American Elephants


Equality, Justice, and Freedom by The Elephant's Child

The ongoing war between the right and the left, words and their meanings play one of the most important roles. There is one kind of justice which is represented by the Constitution, our body of laws and the courts. There is no such thing as “social justice.” “Equality” is another. No matter how you try and what orders you issue, you cannot make people equal. We are all different. Some are fat, some thin, some smart, some not. “Equality” is only possible before the Law and all the blather about “feelings” makes that pretty iffy as well.  Thomas Sowell explains:

The 1998 Wriston Lecture:  Thomas Sowell PhD

…The school’s principal flatly refused, saying, “it would be a violation of the principles of social justice” if this boy would collect material above the level of other fourth graders.

A similar conception of social justice was expressed by a long-time dean of admissions at Stanford University. She said that she never required applicants to submit achievement test scores because, “requiring such tests could unfairly penalize disadvantaged students in the college admissions process” since such students “through no fault of their own often find themselves in high schools that provide inadequate preparation for the achievement tests.”

The key phrase here is “through no fault of their own.” One of the recurring themes in discussions of social justice. The conception of justice underlying both these decisions and many other decisions in many other areas besides education is that individual windfall, plus or minus, are not to be allowed to determine outcome. Whether these windfalls are caused by nature or by society, they are not to be tolerated by those with this conception of justice.

Moreover, this is an increasingly accepted notion of justice, at least among political and opinion-shaping elite. Perhaps even more ominously, there is the conception of justice, whose radical differences from traditional concepts of justice are seldom explored.

Traditional notions of justice or fairness involve subjecting everyone to the same rules and judging them all by the same standards, regardless of what outcome that leads to. A fair fight is one in which both combatants observe the same rules, whether that fight ends in a draw or in a one-sided beating.

Even more important than considering the relative merits of these two conceptions of justice is being crystal clear that they are not only very different, but mutually incompatible. John Rawls’ [phonetic] celebrated treatise, “The Theory of Justice,” declares that “undeserved inequalities call for redress” in order to produce “genuine equality of opportunity.”

According to Rawls, this is fair, as opposed to formal equality of opportunity. From this point of view, it is merely a formality, a deceptive appearance to have everyone play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards. When all sorts of social, cultural and genetic influences make the likelihood of success that is called life chances so radically different from one individual to another and from one group to another.

Applying the same rules for everyone in baseball means that Mark McGwire will hit seventy home runs, many other players will not even hit half that many, and some not even a tenth as many. Moreover, McGwire’s huge size, not to mention pharmaceutical supplements, ensure that most other people have no realistic possibility of achieving the same goals. This is just one of the many areas where neutral rules ensure “unjust outcomes” by this particular conception of justice.

As a philosopher, Thomas Nagel put it, the range of possibilities or likely courses of life that are open to a given individual are limited to a considerable extent by birth, which includes not only the social class and home environment into which he happened to be born, but also his genetic endowment. From a moral point of view, Professor Nagel said, there is nothing wrong with the state tinkering with that distribution of life chances, which distribution does not have any moral sanctity.

In this view, to provide equality of opportunity it is necessary to compensate in some way for the unequal starting points that people occupy. In other words, we do not need a level playing field. We need to tilt it the right way.

Putting aside the moral argument for the moment, the clear political implication of this conception of justice is that the state must step in if justice, in this sense, is to triumph. Put differently, the freedom of individuals must be overridden if social justice is the overriding goal.

Freedom and this particular kind of justice are inherently incompatible. When people are free, they will spend their money on whatever the please, whatever goods and services best meet their desires. If they are going to a concert, they will not care whether the singer they like was born with a better voice than other singers who have worked just as hard at singing and therefore are just as deserving on the basis of personal merit. In this and in innumerable other ways, the consumer will judge the finished product and not care how much social justice or injustice went into it.

On the plane from San Francisco I read and enjoyed Shelby Steele’s new book, A Dream Deferred. I bought it because I expected a certain level of intelligence in it expressed with a certain grace and clarity. I did not care if there were other books by other writers who had worked just as hard as Shelby. [Laughter.] Without achieving as good a result. Nor did I care how much of Shelby’s intelligence or writing talent was simply inherited. [Laughter.] Or perhaps might have been the result of his having chanced upon some extraordinary teacher whose course gave him an unfair advantage or other equally intelligent and equally talented writers who had never developed their abilities to the same degree. Through no fault of their own. [Laughter.] None of this crossed my mind when I handed my money over to the clerk at Barnes & Noble.

