Justice, if only we knew what it was.
Quest for Cosmic Justice
2. The Mirage of Equality
3. The Tyranny of Visions
4. The Quiet Repeal of the American Revolution
#1 THE QUEST FOR COSMIC JUSTICE
One of the few subjects on which we all seem to agree is the need for justice. But our agreement is only seeming because we mean such differing things by the same word. Whatever moral principle each of us believes in, we call justice, so we are only talking in a circle when we say that we advocate justice, unless we specify just what conception of justice we have in mind. This is especially so today, when so many advocate what they call 'social justice' - often with great passion, but with no definition. All justice is inherently social. Can someone on a desert island be either just or unjust?
If social justice can
be distinguished from any other conception of justice, it is probably by
its reaction against the great inequalities of income and wealth which
we see all around us. But reactions against such inequalities are not limited
to those who proclaim social justice... free-market economist Milton Friedman...
Adam Smith, the father of laissez-faire economics.
While a few conservative writers here and there have tried to justify inequalities on grounds of 'merit', most have not. The late Nobel Prize-winning economist and free market champion FA Hayek, for example, declared 'the manner in which the benefits and burdens are apportioned by the market mechanism would in many instances have to be regarded as very unjust if it were the result of a deliberate allocation to particular people.' The only reason he did not regard it as unjust was because 'the particulars of a spontaneous order cannot be just or unjust.' The absence of personal intention in a spontaneous order - a cosmos, as Hayek defined it - means an absence of either justice or injustice. 'Nature can be neither just nor unjust,' he said. 'Only if we mean to blame a personal creator does it make sense to describe it as unjust that somebody has been born with a physical defect, or been stricken with a disease, or has suffered the loss of a loved one.'
The range of possibilities
or likely courses of life that are open to a given individual are limited
to a considerable extent by his birth - which includes not only the social
class and home environment into which he happened to be born - but also
his genetic endowment. This last, especially, is clearly not social.
Seeking to rectify the tragic misfortunes of individuals and groups, for example, the physically and mentally disabled, to mitigate and make more just the undeserved fortunes arising from the cosmos, as well as from society - is seeking to produce cosmic justice, going beyond strictly social justice.
Even those few writers
who have tried to justify inequalities on merit grounds are nevertheless
conceding that inequalities are things requiring justification. With people
across virtually the entire ideological spectrum being offended by inequalities
and their consequences, why do these inequalities persist? why are we not
all united in determination to put an end to them? Perhaps the most cogent
explanation was offered by Milton Friedman :
"A society that puts equality - in the sense of equality of outcome - ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposed, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests."
Whatever the validity of this argument - and one need only think of the horrors of Stalin, Mao, and Pol pot to realize that painful possibilities are not mere fantasies - it rejects direct political equalization of economic results because the costs are judged to be too high.
However, unlike God
at the dawn of Creation, we cannot simply say, 'Let there be equality!'
or 'Let there be justice!'. We must begin with the universe that we were
born into and weigh the costs of making any specific change in it to achieve
a specific end. We cannot simply 'do something' whenever we are morally
indignant, while disdaining to consider the costs entailed.
Once we begin to consider how many deliveries (of goods, aid, food) are worth how many dead truck drivers, we have abandoned the quest for cosmic justice and reduced our choices to the more human scale of weighing costs and benefits.
Cosmic justice is not
simply a higher degree of traditional justice, it is a fundamentally different
concept. Traditionally, justice or injustice is characteristic of a process.
A defendant in a criminal case would be said to have received justice if
the trial were conducted as it should be, under fair rules, and with the
judge and jury being impartial. After such a trial, it could be said that
'justice was done' - regardless of whether the outcome was an acquittal
or an execution. In short, traditional justice is about impartial processes
rather than either results or prospects.
Similar conceptions of justice or fairness extend beyond the legal system - a 'fair fight' and sport for example. The 'career open to the talents' or 'a level playing field' usually means that everyone plays by the same rules and is judged by the same standards. But this is not what is meant by those people who speak of 'social justice'. The two concepts are mutually incompatible.
What 'social justice'
seeks to do is eliminate undeserved disadvantages for selected groups.
