Ruben Navarrette: Hey, life isn’t fair

“There is always inequity in life. … It’s very hard. … to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.”

– President John F. Kennedy

SAN DIEGO – These days, the most troubling four-letter word in America is spelled F-A-I-R.

It’s the demand that more and more citizens are making upon their nation, society, countrymen, government and economic system. It’s the goal that we’re all striving for, and yet never seem to reach – which only makes us want it more.

On MSNBC, a network that encourages resentment of the rich, host Ed Schultz drops the “F-word” in a promo.

“We can have a level of protectionism, and still have free trade,” Schultz says. “But it’s got to be fair.”

Baloney. The very concept of protectionism is unfair – to those you’re keeping out. If apple growers in Yakima, Wash., decide they can’t compete with apples from China and pressure Congress to impose tariffs, that’s not fair to the Chinese. Nor is it fair to American consumers, who will pay more for apples.

Many conservatives don’t think it’s fair that their taxes go to pay for welfare for poor people; many liberals don’t think it’s fair that rich people don’t pay more in taxes.

But, as President Kennedy was telling us more than 50 years ago when he was asked about reservists being called to Vietnam, chasing fairness is a fool’s errand. Our personal circumstances are different and so we can’t all be equal. Some of us will have head starts, while others will have to overcome obstacles.

I heard the “fair” word last month. During the question-and-answer session of an immigration symposium sponsored by the University of Wyoming, a young woman identified herself as a Canadian student who was attending the university on a visa. She complained that she wasn’t allowed to work while going to school, even though her classmates who were U.S. citizens could. In fact, she said, even undocumented students attending the university could work under the table.

“It’s not fair,” she said.

There it is. I guess this is where I was supposed to agree with the student and support her grievance. That’s what elected officials usually do when they’re confronted with complaints at town hall meetings. They coddle their critics, don’t challenge them and keep them happy.

Instead, I told the young woman what she needed to hear. “No one promised you life would be fair,” I said. “In fact, you have it better than many of the other students that you think are better off. Life is unfair. Get used to it.”

The student didn’t get angry. Rather, she nodded. She seemed to understand. She may even have agreed. So where did the student get this expectation that life was supposed to be fair? Did she bring that attitude with her from Canada, or did she pick it up here?

Maybe she got it from listening to populist comments from liberal Democrats concerned about income inequality.

– Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was recently in Northfield, Minn., to campaign for Sen. Al Franken. “The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it,” Warren told a cheering crowd. The senator promised to stand up to banks and push legislation, co-sponsored by Franken, that allows young people who borrow money for school to re-finance student loans.

– Janet Yellen, chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, sounded like a politician running for office when she recently railed against income inequality. She said it was a trend about which she is greatly concerned, and which may not be “compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

– Even Hillary Clinton, who has always enjoyed strong support from Wall Street banks, tapped into her inner populist recently while on the campaign trail for Martha Coakley, a Democrat running for governor of Massachusetts. “Don’t let anyone tell you that, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs,” Clinton said at a rally in Boston. “You know that old theory, trickle-down economics. That has been tried, that has failed. It has failed rather spectacularly.”

The underlying message of this kind of rhetoric is that the system is not fair.

Guess what? It never has been. And to some degree, it can’t be.

In 2016, imagine how refreshing it would be if there were just one presidential hopeful with the courage to say so.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is