The president wants to create what he calls "a sense of balance and fairness in our tax code," as he said on the campaign trail, and ensure that well-off Americans "pay their fair share." He famously defended his planned tax hikes to "Joe the Plumber" by saying, "I think when you spread the wealth around it's good for everybody."
If you think spreading money around by force seems like an odd definition of fairness, you're not alone.
Most Americans think tax rates are already unfairly high. A February 2009 Harris poll found that on average, Americans believe the maximum amount anyone should have to pay in total taxes is less than 16% of income.
Nor do Americans believe it is fair to expand the pool of people with no income tax liability at all. 66% of Americans agree with the statement that "Everyone should be required to pay some minimum amount of tax to help fund government." People understand that good citizenship means we all contribute in some way to the national project.
Nobody wants to sound anti-poor, so we too easily concede the notion of fairness to those who define it as redistribution and criticize redistribution only because it leads to economic inefficiency.
This is an error. There is nothing inherently fair about equalizing incomes. If the government penalizes you for working harder than somebody else, that is unfair. If you save your money but retire with the same pension as a free-spending neighbor, that is also unfair.
Real fairness, as most of us see it, does not mean bringing the top down. Yes, free markets tend to produce unequal incomes. We should not be ashamed of that. On the contrary, our system is the envy of the world and should be a source of pride. Generation after generation, it has rewarded hard work and good values, education and street smarts. It has offered the world's most disadvantaged not government redistribution but a chance to earn their success.
That is true fairness, American-style.