This is often done in disregard of the costs of this to other individuals
or groups, or even to the requirements of society as a whole. In the pursuit
of justice for a segment of society, in disregard of the consequences for
society as a whole, what is called 'social justice' might be more accurately
called anti-social justice, since what consistently gets ignored or dismissed
are precisely the costs to society.
Such a conception of justice seeks to correct, not only biased or discriminatory acts by individuals or social institution, but unmerited disadvantages in general, from whatever source they may arise.
The dangers of errors
increase exponentially when we presume to know so many things and the nature
of their complex interactions. In particular, it is all too easy to be
overwhelmed by clear and tragic historic injustices - and to glide from
those injustices to cause-and-effect explanation of contemporary problems.
The point here is how easy it is to go wrong, by huge margins, when presuming to take into account complex historical influences such as slavery, migration, race. The demands of cosmic justice vastly exceed those of traditional justice - and vastly exceed what human beings are likely to be capable of.
What lies within our knowledge and control, given that we are only human, with all the severe limitations which that implies?
History is full of
examples of countries which made it difficult for individuals to acquire
or retain great wealth in the markerplace - and which then found itself
it difficult to attract or to hold the capital needed to raise the living
standards of the masses.
Conversely, places where money is easily made, easily repatriated, and lightly taxed have made phenomenal economic progres, even when they have had pathetically few natural resources - Hong Kong as a British colony and Singapore as an independent city-state being classic examples.
It is by no means clear that most of those who earned great wealth in Hong Kong or Singapore did so solely, or even primarily, as a result of personal merit. But to drive out or discourage their capital and entrepeneurship through confiscatory policies would be to sacrifice the standard of living of millions of others, in order to produce income and wealth distribution statistics pleasing to that small number of intellectuals who follow such things.
We reward productivity rather than merit, for the perfectly valid reason that we know how to do it. Moreover, since rewards represent not merely retrospective judgments but prospective inccentives as well, a society can become more produtive by rewarding productivity, whether by encouraging some to work hard to achieve such productivity or by encouraging others to step forward to reveal and apply their existing productivity. Society as a whole has more prosperity when it is more productive.
It is one thing to be bitter because one cannot afford to feed one's children and something very different to be resentful because one cannot afford designer jeans or expensive watches that keep no better time than cheap watches.
With justice, as with
equality, the question is not whether more is better, but whether it is
better at all costs. We need to consider what that who believe in the vision
of cosmic justice seldom want to consider - the nature of those costs and
how they change the very nature of justice itself.
The costs of achieving justice matter - another way of saying the same thing is that 'justice at all costs' is not justice. What, after all, is an injustice but the arbitrary imposition of a cost - whether economic, psychic, or other - on an innocent person? And if correcting this injustice imposes another arbitrary cost on another innocent person, is that not also an injustice?
The time is long overdue to recognize that taxpayers through no fault of their own have been forced to subsidize the moral adventures which exalt self-annnointed social philosophers.
Imagine that a ship is sinking in the ocean with 300 passengers on board and only 200 life-preservers. The only just solution is that everyone drwon. But most of us would probably prefer the unjust solution, that 200 lives be saved, even if they are no more deserving than those who perish.
Adam Smith said that justice was the prime virtue of a society - it was essential for the very existence and survival of any society that there be some predictable order, so that people could pursue their lives with their minds at peace, and not destroy each other and the whole social order with unremitting strife over the distribution of financial or other benefits.
One of the many contrasts between traditional justice and cosmic justice is that traditional justice involves the rules under which flesh-and-blood human beings interact, while cosmic justice encompasses not only contemporary individuals and groups, but also group abstractions extending over generations, or even centuries. Rectifying the past is not one of the options actually available.
The fundamental problem is with the presupposition that social groups would be proportionally represented in various activites or institutions, or at various income levels, in the absence of bias and discrimination. On the contary it is difficult to find any such even representation in any country or in any period of history. Many groups who are in no position to discriminate against anyone are over-represented in high-paying occupations, prestigious academic institutions, and numerous other desirable sectors of the economy and society. Why are different groups so disproportionately represented in so many times and places? Perhaps the simplest answer is that there was no reason to have expected them to be statistically similar in the first place. Geographical, historical, demographic, cultural, and other variables make the vision of an even or random distribution of groups one without foundation.
