements via coercion ignore the unfair harm imposed on others, and cannot meet any consistent standard of fairness.

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