I might mention, too, that I almost did not get the book at Barnes & Noble, because the clerk could not find it in the computer. [Laughter.] She thought that deferred was spelled with two Fs. [Laughter.] Now, it may well be that, through no fault of her own, [Laughter.] she went to one of those schools which thought that correct spelling was just one of those fetishes that some older, retrograde schools used to go in for.

It is amazing how often the term social justice is used without ever being defined. A historian writing about the founding of Czechoslovakia, for example, said that the policies of this newly formed state after the First World War were “to correct social injustice.” Which he specifies as meaning to put right the historic wrongs of the seventeenth century. Presumably no one from the seventeenth century was still alive at the end of the First World War. [Laughter.]

One of the many contrasts between traditional justice and social justice is that traditional justice involves the rules under which flesh and blood human beings will interact. While social justice encompasses not only contemporary individuals and groups, but also group extractions, extending over generations and even centuries.

When you consider how hard it is to get people to treat each other justly when they are face to face, seeking to produce justice between social abstractions stretching back over the centuries is a truly ambitious undertaking. Intergalactic travel is a modest goal by comparison. [Laughter.]

But again, the real problem is not that this goal will not be reached, but that havoc will be reaped in the attempt. Havoc to social peace, when hopes are raised that can never be realized, and havoc to freedom, as the morally anointed seek to smite the wicked, which must ultimately come to include almost all of us.

The concept of advantages is often thrown around as if the world were just a zero sum game. Undoubtedly, Bill Gates has many advantages that I do not have, but I benefit from Bill Gates’ advantages. All of us benefit from other peoples’ advantages. In fact, using the word advantages as if skills were nothing more than invidious distinctions is a major problem in itself.

One of the big advantages of traditional justice over social justice is that it can be achieved. [Laughter.] Traditional justice can be mass produced by impersonal prospective rules governing the interactions of flesh and blood human beings. But social justice must be hand-made by holders of power who impose their own decisions on how these flesh and blood individuals should be categorized into abstractions. Then, these abstractions forcibly configure to fit the vision of the power holders.

If justice has such different meanings and is so elusive in practice, what about equality? The other great preoccupation of our time. Equality almost defies definition. Numbers may be equal, because they have only one dimension, magnitude. But people have so many dimensions that equality, superiority or inferiority are all virtually impossible to define, except within some narrow slice of life.

Is Milton Friedman equal to Michael Jordan on a basketball court? [Laughter.] Is Jordan equal to Friedman in an economics classroom? [Laughter.] Even with such completely contrasting people, you cannot say who is better without a context. In sports it is common to have voluminous statistics available on almost every aspect of an athlete’s performance. We can win a bet, for example, by saying that Babe Ruth stole home more times than Lou Brock, because such details, statistics are kept for generations. He did, by the way. [Laughter.] I have won a few bets myself. [Laughter.]

The baseball encyclopedia is nearly three thousand pages of numbers in fine print, and you can probably download from the Internet as much or more data on other sports. Yet, every sport is full of controversies about who was the best boxer, the best quarterback, the best jockey, the best goalie, precisely because there is no common definition by which you can settle the issue, even for a given position within a given sport.

Nolan Ryan struck out more batters than Walter Johnson, but Walter Johnson pitched more shut outs. Joe Montana threw more touchdowns than George Blanda, but George Blanda scored more total points. Even though detailed facts are readily available, the multiple dimensions defeat any attempt to say concretely who was better or who was equal. The difficulties of defining equality have not stopped people from defining it, or from shifting from one definition to another as the convenience of the argument requires. We may all agree as to what equality before the law means, and religious people can say that we are all equal in the sight of God, but treating people equally or valuing them equally is wholly different from believing that they are equal in ability. Often the most loved member of a family is a child whom no one believes to be as capable as the adults.

Yet, even something as apparently specific as equal ability is fraught with pitfalls. There has been much controversy as to whether all racial groups or social classes have equal innate ability, but equal innate ability in a genetic sense refers to an intellectual potentiality present at the moment of conception. No one applies for a job or for college admission at the moment of conception. [Laughter.] Just between conception and birth, the mother’s sound or unsound nutrition, smoking or not smoking, drinking or not drinking, all effect the development of the unborn baby, including his brain.

Recently, it has been discovered that the amount of attention and stimulation that an infant gets effects the actual physical size of the brain and therefore becomes a life-long characteristic. Long; well, life-long. [Laughter.] Abstract equality at the moment of conception says very little about how much equality survives to adulthood through many highly unequal influences from the surrounding environment.