Much has been witten,
for example, about how small percentages of the population receive large
percentages of the nation's income, or hold some large percentage of the
nation's wealth. The implicit assumption is that we are talking about classes
of people when, in the US at least, we are in fact often talking about
individuals at different stages of their lives.
The vast majority of the wealth of Americans is concentrated in the hands of people over 50 years of age. The average wealth in older families in the US is some multiple of the average wealth in younger families. But these are not differences in social classes. Everyone who is old was young once and all the young are going to be old, except for those who die prematurely.
Studies which have followed individual Americans over a period of years found that most do not stay in the same quintile of the income distribution for as long as a decade. They are older, have more experience, seniority, contacts, clientele. Why would they not be in higher income brackets?
More who began in the bottom 20% had reached the top 20% by the end of the decade tha remained where they were. Yet the 'poor' continue to be identified as the bottom 20%, instead of the 3% who remain at the bottom.
Some of our most renowned intellectuals, not to mention moral and political leaders, commit the same mistake of thinking that it is the same people all the time when they talk about statistical abstractions as if they were talking about flesh-and-blood people who are rich and poor.
The rate of progess of blacks, and especially of low-income blacks, during the era of affirmative action policies has been less than under the 'equal opportunity' polcies which preceded it, or even before equal opportunity policies.
The alternative to
political crusades and government programs is not that we should 'do nothing',
as it is sometimes phrased. There has never been a moment in the entire
history of the US when nothing was being doen to offset the undeserved
misfortunes of the poor and the disadvantaged. The period of greatest opposition
to the role of government in the economy in the 19th century was also a
period of an unprecedented growth of private philanthropy. It was also
a period of provate social uplift by volunteers all across America. Such
efforts, incidentally had a dramatic effect in reducing crime and other
social ills such as alcohilism, so they were hardly ineffectual gestures.
Indeed, they were far more effective than the more massive government-run
programs that began in the 1960s. Organized philanthtopu and individual
efforts to help those born into less fortunate circumstances have been
as widespread among those who have opposed 'political' solutions as mong
those who promoted them - such as Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, William
Carnegie, Henry Ford and Nelson Rockefeller.
Attempts at bettering the lot of society in general, as well as the unfortunate in particular, need not take the form of direct aid at all. Such an approach does not seek to feed the hungry but to establish conditions in which no one has to be hungry in the first place, circumstances in which there are jobs available for those willing to work.
Economic developemt has been the most successful of all anti-poverty policies. It was not very long ago, as history measured, when such things as oranges or cocoa were the luxuries of the rich and when it was considered an extravagance for the President of the United States to have a bthtub with running water installed in the White House. Within the 20th century, such things as autombiles, telephones and refigerators went from being luxuries of the rich to being common among the general population, all within the span of one generation.
#2 THE MIRAGE OF EQUALITY
Many a man has cherished for years as his hobby some vague shadow of an idea, too meaningless to be positively false.
One of the reasons why equality may be impossible to achieve is that merely defining it opens up a bottomless pit of complications. Numbers may be equal because they have only one dimension, magnitude. But equality among multidimensional entities, like human beings, becomes even more problemetical and ultimately arbitrary, quite aside from the difficulties of achieveing whatever equality might be defined. Economic equality, for example, may be achievable only by political measures which reuire vast concentration of power in a relatively few hands in government - and even this may leave untouched the vast spectrum of other inequalities in intelligence, talent, physical appearance, charm, articulation etc which may have more influence on many individuals prospects of happiness than the economic inequalities that have been addressed at such high cost.
People in the bottom
quintile of the income distribution spend nearly two dollars for every
dollar of income they receive. Two-thirds of the statistically defined
poor have air-conditioning, and more than half own a car or truck. Hundreds
of thousands of them own homes costing more than $150,000. Puzzling as
these anomalies might seem if we were discussing an enduring class of genuinely
poor people, they are understandable in a statistical category which includes
In any given year, many entrepeneurs may be earning not only low incomes but negative incomes as their business incur losses. Many members of high-school and college graduating class enter the labor force in the middle of the year, earning only about half of what they will normally be earning when they work the entire year. Unless they find very high-paying jobns, their half-year earnings may well leave them statistically among 'the poor.' In short many of thopse in the bottom 20% of the income distribution are not 'poor' in any meaningful sense and do not live like people who expect to remain there.
