We hear a lot about “fairness” these days. We don’t generally get a good definition of it, though.

When a  lot of politicians talk about fairness, what they are referring to is redistributive fairness, which comes from equalizing rewards and argues that income inequality is inherently unfair. However, another definition of fairness is meritocratic fairness, where rewards are matched with merit and argues that forced equality is inherently unfair.

Americans believe both definitions are correct, depending on the circumstances. When outcomes and rewards are unearned, we think redistribution is a better means for achieving fairness. But when hard work and effort are involved, meritocratic fairness carries the day.

By and large, Americans are born into an amazing world of opportunity and advance through their own efforts.

A careful look at the data shows that Americans can and do rise throughout their lifetimes.  It is no surprise, then, that huge majorities of Americans believe we are part of an opportunity society and that hard work, more than luck or connections, will lead to success.

Even a system based on meritocracy is imperfect, however.  As the government grows and becomes more entangled with our lives, we see the kinds of unfair outcomes common today: bailouts for connected corporations, subsidies for favored industries, and rewards for unions. When resources become the government’s to give, those with the most access win.

As believers in free enterprise, we need to reject these special deals. To preserve the American traditions of merit and opportunity for our children, we must clearly define fairness in society and work to promote this ideal in every policy. We must embrace a system that rewards hard work and provides equal opportunity for all.

The only system that makes this possible is free enterprise.