If we are talking about concrete ability to do specific things, then equality is a fantasy. How many people with Ph.D.s can repair their own television set? [Laughter.] Or their automobile transmission, for those who do not admit that they have a television set. [Laughter.]

While intellectuals may talk about ability in the abstract, or worse yet, restrict the concept to academic ability, the real world requires a huge, almost unimaginable range of very specific skills and very specific knowledge. These cannot be considered equal in any way. Do we seriously expect Polynesians and Scandinavians to know as much about camels as the Bedouins of the Sahara know? Do we seriously expect the Bedouins of the Sahara to know as much about fishing as the Polynesians and the Scandinavians know? How would Eskimos know how to grow bananas or other tropical crops? How would the peoples of the Himalayas have learned seafaring skills? Geography alone has denied equal opportunity on a scale that dwarfs anything that man can do.

Even more important than the geographic limitations of particular physical environments is the effect of geography in isolating peoples from other peoples. Isolated people have almost invariably been backward people. Few, if any, of the great advances of the human race have originated on isolated islands or in remote mountain communities. The imminent French historian, Fernand Braudel, said that the mountains almost always lagged behind the plains. Even if the same race of peoples, speaking the same language and observing the same customs live in both places.

Seaports have almost always been more advanced than the interior hinterland, whether in Europe, Asia, Africa or wherever. Nor have the advantages of navigable waterways been equally or randomly distributed around the world. One third of the entire land mass of Europe consists of islands and peninsulas, while just one percent of the land mass of South America consists of islands and peninsulas.

One of the most blatant sources of inequalities in particular skills is also one of the most overlooked. People do not choose to acquire those skills, often because they are not interested in the fields in which those skills apply. Milton Friedman. for example, has said that he never received any enjoyment from music. Now, surely a man who can win a Nobel Prize in economics could learn to play a piano, but do not expect anyone to become another Arthur Rubenstein or Ray Charles if he does not even like music. Different people like different things. Whole cultures differ in what they like. How can they not differ in what they do?

In innumerable ways, people differ individually and collectively in the range of skills they have and do not have. With their inputs being so different, how could their outputs not differ? Yet, any differences in performances or rewards are routinely ascribed to society, to bias, or to other sinister forces.

Now, nothing is easier to find than sin among human beings, but making the sins of others the automatic explanation of any group’s economic conditions is as inconsistent with logic as it is wholly consistent with politics. [Laughter.] Politics is highly congenial to notions of equality and equity, if only because these nebulous terms provide politicians with ample opportunities to exercise power and hand out favors to their supporters in the name of high sounding ideals.

Who could be against such notions as pay equity or preventing exploitation or making sure that people receive what they deserve? Yet these and other phrases, including the medieval notion of the fair and just price, assume that there is such a thing as an objective value which third parties can specify. If there were, there would be no basis for exchange on which our whole economy depends.

Imagine that you paid sixty cents for a copy of “The New York Times” on the local newsstand. Why do you do so? Obviously, because you value “The New York Times” more than you value the sixty cents. Why, then does the newsstand dealer sell you “The New York Times?” Because he values the sixty cents more than he values “The New York Times.” [Laughter.]

If there were any such thing as an objective value, one of you would have to be a fool to pay more or to accept less for it. If that objective value was exactly sixty cents, why would either or you waste your time making a meaningless trade that leaves neither of you any better off? You would walk past a newsstand indifferently, and he would pay no attention to you. [Laughter.] The only way it makes any sense for you to exchange with one another is that the same thing has different values for different people. There is no objective value, not fair and just price, no comparable worth, no pay equity.

Now, the fact that something is meaningless or impossible is by no means as great a handicap in politics as it is in economics. [Laughter.] If you can get elected promising meaningless or impossible things, then these things are of great practical value politically. Nor are meaningless or impossible things of no value in the world of the intellectual. Expansive notions on justice and equality find their natural habitat in the seminar room and on the campaign trail. Though, some have also flourished in judicial chambers.

If the only problems with justice and equality were that they are difficult to define and impossible to achieve, at least in the expansive senses in which they are used, things would not be as bad as they are in fact. It is the attempt to achieve what is called social justice and equality of either results or life chances that are dangerous, precisely because we cannot agree on the meaning of such words as justice, fairness or equality.

Some authoritative force must be imposed. There will never be a lack of people willing to wield power over their fellow human beings. The only question is how many of those human beings can see through the words to the realities and refuse to surrender their freedom for the sake of heavy rhetoric. Thank you.

[Applause.]

 

 

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