A 1996 study found that 80% of all the American millionaires studied earned their fortunes within their own lifetimes. So did an 1892 study.
To prove statistically that the observed pattersn of representation or reward is considered to be virtual proof that they are due to discrimination. The implicit assumption is that a more or less even or random representation or reward for performance could be expected, the absence of institutional or societal policies and practices which disadvantage one group compared to others. Yet there has never been a random world. In the case of many social disparities, the beneficiaries have often been powerless minorities with no way to discriminate against the majority populations of their respective countries. The history of the Jews in Eastern Europe, the 'overseas Chinese' in Southeast Asia and the Lebanese in West Africa are just some of the examples.
In the United States, the median age of Jews is decades older than the median age of Puerto Ricans. Even if Puerto Ricans and Jews were identical in every other respect, they would still not be equally represented, in proportion to their repsective populations, in jobs requiring long years of experience, or in homes for the elderly, or in activities associated with youth, such as sports or crime. The point here is not to claim that age alone explains most income or wealth differences. The point is that age differences alone are enough to preclude the equality that is presumed to exist in the absence of discrimination. There is nothing requiring either special explanation or special justification in the fact that a young man beginning his career in his twenties is unlikely to be earning as much as his father in his forties.
Within given families, there are performance differences on mental tests as between the first-born child and later children. A study if the National Merit Scholarship showed that IQ differences among siblings translated into income differences between them of a magnitude comparable to those between unrelated individuals with different IQs. If you cannot achieve equality of performance among people born to the same parents and raised under the same roof, how realistic is it to expect to achieve it across broader and deeper social divisions?
Some people have claimed that groups also differ genetically in their intellectual potential. We have no need of that hypothesis. Even if every group (or even every individual) had the same genetic potential, along with equal geogrphical backgrounds and cultural developments, differences in demographic characteristics *alone* would still make equality of performance virtually impossible.
Incomes are paid for
services rendered and how much is paid is determined jointly by those individuals
rendering the service and those to whom it is rendered. No one really decides
how much a shoe-shine boy or a dentist is 'really' worth. Each customer
deciudes individually how much it is worth to him to have his shoes shined
or his teeth fixed. Thus the competition of the markerplace produces individual
fees that add up to annual incomes not predetermined by anybody. This ideal
type of market determination of incomes is modified, but not changed essentially,
when people are employed at set salaries. Those more in demand, or less
in supply, are likely to have their salaries set at higher levels.
What all these forms of markert determination of income have in common is that the income is not distributed. It is directly earned in accordance with its value to others and in light of competition from other available sources of the same services. The word 'redistribution' is very deceptive insofar as it implies that we simply have distribution A today and should to distribution B in the future. We are talking about collectivizing and politicizing the economic level of each individual.
The idea that third parties can determine what someone's work is 'really' worth involves not only incredible arrogance but intellectual confusion. The very fact that an exchange takes place at all is inconsistent with the existence of any 'real' value that can be objectively discerned by anybody. Someone who pays a quarter for a morning newspaper does so because the value of the newspaper to him is greater than the value of the quarter. But the seller accepts the quarter because the quarter is worth more to him than the newspaper. If there were any such thing as an objective value of a newspaper, one of those transactors must be a fool. The same is true of any other transactions undertaken in a free market, whether what is being bought and sold are television sets or soybean futures. There is no 'real' worth to compare.
Disregard of effects on third parties are also common on such issues as taxes, price controls, and law enforcement. Tax issues are not simply about whether one class pays more than another, but are also about the repercussions of particular kinds of taxes on economic development and national employment, which affect everyone. Price controls on food have often led to widespread hunger and malnutrition, as suppliers reduced their production and sales of food when this became unprofitable. Undermining law enforcement because of its perceived unfairness to the poor led to skyrocketing crime rates which hurt the poor worst of all. Envy may cause issues to be seen in terms transferring benefits from A to B. But policies conceived of this way as tranfers do not simply transfer. They change behaviour in general and in fundamental ways. For example, price controls almost inevitably lead to declines in the quantity and quality of what is spllied, to hoarding, and to black markets - whether the price that is being controlled is that of food, housing, gasoline, medical service, or other goods and services.
