American Elephants


All About “Social” Justice by The Elephant's Child

Here’s Bill Whittle, who is very good at getting right to the nitty-gritty of events and clarifying things. In this case, it is the idea of “white privilege”, and what it is and what it isn’t. You might be surprised. Is Social Justice Just?

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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.]

 

 



The Ugly Side of the Environmental Movement, And it’s Deplorable Actions by The Elephant's Child

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Aubrey McClendon, former CEO of Chesapeake Energy, “died March 2 in a car wreck the day after being indicted for conspiracy to rig bids on oil and natural gas leases. He will likely be remembered for two things: being a pioneer of the shale gas boom and a possible criminal who, in death, may have eluded a prison sentence. But McClendon may have had one other lasting legacy: he helped hasten the collapse of the coal industry in the United States.”

Between 2007 and 2012, McClendon and his associates contributed around $26 million to the Sierra Club to oppose the building of new coal-fired power plants. McClendon’s motivations were hardly pure; he knew that preventing new coal plants meant more demand for his company’s product, natural gas. And the contributions led to a scandal for the environmental group, whose well-funded “Beyond Coal” campaign has been instrumental in not only preventing new plants, but also shutting down aging ones.

Executive director Michael Brune had a simple explanation for accepting money from a big gas company that was drilling hundreds of wells using hydraulic fracturing: the enemy of our enemy is our friend. “The Sierra Club board of directors … determined that natural gas, while far from ideal as a fuel source, might play a necessary role in helping us reach the clean energy future our children deserve,” Brune wrote in <aref=”http://sierraclub.typepad.com/michaelbrune/2012/02/the-sierra-club-and-natural-gas.html”>a 2012 blog post. “The idea was that we shared at least one common purpose [with Chesapeake]—to move our country away from dirty coal.”

The Sierra Club turned down further contributions from McClendon and his Chesapeake colleagues as it began to worry about the boom in natural gas fracking. That didn’t affect the outcome: McClendon’s philanthropy helped make it very unlikely that any new coal plants will be built in the U.S.—and helped push coal, the backbone of America’s power sector for more than a century, into a sudden and dramatic twilight.

Here’s another excellent example of the rot in the Green movement. If you can get rid of coal as a resource for power generation by claiming that it is the cause of anthropogenic global warming, what’s the big deal if you cause thousands of coal miners to lose their jobs, if you can force the country to depend on your natural gas for their electric power, and make your company and yourself rich by so doing?

The Sierra Club was once a nice organization with the goal of protecting the Sierra Mountains. They sponsored catered pack trips through the Sierras, and publicized Ansel Adams beautiful photography of the Sierras and Yosemite National Park. But at some point they became a leftist political agency under the cover of being a nice environmental club.

But then the coal industry once supplied nearly half of America’s power needs, and kept the cost of power low for American homes and businesses, enabling the prosperous industrial country we live in.  Mr. McClendon is hardly the only person who has been trying to enrich himself and his business by using the fear of a crisis of global warming that has been pushed by so many environmental organizations.

The cheap and affordable energy that coal-fired plants produce cannot be replaced by renewables, no matter how much investors hope it to become fact instead of wishful thinking. Wind is highly intermittent — we had a minor wind storm today that deposited bushels of fir cones and branches on the roof and on the streets (and on the driveway I laboriously swept yesterday) yet there were long periods with no wind at all, and even some blue sky.

Wind energy proponents talk about optimum performance — what a wind farm could produce if all the turbines were turning at the speed that would be produced by a perfect flow of wind. But Mother Nature doesn’t work that way.Wind is intermittent at best, and even shuts down for long periods. When it isn’t blowing at the perfect speed, then the power has to come from somewhere else. Hopes for battery walls ignore the availability and expense of the rare earths required which largely come from China, who has cornered the market and can raise prices as they choose.

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will prevent 0.03 degrees of warming by 2100.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, admitted that the goal of environmental activists is not to save the world from ecological calamity — but to destroy capitalism.

“This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution,” she said.



Puncturing the Pretensions of the Progressives by The Elephant's Child

Donkeys 1

I wrote earlier about the problem of “Diversity”— that progressive catch-word — around which they attempt to arrange all their bright ideas. “Diversity,” they believe, is a positive good. Wealthy neighborhoods, or for that matter any neighborhoods that do not house the correct numbers of varying races and ethnicities need to be “fixed.”

And, on the other side,  we have the victims of progressive diversity demands (affirmative action) such as National Merit scholars who can’t get into elite universities like Harvard because the category of Asian students already matches the percentage of Asians in the economy, so students of different race and ethnicity must be admitted instead despite lower SAT scores. So we are trading brighter doctors and scientists and businessmen for the precious idea of diversity. And that makes sense just how?

The real problem is that “diversity” doesn’t produce the desired effect. The more diverse or integrated a neighborhood becomes, the less socially cohesive it becomes, and the more homogenous or segregated, the more socially cohesive. Simple. A mom and dad prefer their children to other children. Having a child does not produce liking for all children. People prefer their compatriots to strangers from another country. This is not prejudice, but a natural affinity for those with whom you have something in common. It’s what humans do.

