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Jewish World Review May 10, 1999 /24 Iyar 5759

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
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The new "fairness"

(JWR) ---- (
AT ONE TIME we all understood what was meant by a "fair fight." It meant that both fighters fought by the same Marquis of Queensbury rules. It did not mean that both fighters had equal strength, skill, experience or other factors that would make them equally likely to win.

In today's conception of fairness, only when all have the same prospects of winning is the fight fair. It was not in "The Nation" or some other left-wing magazine, but in the neoconservative quarterly "The Public Interest" that we find opportunity equated with "the same chance to succeed" or "an equal shot at a good outcome" -- regardless of the influence of the individual's own social, cultural or family background.

This confusion between the fairness of rules and the equality of prospects is spreading across the political spectrum. Regardless of which of these two things might be considered preferable, we must first be very clear in our own minds that they are completely different, and often mutually incompatible, if we are to have any hope of a rational discussion of policy issues ranging from anti-trust to affirmative action.

To add to the confusion, when prospects are not the same for all, this is then blamed on "the system" or "the rules of the game," as Brookings Senior Fellow Isabel V. Sawhill does in the Spring issue of "The Public Interest."

Rules and standards are the creation of particular human beings, but circumstances need not be. Ms. Sawhill herself includes "good genes" among the circumstances which affect economic inequalities, and we might add all sorts of other geographic, demographic, cultural and historical factors that were not created by today's "rules of the game" or by "the system" or by anyone currently on the scene.

It makes sense to blame human beings for biased rules and standards. But who is to be blamed for circumstances that are the results of all sorts of conditions of the past and present, interacting in ways that are hard to specify and virtually impossible to disentangle? We need to stop the pretense that somebody is guilty whenever the world does not present a picture that suits our desires or fits our theories.

This new kind of "fairness" has never existed anywhere at any time. The real world has always been astronomically remote from any such condition. Nor are the costs and risks of trying to achieve this kind of fairness small.

Crime rates soared when our courts began to concern themselves with such things as the unhappy childhoods of violent criminals or the "root causes" of crime in general. Those who paid the highest price for these excursions into utopian justice were not the judges or the theorists whose notions the judges reflected, but the victims of rape, murder and terrorization by hoodlums.

The same preoccupation with this special kind of "fairness" has often turned our anti-trust laws into ways of penalizing those whose lower production costs enable them to sell profitably to the public at lower prices than those of their competitors who are struggling to survive. Here again there is often a pretense of villainy enshrined in rhetoric about "predatory" pricing or "domination" or "control" of the market. And here again there are third parties who lose -- the consumers.

Equating an absence of utopian justice with villainy has become common in employment law as well. Companies whose employees do not statistically mirror the ethnic composition of the local labor force can be found guilty of "discrimination," even if no one can find a single employee or job applicant who has been treated unfairly by having different rules or standards applied to his or her work or qualifications.

Do we as individuals and as a nation wish that others less fortunate had our blessings? We should and we do. But our blessings as a nation did not consist of having other nations give us foreign aid. The blessings of individuals who have achieved in life have seldom taken the form of having others accept mediocre performances from them or make excuses for their counterproductive behavior.

Almost as mushy as the quest for utopian justice is the notion that the alternative is to "do nothing" about the gross disparities in prospects that are common around the world. There has never been a moment in the entire history of the United States when we have done nothing.

There are innumerable things that still need to be done, but spreading confusion is not one of them.


05/04/99: Holding parents responsible
05/03/99: Exit strategies
04/28/99: Tragedy and farce
04/26/99: Guilt and cop-outs
04/21/99: Choosing a college
04/16/99: When success fails
04/13/99: A photo-op foreign policy
04/09/99: Russia and the Serbs
04/06/99: Random thoughts
03/31/99: Irresponsible "experts"
03/29/99: Another Doleful prospect?
03/23/99: Random thoughts
03/22/99: Loving enemies
03/19/99: Naming names
03/15/99: Undermining the military
03/10/99: Joe DiMaggio -- icon of an era
03/02/99: Facts versus dogma on guns
03/01/99: Losing the cultural wars
02/22/99: "Saving" social security
02/18/99: Too many Ph.Ds?
02/8/99: A national disaster
02/8/99: Economic fallacies in the media: Part II
02/5/99: Why economists visit dentists so often
02/2/99: Warning: Good news
01/29/99: What is at stake?
01/26/99:Moral bankruptcy in the schools
01/22/99: Who is going to convict Santa Claus?
01/19/99: Seeing through the spin
01/13/99: A trial is a trial is a trial
01/11/99:Trials and tribulations
01/08/99: Rays of hope
01/04/99: Random thoughts
12/31/98: The President versus the presidency
12/29/98: The time is now!
12/23/98: World-class hypocrisy
12/21/98: The spreading corruption
12/17/98: Politically "contrite"
12/16/98: Polls and partisanship
12/14/98: The "non-profit" halo
12/11/98: Corruption and confusion
12/03/98: The health care "crisis"
11/30/98: Knowing what you are talking about
11/23/98: The impeachment legacy
11/23/98: Random thoughts
11/19/98: Tales out of bureaucracies
11/16/98: Scholarships based on scholarship
11/12/98: Forward march
11/09/98: Moral outrage
11/05/98: Will the Republicans ever learn?
11/02/98: A voter's duty
10/30/98: The poverty pimp's poem
10/29/98: Random thoughts on the election
10/27/98: "Partisan" and "unfair"
10/23/98: Ed-u-kai-tchun
10/21/98: McGwire, Maris and the Babe
10/16/98: Lightweight Boxer
10/14/98: A strange word
10/09/98: Impeachment standards
10/08/98: Alternatives to seriousness
10/07/98: Heredity, environment and talk
10/02/98: A much-needed guide
10/01/98: Starr's real crime
9/24/98: Costs and power
9/18/98: Are we sheep?
9/16/98: Judicial review
9/15/98: Hillary Rodham Crook?
9/14/98: Taking stock
9/11/98: Moment of truth
9/04/98: Random thoughts
8/31/98: The twilight of special prosecutors?
8/26/98: "Doing a good job"
8/24/98: America on trial?
8/19/98: Played for fools
8/17/98: A childish letter
8/11/98: Hiding behind a woman
8/07/98: A flying walrus in Washington?
8/03/98: "Affordability" strikes again
7/31/98: Random thoughts
7/27/98: Faith and mountains
7/24/98: Clinton in Wonderland
7/20/98: Where is black 'leadership' leading?
7/16/98: Do 'minorities' really have it that bad?
7/14/98: Race dialogue: same old stuff
7/10/98: Honest history
7/09/98: Dumb is dangerous
7/02/98: Gun-safety starts with
parental responsibility
6/30/98: When more is less
6/29/98: Are educators above the law?
6/26/98: Random Thoughts
6/24/98: An angry letter
6/22/98: Sixties sentimentalism
6/19/98:Dumbing down anti-trust
6/15/98: A changing of the guard?
6/11/98: Presidential privileges
6/8/98: Fast computers and slow antitrust
6/3/98: Can stalling backfire?
5/29/98: The insulation of the Left
5/25/98: Missing the point in the media
5/22/98: The lessons of Indonesia
5/20/98: Smart but silent
5/18/98: Israel, Clinton and character
5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
5/11/98: Random thoughts
5/7/98: Media obstruction of justice
5/4/98: Dangerous "safety"
5/1/98: Abolish Adolescence!
4/30/98: The naked truth
4/22/98: Playing fair and square
4/19/98: Bad teachers"
4/15/98: "Clinton in Africa "
4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1999, Creators Syndicate