#3 THE TYRANNY OF VISIONS
"The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, whatever the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour."
(On the opposite side) Friedrich Hayek, laissez-faire theorist, in particular went out of his way to praise the good intentions of his opponents and to say the dire consequences he expected from their activities were the furthest things from the humane objectives they were seeking.
The question as to
which methoid of avoiding war in fact tends to produce the desired result
and which turns out to be counterproductive receives remarkably little
empirical examination from the annointed visionaries. It is the quest for
peace, like the quest for cosmic justice, that exalts them morally - irrespective
of whether their strategy actually reduces the dangers of war or even increases
those dangers. Here, as in other expressions of cosmic visions, result
are not the test. Taking a moral stand is the test, as economist Roy Harrod
discovered at a 1934 rally of the British Labour Party. A Labour Party
candidate proclaimed that Britian ought to disarm 'as an example to others'
- a very common argument at that time.
'You think our example will cause Hitler and Mussolini to disarm?'
'Oh Roy, have you lost all your idealism?'
(Before the Second World War)... the irrelevent argument that the people of various countries did not want war proved to be as poloitically indestructible as it was fallacious as an indicator of what the governments of those countries were likely to do.
An obviously aggressive
nation, such as Nazi Germany during the 1930s, launches a military buildup
in order to accomplish its goals by force or the threat of force, while
those who build up counter-force are seeking to avoid being attacked or
forced into surrender. If a defensive military buildup - an arms race -
fails to secure any net advantage whatever against the aggressor, it is
nevertheless a huge success if it prevents aggression or the need to surrender.
From the standpoint of the non-aggressor nation, it is not trying to gain anything at the expense of anybody else, but simply recognizes the grim reality that military prepardness is part of the price of maintaining the peace, independence, and freedom that they already have.
If military deterrence permits that to be done without bloodshed, it is not a watse because the arms are never used, but instead is a bargain because they were formidable enough that they did not have to be used, nor lives sacrificed in the carnage of war.
If one assumes that other human beings are basically rational, like oneself, then potential aggressors - whether international or ordinary criminals at home - can be expected to calculate the prospects of success and to be more inclined to take a chance where one's potential victims are weakest.
No country has the
unlimited resources implied in the argument that an unending spiral of
armaments will ensue. Moreover, some countries will reach their economic
limits before others. In a later era, President Ronald Reagan understood
this very clearly when he explained to a horrified group of Washington
Post journalists that he intended to win the arms race with the Soviet
Union, because American resources greatly exceeded that of the USSR, so
that Soviet leaders would ultimately be forced to the bargaining table
to begin reducing their threatening nuclear arsenal and scale back their
To the equal disbelief and disdain of many, he likewise said on more than one occasion that we were seeing the last days of the Soviet Union, which could not take the combined strains of their own counterproductive economic system and foreign military adventures. The fact that events proved him right has done absolutely nothing to rehabilitate President Reagan in the eyes of those to whom evidence has never been more important than the vision on which their own egos depend.
If war is so futile, why then were there tears of relief and gratitude when the peoples of Western Europe were liberated from their Nazi conquerors by the invading Allied armies and when those in slave labour camps and extermination camps were freed? Was it futile to occupy a defeated Germany and Japan, rooting out their centuries-old traditions of militarism that had brought such terror and havoc to their neighbours? Was the American Civil War futile in freeing millions of human beings from slavery? The 'futility of war' is an exhilarating set of sounds rather than a set of statement to be tested seriously against facts. Some wars are indeed futile. Some are not.
At the end of the Second World War, Churchill looked back and said: 'There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action that the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe.' But such timely action to deter war with armaments an military alliances, as Churchill had urged throughout the 1930s, would not have exalted the annointed visionaries, as their champions of opposite policies did. The British, American, and other Allied soldiers who paid with their lives in the early years of the war for the quantitatively inadequate and qualitatively obsolete military equipment that was a legacy of interwar pacifism were among the most tragic of many third parties who have paid the price of other people's exalted visions and self-congratulation.
