The Economist offers an example.
Suppose I'm a surgeon pulling down six figures. Perhaps doing my fair share is to pay 33% of my income in taxes. But, hey, wait! My sister, who could have been a surgeon, chose instead to make pottery in a little hippie arts colony. She makes only as much as she needs to get by, works relatively short hours, smokes a lot of weed with her artist friends, and pays no federal income tax at all! If paying 33% of the money I make saving lives is doing my fair share, then it's hard to see how my sister—who could have been a surgeon, or some kind of job- and/or welfare-creating entrepreneur—is doing hers. But if she is doing hers, just playing with clay out there in the woods, benefiting next to no one, paying no taxes, then clearly I'm doing way more than my fair share. Which seems, you know, unfair. ...
Years back, the Animation Guild was in the middle of a contract negotiation. TAG's negotiating committee was expending a lot of time and energy trying to get the usual suspects -- Warner Bros., Fox, Disney, and the rest -- to revamp the contract to include residual payments. But all the parties on the other side of The Table kept saying "No." Over and over again.
When the negotiating committee repaired to the caucus room, participants complained about how stubborn and unfair the companies were being. How unjust it was that animation story creators didn't receive mail box residuals like the DGA, SAG, and the WGA. This went on for several months, and along about month four it dawned on me:
There is no fair, there is no unfair, there is only what you have the ability/leverage to get.
In 1960 and 1961, Hollywood unions were successful in negotiating residuals after years of proposing them. They went on strike over the issue, and the Hollywood studios, not yet monster conglomerates, couldn't afford a long work stoppage. So they (grudgingly) agreed.
Please note that residuals came about not because it was "fair," but because labor had the juice to secure them.
Weeks ago, a gay member who had married his Significant Other in New York (where the state legislature voted that same sex marriages were fair and legal), complained to TAG that the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan doesn't recognize his union because the MPIPHP follows federal law which declares same-sex marriages are unfair and illegal.
Because as we all know, only men and women can be married to each other. (Except when it's been otherwise.)
And there is now --as reflected in the long quote up top -- a lively back-and-forth over who should pay what in taxes. When I was in shorts and high-topped tennis shoes, Ike had the top marginal income tax rate pegged at 90%. Today, Barack Obama want's to push the top marginal income tax rate from 35% to 39.5%. And is greeted with bellows of outrage.
Is Eisenhower's tax bracket fair? Is Obama's unrealized 39.5% unfair? I would submit that, despite the screams of various politicians, neither is one thing or the other, but products of the political dynamics and pressures of their times. (Is Mitt Romney's income tax rate "fair?" Depends who you ask. But it's what's legally allowed.)
What I have come to understand is that "fair" and "unfair" changes from one individual, group or time period to the next. When a politician natters on about "fair," he is usually selling his vision of how he -- or more likely the interest group paying him -- wants things to be.
Tune out all the propaganda, and you begin to figure out that most things from the mind of Man are arbitrary, and everything is temporary.