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Opinion On student loans, conservatives turn ‘fairness’ upside down

Cody Hounanian, executive director at the Student Debt Crisis Center, poses while wearing a sweatshirt with the amount he owed in student loans. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)
5 min

Debates over “fairness” have long been central to our politics. But these days, conservatives are becoming especially adept at a clever trick: Deploying concepts of fairness to achieve their exact opposite — by undoing progressive change and maintaining hierarchies of power that are themselves deeply unfair.

That’s the key takeaway from arguments at the Supreme Court this week on a pair of lawsuits challenging the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness program, which was meant to provide up to $20,000 of relief to borrowers. While the legal questions concerned standing, legislative language and limits on executive power, the conservative justices repeatedly redirected the discussion toward fairness — namely, whether by helping millions of student loan borrowers the administration had been unfair to somebody else:

  • John G. Roberts Jr. mused about a hypothetical landscaper, whose bank loans weighed heavily on the chief justice’s mind. “Nobody’s telling the person who is trying to set up the lawn service business that he doesn’t have to pay his loan,” he said, adding that student loan relief didn’t take “him into account.”
  • Justice Neil M. Gorsuch asked whether there is a “cost to other persons in terms of fairness. For example, people who’ve paid their loans, people who planned their lives around not seeking loans, and people who [are] not eligible for loans in the first place.”
  • Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. interrupted the government’s lawyer to ask about the program, “Why is it fair? Why is it fair?” The lawyer responded by explaining how it helps people getting the relief. A frustrated Alito responded, “I’ll try one more time. Why was it fair to the people who didn’t get arguably comparable relief?”

The justices sounded almost as though they were advocating a strict version of communism, under which no one should receive any government benefit that isn’t given to everyone. You could ask why Social Security is so unfair to people who aren’t elderly, or farm supports are unfair to people who aren’t farmers, or funding schools is unfair to the childless.

These same justices, and the party they come from, seem to rouse themselves to fret about fairness only when those who don’t ordinarily get a lot of breaks — people struggling with debt or who need help feeding their families — are given a government benefit. When that happens, the fairness police of the right turn on their sirens, usually with the argument that someone else’s gain must be your loss — even if you didn’t actually lose anything.

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But that’s how concern about fairness works: All of us, liberal or conservative, feel a sense of moral violation when we see resources being distributed in an unequal fashion or people who aren’t getting their just deserts, whether punishment or reward. You can probably think of some minor example of unfairness that irked you even though it had nothing to do with you.

If a party is heavily invested in promoting resentment, crying about unfairness can widen the target of the anger it’s trying to generate. That target is often “elites” who have benefited from the modern economy when you haven’t, but a case like this might make you outraged at a supposed unfairness that has even less to do with you. Somebody down the road got their loans forgiven? Instead of saying, “Good for them, I’m glad,” you’re supposed to get angry. (And remember, nobody ever whined about how they were being treated unfairly as often as Donald Trump.)

Our society is full of unfairness that we might try to ameliorate. What about paying for schools with property taxes, which ensures that wealthy kids get better-funded schools than poor kids? What about the power imbalance created by the electoral college and the Senate, where 580,000 residents of Wyoming get the same representation as 39 million in California? What about the cash-bail system, which allows one defendant to walk out of jail while another accused of the same crime can languish behind bars for months or even years before their case is heard?

No honest conservative would claim that such things are actually fair. They just aren’t that concerned about those things or find them beneficial for other reasons. When conservatives do get outraged about unfairness, it’s usually to fend off a threat to existing arrangements they themselves benefit from. It’s unfair to make White kids feel bad by teaching them about structural racism. It’s unfair to promote “equity” in institutions. It’s unfair to give student debt relief because somebody else who didn’t need a student loan didn’t get the same benefit.

The moral outrage attached to unfairness can be a useful tool; it leads people to advocate for the interests of others, and it can force you to ask fundamental questions about how society is arranged. But it can also be a weapon to deploy against help for those who need it — or even against change itself.