Note: This article is being posted again after appearing in my, now defunct, blog "Random Notes" because it is cited in my new essay "Peanut Butter and Disability".
I wrote earlier that the many comments I read in response to my articles had inspired several posts and this is yet another. I wrote in "The "Lucky" Rich" that I was tired of the self-serving description favored by politicians, describing the rich as "lucky" or "fortunate". As I wrote there, the reasoning is obvious. If the rich had earned their wealth, if they were doing something to receive it, it might seem unfair to a substantial number of voters to take it from them. However, if politicians can sell the concept that the rich somehow "won life's lottery", then there would be fewer objections to taking away some or all of their fortune, as they did not earn it, and thus did not deserve it. It was just a fortuitous accident, like finding a winning raffle ticket on the ground.
In response one of my readers tried to modify the argument, elaborating upon all the ways that "luck" played into life. even throwing in the common liberal argument that whites are "lucky" to be born white in the US. And, yes, I will concede some of this. People are born into varying circumstances. I won't go so far as to agree that being white is a terrible advantage, many whites have the same drawbacks as many minorities, and many minorities are born into better circumstances than some whites. Perhaps 50 years ago I would have granted race a bigger role, but with legal discrimination almost non-existent, or else favoring minorities, and with society in general pressuring those who hold racist beliefs to refrain from expressing them, I think the role of race in one's life is much smaller now than it has been ever, anywhere in the world*.
But leaving race aside for the moment, I cannot disagree with the assertion some people have good fortune and others ill fortune in the circumstances of their birth. Similarly, some have better fortune throughout life, and others worse. Life simply is not fair. try as we might to ensure that people have equal opportunity, even identical individuals, in very similar circumstances will see their fate pushed in somewhat different directions by the workings of fate. We can argue over how much chance factors into one's life, but I doubt anyone would argue that chance has no role at all**.
But it is a long leap form my admission that fate plays a part in each person's life to the assumption that one does not earn what he has. Or that we need to intervene.
Let us look at one argument sometimes made. Most people, by definition, are born into average households. But soema re born into very wealthy households, while others are born into very poor ones. As a result, some have a better start in life***. And so, some argue, we should take steps to ensure that the children born into wealth do not "unfairly" profit from this, that we don't create a hereditary elite.
I addressed this argument before, in "The "Lucky" Rich", pointing out that such inherited advantages are rarely as beneficial as some think, but even if they were, how does one cure this? Do we take a percentage of the advantage person's income and distribute it to the disadvantaged? But wouldn't that cause these advantaged children, presumably the most productive, thus be inspired to work less hard, to produce less, and thereby make society as a whole more poor, as well as reducing the amount of income available to compensate those born with less advantage? Doesn't this, in the end, make everyone worse off, rather than better?
Or maybe we should give the children born into worse circumstances preference for college or jobs. But that makes little sense. After all, the reason they are "disadvantaged" is because their poor start left them less prepared academically, or even put them in a climate where academic work is discouraged. So to give them advan6tages would be to place the least prepared into the hardest universities and best jobs, where they would most likely fail, while we would put the most prepared into less rigorous schools and jobs where their talents would be wasted. Again,. we would be reducing the overall wealth of everyone, making all of us poorer, and, at the same time, be setting up the disadvantaged for failure, which would hardly do them any good.
Of course, some will argue that the disadvantaged will do just fine in these jobs or schools, arguing effectively that there is really no ability required for such jobs and schools, and that one's placement and pay is entirely a matter of advantage. This sort of low-brow theory, that it is just being born into privilege that makes one rich, and no talent is required to be a doctor or engineer, and that Harvard, Stanford and the local community college are equally rigorous, has a surprisingly long list of supporters. In fact, it lies behind a lot of our government's thinking on affirmative action. But reality argues otherwise. A brief look at drop-out and failure statistics for various universities with the most aggressive affirmative action policies will make that clear.
No, any attempt to take the "unfairness" of life and correct it simply end up making things worse. We need not go to the extreme "Harrison Bergeron" levels to prove this, though that story does make the case quite well. Instead we need only think about it for a moment. If the circumstances of your birth left you in an environment where study was discouraged, and a a result you never learned to read, putting you into MIT will not help you one iota. Similarly, if you take the world's best surgeon and make him a bus boy so the poor disadvantaged bus boy can have his "turn" as a surgeon, you will not create another brilliant surgeon, but just a lot of dead patients.
Ye,s life is unfair, and that is sad, but it is something with which we must learn to live. I cannot carry a tune and try as I might carpentry eludes me. I will never make fine furniture or sing an aria. Nothing on this earth will change those circumstances, and forcing people to listen to my caterwauling will not make me a great singer****. As with most truths which people try to deny, the unfair circumstance of life cannot be changed, we can either struggle futilely against them, and do more harm than good, or act like adults, accept them, and then try to make the best of the hand we were dealt.
* Those who decry racism in the US seem to forget that racism is hardly exclusive to America. Just try being Korean in Japan, even today. Or talk to Turks in Germany or Algerians in France. White farmers in Zimbabwe also may have an argument with those who find racism specific to the US. As many have pointed out before, the West is hardly unique in practicing slavery, though they were unique in voluntarily renouncing it as a practice. Similarly, we are hardly unique in having racial prejudices as part of our culture, but we are unusual in being aware of it and feeling guilt over it. (Again, many nations even today who practice some form of racial preference or discrimination find it unobjectionable, which makes claims of a particularly American evil in this regard laughable. While we fret over whether forced integration of the Indians was "genocide", Japan is officially committed to integrating Koreans into Japanese culture and "making them Japanese". Could you imagine anyone in the US saying they wanted to push assimilation?)
** There are a few who argue that one can control absolutely everything about his own life, but even granted that, one can still describe as fate the people he encounters and their actions, over which he has limited or no control. No matter how well we manage our own lives, the fact that we live in a society means that there are things over which our control is limited and thus can be called "fate" or "chance".
*** Though most frame this argument in terms of wealth, I would differ. I think an inclination to value or devalue education is much more significant, and not tied exclusively to wealth. Yes poor whites and blacks tend to look down upon academic pursuits, but even the poorest Asians and Jews tend to place a premium on education. (And for those who think the Jews are all rich devils who rule the world, I think they need to meet some Russian Jewish refugees, both in the US and Israel. Some have since managed to improve their lot, but many are still struggling to recover from the experience of both persecution in Russia and starting over in a strange nation with very little.) On the other hand, many second and third generation children of wealth do not place a premium on education and, as a consequence, often slip back down into more humble circumstances. Socioeconomic status in and of itself id not enough to ensure one a good job or a high future income.
**** Fortunately, my son did not inherit my singing voice (I am told my speaking voice is rather pleasant) or my lack of rhythm.
This is actually a good introduction to a post I hope to write soon. My broader premise, of which this is one example, is that the left's utopianism, their inability to accept anything short of their idea of perfection, tends to lead to disasters. For example, rather than ending government imposed racism, they argue that we must struggle until every bit of racism, public or private, is eliminated. As a result, we have enshrined race as a politically recognized category, caused a massive upsurge in racism, as whites come to resent the disadvantages imposed upon them for just being white, and caused minorities to believe society is more racist than it is by constantly telling them every failing is the fault of societal and institutional racism. In short, buy trying to eliminate every last vestige of racism, they have created more of it.
There are many more examples, such as the gutting of the civil statute of limitations for fear of justice not being done in tort cases, with predictably horrible results. And I could go on and on. But as that would leave me with nothing to write in my post, I will force myself to stop, saying only watch for my upcoming post, as it will build on this one.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/07/22.