04/24/2011 09:17 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2011

Budget Fairness

We have a genetic predisposition toward fairness. It's one of our strongest social emotions, appearing early in childhood as the plaintive wail that "it's not fair!" There is a classic experiment called the Ultimatum Game, in which one person is allowed to propose a split of $10 with an anonymous partner with the proviso that if the partner rejects the split neither player gets a dime. Across all cultures, most players propose a split somewhere in the range of $6/4 or $5/5, and the wider the unevenness of the proposal, the more likely it is to be rejected. In short, we'd rather get nothing than accept a proposal that is unfair.

We are now engaged in the most serious debate about fairness in a generation. It gets reported in the media as a contest of winners and losers, liberals and conservatives. But our argument about the budget, the deficit and the debt is unmistakably about fairness. When the recent $38.5 billion budget deal to keep the government running was finally reached, the final argument was not about the $38.5 billion. Nor was it really about $300 million for Planned Parenthood. It was about whether denying that money was unfair to women or fair to unborn children, depending on your point of view.

It would help our debate if we acknowledge that, at its core, fairness is a central issue. Fairness is, after all, another label for justice, and to "establish Justice" is what our Constitution promises. Consider the following:

• Arguments about fairness inflame the passions. We need to sense those passions for what is behind them. When researchers scan the brains of people playing the Ultimatum Game, they find that those who receive unfair offers show brain activity in the regions associated with pain, anger and disgust. Literally, they "feel the pain" of being treated unfairly and react with powerful emotions. We should acknowledge as we argue about the budget and the debt that our core values are engaged. We should not label our opponents' positions as simply "bleeding heart" or "selfish." We should search for, acknowledge, and attempt to address their core values, for when we dismiss them, people feel that at best they are being ignored and at worst they (and those on whose behalf they argue) are being treated unfairly. The result is anger not reason, contempt not compromise.

• Whatever compromise we reach, in the end, must meet the test of fairness. Political leaders could help us by articulating that fairness is an important criterion in the deals they reach. Positions on programs, taxes and who needs to sacrifice should be judged against this test of fairness: will most Americans view the decisions reached as fair, even if those decisions are not their ideal outcome? A simple statement that cutting taxes of the wealthy will spur the economy does not meet that test any more than does a simple statement that continuing to fund public broadcasting is necessary because we need it. If cutting top tax rates will really leave middle and low income Americans better off, that needs to be demonstrated, not preached. If preserving federal funds for public broadcasting will improve life for all Americans, that needs to be demonstrated as well. Unless the test of fairness is met, any deal reached will be ignored or undermined by those deeming it unfair. That has, after all, been the history of many of political deals over the past thirty years.

• Fairness is not simply an issue for the living. Our unborn children -- the future of America -- need to be treated fairly as well. Since they cannot speak for themselves, generational fairness should be a topic we all discuss. We are not just dividing up today's pie but tomorrow's too. An important question thus becomes: if I were born today, would I consider the decisions we come to now fair in light of the life I will be living in twenty years? Simply passing on the burden of taxes, cuts and contributions to the next generation on the presumption that it would be unfair to make those now benefiting pay more has the allure of fairness but only to those now living.

These observations have implications for political leadership. Special interest groups are not likely to be interested in being fair. That's what the framers of our Constitution warned us about when they sought to counter the effects of the selfish motives that inhere in "factions". It will be up to leaders to demand fairness and ask of any proposal -- one they are proposing or opposing -- whether it meets that test. They must also demand of us that we be fair. That is, they must ask us to rise to a challenge we seldom hear politicians calling us to meet.

The measure of our success in addressing our fiscal crisis may be that we all feel the pain of the cuts and contributions we are asked to make -- that our pain is spread fairly among us. We may realize we are moving toward fiscal sanity when we can say: "that will hurt me, but others are hurting too." Fairness, after all, does not mean we escape pain but that we bear our pain with a measure of stoicism and pride, knowing that we are doing our part. Our leaders could do us a favor by articulating this need for shared sacrifice. Instead of encouraging our selfishness by telling us we have suffered enough and that somebody (defined as somebody else) has not, they should stimulate our patriotism by telling us that America's future greatness will be built on treating each other fairly, or it will not be built at all.