Progressives believe “diversity” is a necessity in the quest for social justice which is the shining goal of the left. The pursuit of social justice is the reason for empathy, for welfare, for caring for others. The pursuit of that goal renders philanthropy harmful. William Voegeli notes:

The alliance of experts and victims will progress toward its goals more slowly and with greater difficulty if amateurs, hobbyists, and dilettantes are mucking about, trying to alleviate a victim’s suffering. They don’t know what they’re doing, and should keep out of the way of people who do. Furthermore, caring for others by any other means than supporting with votes and taxes, welfare state programs to enact and adequately fund those programs postpones rather than hastens the realization of social justice.

“I gave at the office” should mean just one thing: the taxes withheld from my paycheck are funding government programs, the only path to social justice. If it means, instead, charitable contributions are activities that endorse the efficacy and virtue of extragovernmental efforts to ameliorate suffering situations, the pursuit of social justice is thwarted. The more government takes over welfare — the weaker the fellow feeling of the other ties.

The famous American skeptic H.L Mencken once wrote, “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.” Or to put it a little differently — Social Justice doesn’t mean that at last everybody is finally equal. It means that you are all equal, and we are in charge.



Can Inequality Be Fixed? Can There Be Social Justice? by The Elephant's Child

The current theme of the Democrats seems to be “Inequality.” Or “Social Justice” if you prefer. They speak of a growing gap between the very rich and ordinary folk, with the insinuation that anyone who gets very rich must have been unjust in their accumulation of wealth. Certainly this has been a major theme for Barack Obama. He spoke of redistribution even farther back than his famed encounter with Joe the Plumber. Michelle Obama spoke on the campaign trail of coercive redistribution of wealth, and the basic unfairness of America.

I have trouble with the concept of ‘social justice’— for the definition seems to vary from equality of opportunity, equal ability to develop one’s human potential, to the idea that society should treat all equally well who deserve being treated equally.

The gap between our IT billionaires and the poor is measured and remeasured.  We have had successful products in the past, but never before a product that is required by every person in every business and even in the poorest homes. Of course those who came up with new products, the applications and the updates and the new improved versions were going to be rewarded with fabulous wealth. Does the life of a poor person become worse because a new product enters the world? Is it somehow unfair that someone had the ideas and skills to develop those products is rewarded for so doing? How is this in any way— unjust?

If we must redistribute wealth to be just, how much do we have to redistribute? How much do we have to take away from the rich man to give to the poor man? Barack Obama promised “change” and millions of black Americans were sure that meant that their situation in life would improve. He has vigorously promoted redistribution of wealth for 4½ years, and the welfare of poor black Americans has steadily declined. The unemployment rate for black young people is a staggering 60%. The president wants to raise the minimum wage, but statistics show that will increase the unemployment rate for beginning workers, not help them.

Creating jobs for the unemployed is not what the redistributionists have in mind, however. What they have in mind is more welfare, and making the poor more dependent on government largesse. If they depend on government and their politicians for their food and housing, their health care, welfare and social services, they are very likely to vote for those who make the largesse available. The object is not “social justice” or “equality” but power for those who distribute the welfare.



The Secret Knowledge: The Origins of “Social Justice” by The Elephant's Child

From the archives: October 28, 2012

The Left is deeply concerned about income inequality, you know that, they tell us so often enough. They have observed that some people live in poverty while others, particularly corporate CEOs, who get ridiculously enormous salaries that they certainly don’t deserve, are very rich. The Left considers this observed inequality as unnatural. In his book The Secret Knowledge, playwright David Mamet tackles the origins of the problem:

To correct this observed inequality, which the Left sees as unnatural, it invented the term “social justice.” But a system of Justice already exists, formulated by Legislature, in supposed expression of the will of the people, and administered by the Judiciary. This is called the Judicial System.  What then is this additional, amorphous “social justice”? It can only mean, as Hayek wrote, “State Justice.” Here, though the Left will not follow the reasoning out to its end, the State (operating upon what basis it alone knows, and responsible to no law enacted by the people) confiscates wealth accumulated under existing laws and redistributes it to those it deems worthy.

History proves that the worthiest in these Marxist schemes are or quickly become, those in charge of distribution, which is to say “the State,” it’s constitutional powers usurped by those we know as “dictators.”

To the Left it is the State which should distribute place, wealth, and status.  This is called “correcting structural error,” or redressing the legacy of Slavery,” or Affirmative Action, or constraining unfair Executive Compensation; but it is and can only be that spoils System which is decided at the ward level as “cronyism.” And lauded at the national level as “social justice.” It is nothing other than the distribution of goods and services by the government for ends not specified in the Constitution; and in response to pressure from or in attempts to curry favor with groups seeking preferment or goods not obtainable either under the law, or through those practices of mutual benefit called the Free Market. What obscenities are created in the name of “social justice?” What could possibly be less just than policies destructive of initiative and based upon genetics?

David Mamet was once a Democrat, and thought better of it. Actually he thought long and deeply about it, read a lot, and turned his considerable writing skills to explaining just why he changed his mind. It is a perfectly delightful book, and as a lifelong Conservative, I learned a lot.

David Mamet is an American playwright, screenwriter, author,and director renowned for Glengarry Glen Ross (Pulitzer, Tony nomination). As a screenwriter, he received Oscar nominations for The Verdict and Wag the Dog. His books include: The Old Religion, Five Cities of Refuge, The Wicked Son, and a long list of books and movies, television shows and even radio dramas.

 The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture,  is Mamet’s book detailing his conversion from modern liberalism to “a reformed liberal.” It was released in June of 2011, and I recommend it heartily.



Wise Words from Thomas Sowell: by The Elephant's Child

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