We’re probably going to be heading down a bit of a rabbit hole here but bear with me. As regular readers may know, I’ve been doing a fair bit of digging into Elizabeth Warren’s proposal dealing with student loan forgiveness and free tuition, along with the very different responses we’re seeing to these plans. One of the issues that comes up repeatedly is the question of whether such a scheme would really be “fair” to the people who have already put in the work and paid their debts if others who didn’t (or couldn’t) pay those bills just had them wiped out.

It’s that aspect of the discussion that led me to read this piece in the Atlantic from Dan Meegan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelp. He addresses the questions surrounding Warren’s plans specifically but approaches the subject by analyzing what we think of as being “fair” in life and how conservatives and liberals tend to have very different definitions.

First, since I’ve brought up the fairness question myself here, I feel obligated to point out a couple of tweets from liberals arguing the opposite angle from the one I took as a conservative observer.

You know, when you put it that way it does sound a bit backward. Of course, there’s more nuance to the question than that. Saying that nobody was able to have spinal cord surgery in the 1800s so nobody should have it today is patently ridiculous. But this question is more complicated. If we had to pay for college (with some running up massive debt) for generations, a hypothetical future generation where nobody paid for college and went into debt could be a positive thing, assuming you could somehow figure out how to pay for it without bankrupting the country. (A huge assumption.) There are other concerns as well, but you see the point.

But what about the people during that interim period as I alluded to above? What do you say to the person who pays all their loans and is contemporaneous with the person who is among the first to have all their debt forgiven? Are we just to ignore the fairness aspect of that specific situation? Here’s where Meegan digs into the conservative versus the liberal definition of fairness. And he centers on the concept of who is “deserving” of help. Take a moment to read this snippet from the essay.

There is more than one way to decide who is deserving of what.

One is by need: Some people have more than they need, and others need more than they have. Even when liberal leaders describe policies that are beneficial to everyone, they make it clear that the most important beneficiaries are those whose needs are most urgent. Indeed, Warren’s plan was also criticized from the left for insufficiently prioritizing those who need debt relief the most.

Still, there are other ways of judging what’s fair. Conservatives tend to value equity, or proportionality, and they see unfairness when people are asked to contribute more than they should expect to receive in return, or when people receive more than they contribute. Consider a hypothetical comparison of two people who graduated from college five years ago with equal amounts of debt. Jessie successfully implemented a plan to pay off the debt in five years, while Sam still has much to repay. Warren’s plan forgives Sam’s debt, but offers nothing to Jessie, despite her industriousness and self-discipline. To add insult to injury, Jessie must contribute tax dollars to the $640 billion fund necessary to forgive outstanding loans, including Sam’s.

It’s a fascinating argument. In the abstract, I can accept that some (generally liberals) will prioritize need as a basis for deciding such questions, while conservatives may factor in questions of equity and proportionality while still acknowledging the need. But isn’t that really just a specific example demonstrating the broader difference between conservatism and liberalism? Underneath it all, liberals prioritize a system that values equality of outcome while conservatives desire equality of opportunity.

The two models are mutually exclusive, of course. If you give everyone an even playing field and send them out to compete, you will have those who do better and those who don’t. (The old winners and losers model.) If you use government regulation to ensure everyone winds up receiving equal portions, you eliminate the incentive for anyone to work hard and excel since the fruits of their labor will simply be redistributed anyway. In the end, what’s really being argued here is the fundamental difference between socialism and capitalism, and the former is poisonous to the latter.

So what is “fair” in this larger question and in the specific case of Warren’s debt relief plan? That depends on who you ask. Our capitalist system incorporates basic welfare for those who fall through the cracks (a definite socialist element), but not so much welfare that too many people will settle for riding in the wagon instead of helping to pull it. And in the case of people who can manage to get into college, they are accepting a debt and the obligation to repay it. People take on all sorts of debt all the time, some unavoidable and some unwise. How they deal with those obligations is part of being an adult. If the next generation has the option of free college tuition, I’m sure they’ll take it. But debt forgiveness during any such transition period remains a horse of a different color. And it’s about more than “fairness.” It’s also about personal responsibility each individual’s role in keeping the wagon of society rolling along.