The peak of the new trend that Reagan set in motion came with the American military action in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, when the much-lamented military spending of the 1980s paid off under the Bush administration when abundant, high-tech military equipment led to a swift victory with remarkably few American casualties, despite many dire predictions of a bloodbath on the battlefield.
If the tyranny of visions can prevail in questions of war and peace - which os to say, life-and-death questions for both individuals and societies - it should hardly be surprising that the same tyranny can prevail in visions of social and economic activity. Perhaps no vision underlies more social and economic theories than the vision of the rich robbing the poor, whether in a given society or among nations. The belief that the poor are poor because the rich are rich is reflected in such expressions as 'the dispossessed', or 'the exploited', as well as in more elaborate theories ranging from Marxism and Lenin's theory of imperialism to modern dependancy theory.
Can people who never possessed be dispossessed? Can they be plundered for riches they never had? If the goal were to test the belief that the wealth of the wealthy derives from the poverty of the poor, then one might, for example, see if countries that abounded in millionaires and billionaires had poorer people than countries that do not. Among nations, it would be possible to see whether the acquisition of colonies led to an accelerates enrichment of the imperialist nations and whther the loss of such colonies led to economic setbacks in the imperialist nations and/or improved prosperity among the liberated peoples.
For the period covered
by Lenin's data and doctrine - the late 19th and early 20th century - the
United States was the leading recipient of British, German, and Dutch capital.
At the time when Lenin wrote, the British Empire was the largest empire
in the world, encompassing one-fourth of the earth's land and one-fourth
of the world's population. Contrary to Lenin, however, its investments
did not go primarily to its imperial possessions. Its greatest investments
were in another industrial country, the United States, which receieved
more British investments than all of Asia or all of Africa or all of Latin
Britain's other major overseas investments were also in European offshoot societies aand economies in Australia, Canada, Rhodesia and South Africa. Nor was Britian unique in this pattern. France and Germany were likewise reluctant to sink much of their money into Africa, for example, and commercial trade with Africa was similarly trivial for the economies of the European imperial powers.
On the eve of the First
World War, Germany exported more than five times as much to a small country
like Belgium as to its colonial empire, which was larger than Germany itself.
France likewise exported ten times as much to Belgium as to all its vast
holdings in Africa, which were larger than France. Out of Germany's total
exports to the world, less than 1% went to its colonies in Africa. The
United States invested more in Canada than in all of Asia and Africa put
In short, the huge and heterogenous categories used in Lenin's Imperialism concealed evidence that showed the direct opposite of what this classic work of propaganda proclaimed. The idea that the non-industrial world offered a safety valve outlet for the 'surplus' capital of the industrial world cannot stand up if industrial nations are investing primarily in each other.
The same story can
be told today of reformers who decry 'sweatshop labor' in Third World countries
that export their products to the United States to be sold by American
stores. Nothing is easier than to take cheap shots at those stores for
'exploiting' Third World people - and nothing will hurt those Third World
people more surely than losing one of their few meager opportunities to
earn incomes by producing at lower costs than more fortunate people in
more industrialized nations.
Imposing American wages or American working conditions on people who not have have American productivity means pricing many of those people out of a job. It is reducing their options, rather than adding to those options. Like so much that is done in the quest for cosmic justice, it makes observers feel better about themselves - and provides no incentives for those observers to scrutinize the consequences of their actions on the ostensible beneficiaries.
As an economist described someone who passionately advocated particular economic policies, without the most elementary knowledge of economic analysis and with little or no concern for empirical consequences, 'he asks not whether it is water or gasoline he is tossing on the economic fire - he asks only whether it is a well-intended act.'
Similarly, some of
the most passionate opponents of the American involvement in the Vietnam
war, ostensibly on grounds of the sufferings of the Indochinese peoples
from the military conflict there, were not nearly as concerned about the
fate of these peoples after the Americans left.
'Their moral amnesia allowed them to ignore the fact that more Indochinese people were killed in the first two years of the Communist peace than had been killed on all sides in a decade of the anti-Communist war.'
