In the wake of the ransomware attack on Chinese bank ICBC and its impact on US-Treasury trading, the Security and Exchange Commission says it “continues to monitor with a focus on maintaining fair and orderly markets” (“Wall Street and Bejing Fight Fallout of Ransomware Attack on China’s Biggest Bank,” Financial Times, November 13, 2023). Governments all over the world are in the game of substituting “fair” for “free” in their declarations and propaganda. Even free trade has lost its “free” to be called “fair”; in the same vein, “free trade” agreements often don’t include “trade” either. What looks free is out; what sounds fair is in.

Words are just labels, of course, and people can start calling dogs cats if they want to; it won’t change the nature of the animals or the way these things behave. But when people, and especially their rulers, change a label associated with a social, political, or economic concept, it is usually because they view and want others to view the phenomenon differently. It is rarely innocent or without consequences.

Pretty much everybody knows, or used to know, what “free” means in the modern, liberal conception of liberty. It means exchange without violence or fraud by individuals each of whom may accept the exchange or, if the terms proposed by the other party don’t increase his own utility compared to his pre-exchange situation, decline the exchange. “Fair,” on the contrary, is fuzzy and conflictual, depends on who defines it, and generally requires some authority to impose it coercively on those who don’t agree with the definition. Although some may give it a moral meaning, a fair wage or a fair price, for example, means that the wage or price that the party who has the guns (or the backing of those who have the guns) can impose on others. Crucially, the latter may not decline.

It is unfortunate that John Rawls, whose theory (or some version of it) has been blessed by both Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan (and Gordon Tullock), partly defined justice in terms of fairness, encouraging the drift of justice as liberty to justice as fairness. (On justice as liberty, Robert Nozick’s 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a classic.) It is true that the label “fair” sometimes passes as innocuous, but it must be manipulated with utmost care.

On this issue as on so many others in political philosophy and political economy, Anthony de Jasay distills much wisdom. According to him, the word “fair” (and its derivatives) exists only in English “and has not even remote foreign equivalents.” (But isn’t the French “équitable” closer to “fair” than to “just”?) In de Jasay’s view, “fair” is an empty and chameleonic word that means “nice” and has served mainly to corrupt “justice” into “social justice.” In a classical liberal perspective and in de Jasay’s anarchism,  justice lies in voluntary contracts and interactions. Justice is contractual while fairness is redistributive. What the state does is to replace contract and justice with command and fairness. (If you have some background in political economy and political philosophy, a challenging book that bears on this topic is his 1989 Social Contract, Free Ride: A Study of the Public Goods Problem. It is not the easiest reading I ever recommended to you! Don’t get bogged down in his mathematical proofs, which are not always obvious.)