FAIRNESS played a central role in Barack Obama's state-of-the-union address, and I suspect it will play a central role in the president's re-election campaign. But what does Mr Obama have in mind when he deploys the f-word? It may not be the case that fairness is, as Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, puts it, "a concept invented so dumb people could participate in arguments". But it cannot be denied that fairness is an idea both mutable and contested. Indeed, last week's state-of-the-union address seems to contain several distinct conceptions of fairness worth drawing out and reflecting upon.
Toward the beginning of his speech, as Mr Obama was trying to draw a parallel between post-second world war America and today's post-Iraq war America, he offered this rather stark choice:
We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.
Here we have three distinct conceptions of fairness in a single sentence.