Fair Versus Free: Free Speech Can’t be Fair Speech: Milton Friedman

In presenting his energy program, President Carter stressed “fairness” as an essential ingredient of an acceptable program. The Federal Communications Commission seeks to enforce a “fairness doctrine” on radio and TV stations. We suffered numerous “fair trade” laws, until they were declared unenforceable. One businessman vies with another in proclaiming his faith in competition—provided that it is “fair.” Yet, scrutinize word for word the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of
Rights, and you will not find the word “fair.” The First Amendment does not protect the “fair” exercise of religion, but the “free” exercise thereof; it does not restrain Congress from abridging the “fairness” of speech or of the press, but the “freedom” of speech, or of the press.
The modern tendency to substitute “fair” for “free” reveals how far we have moved from the initial conception of the Founding Fathers. They viewed government as policeman and umpire.
They sought to establish a framework within which individuals could pursue their own
objectives in their own way, separately or through voluntary cooperation, provided only that they
did not interfere with the freedom of others to do likewise.
The modern conception is very different. Government has become Big Brother. Its function has
become to protect the citizen, not merely from his fellows, but from himself, whether he wants to
be protected or not. Government is not simply an umpire but an active participant, entering into every nook and cranny of social and economic activity. All this, in order to promote the highminded goals of “fairness,” “justice,” “equality.” Does this not constitute progress? A move toward a more humane society? Quite the contrary. When “fairness” replaces “freedom,” all our liberties are in danger. In “Walden,” Thoreau says: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” That is the way I feel when I hear my “servants” in Washington assuring me of the “fairness” of their edicts.
There is no objective standard of “fairness.” “Fairness” is strictly in the eye of the beholder. If speech must be fair, then it cannot also be free; someone must decide what is fair. A radio station is not free to transmit unfair speech—as judged by the bureaucrats at the Federal
Communications Commission. If the printed press were subject to a comparable “fairness
doctrine,” it too would have to be controlled by a government bureau and our vaunted free press
would soon become a historical curiosity.
What is true for speech—where the conflict is perhaps clearest—is equally true for every other
area. To a producer or seller, a “fair” price is a high price. To the buyer or consumer, a “fair”
price is a low price. How is the conflict to be adjudicated? By competition in a free market? Or
by government bureaucrats in a “fair” market?
Businessmen who sing the glories of free enterprise and then demand “fair” competition are
enemies, not friends, of free markets. To them, “fair” competition is a euphemism for a pricefixing
agreement. They are exemplifying Adam Smith’s remark that “People of the same trade
seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” For consumers, the more “unfair” the competition the better. That assures lowest prices and highest quality. Is then the search for “fairness” all a mistake? Not at all. There is a real role for fairness, but that role is in constructing general rules and adjudicating disputes about the rules, not in determining the outcome of our separate activities. That is the sense in which we speak of a “fair” game and a “fair” umpire. If we applied the present doctrine of “fairness” to a football game, the referee would be required after each play to move the ball backward or forward enough to make sure that the game ended in a draw!
Our Founding Fathers designed a fair Constitution to protect human freedom. In Thomas
Jefferson’s ringing phrases from the Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted
among Men” “to secure” “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the
Pursuit of Happiness.”