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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.

To get a "fair shot" is to be offered the opportunity to participate fully and succeed within the country's institutions. This is, I think, the least controversial conception of fairness in America's political discourse. Conservatives who strenuously object to the idea that the American system should aim at "equality of outcomes" will sometimes affirm "equality of opportunity" as an alternative. But this is a mistake. To really equalise opportunity requires precisely the sort of intolerably constant, comprehensive, invasive redistribution conservatives rightly believe to be required for the equalisation of outcomes. If one is prepared to accept substantial inequalities in outcome, it follows that one is also prepared to accept substantial inequalities in opportunity.

Getting a fair shot doesn't require equalising opportunity so much as ensuring that everyone has a good enough chance in life. The content of "good enough" is of course open to debate, but most Americans seem to agree that access to a good education is the greater part of a "good enough" and thus fair shot. Naturally, there is strong partisan disagreement over the kinds of education reform that will do right by young Americans.

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