Those who opposed the war from the perspective of an ideological vision created no such uproar over the sufferings of the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos after the Communist victories in Indochina. It was the vision that mattered, not the flesh-and-blood human beings who were viewed as the incidental casualties of the vision.
The middle classes
have been classically people of rules, traditions and self-discipline,
to a far greater extent than the underclass below them or the wealthy and
aristocratic classes above them. While the underclass pay the price of
not having the self-discipline of the bourgeoisie - in many ways, ranging
from poverty to imprisonment - the truly wealthy and powerful can often
disregard the rules, including the laws, without paying the consequences.
Those with cosmic visions seek escape from social constraints regarded
as arbitary, rather than inherent.
Rules, traditions and self-discipline all represent guidance from the distilled experience of others, rather than self-indulgence based on the inner light of one's own vision. It is almost axiomatic that those with cosmic visions must disdain the bourgeoisie. The visionaries must also disdain the kind of society that evolves over the generations through experience, rather than the kind of society that can be created by the imposition of an inspired vision.
#4 THE QUIET REPEAL OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
"By the rude bridge
that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world."
What many call 'society' is in fact civilization. No one is openly opposed to American civilization, nor even covertly plotting its demise. Many of those pursuing a vision of cosmic justice simply take an adversarial position against traditions, morals, and instiutions that make the survival of this civilization possible. The prerequisites of society are not an interesting subject to those who concentrate on its shortcomings - that is, on the extent to which what currently exists as the fruits of centuries of efforts and sacrifices in inferior to what they can produce in their imagination immediately at zero cost.
Laws are not simply
edicts backed by the power to enforce them. All socieities proclaim duties
and prohibitions which they are perpared to enforce, but not all societies
have the rule of law. Neither the individual tyranny of a despot nor the
collective tyranny of a totalitarian political party under communism or
fascism represents the rule of law, even though there may be many indivividual
laws under both forms of government. The rule of law - a government of
laws and not of men - implies rules known in advance, applied generally,
and constarining the rulers as well as the ruled. Freedom implies exemptions
from the power of the rulers and a corresponding limitation on the scope
of all laws, even those of democratically elected governments.
'Congress shall make no law-' the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States begings in spelling out some of the exemptions from laws which constitute the right of freedom. Democracy implies majority sanction as the basis for laws, but democracy by itself implies nothing about either freedom or the rule of law. A majority may destroy the freedom of a minority or make the issuance of edicts as arbitrary and discriminatory as it wishes.
Among the forces driving democratic governments toward an expansion of their powers beyond the point where those powers threaten freedom is that not only people of towering genius or towering presumptions, but also people of towering ambitions have a vested interest in such an expansion. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it: 'It may easily be seen that almost all able and ambitious members of a democratic community will labor inceasingly to extend the powers of government, because they all hope at some time or other to wield those powers themselves.'
Rules equally applicable to all are not the same as rules with equal impact on all. Anatole France dramatized the distinction in his fanour sarcastic remark: 'The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.' In today's American legal doctrine, that is called 'disparate impact.' James FitzJames Stephen pointed out in 1873 that every law and every moral rule, being general propositions, 'must affect indiscriminately rather than equally'.
In principle, a private individual can evict from his home anyone who uses the word 'broccoli' but it would be a violation of the constituional right to free speech for the government to forbid the use of this word, either to general or even just within that same house.
In summary, cosmic justice attempts to create equal results or equal prospects, with little or no regard for whether the individual or groups involved are in equal circumstances or have equal capabilities or equal drives. To do this, it cannot operate under general rules, the essence of law, but must create categories of people entitled to various outcomes, regardless of their own inputs.
It has been claimed that the Chinese minority in colonial Malaya was favoured by the policies of the British rulers there because the Chinese prospered more so than the Malays under those policies and Chinese children went on to higher education more often than Malay children did. Indeed, even after Colonial Malaya became the independent nation of Malaysia, the Chinese continued for some time to outnumber Malay students at the University of Malaysia. Yet it was also true that the British colonial government provided free education for the Malays, while the Chinese had to pay to have their own children educated. In both the colonial era and in the era of independence, Malays had rights that the Chinese did not have.
From a cosmic perspective,
in whatever circumstances A does better than B, those circumstances can
be said to be circumstances 'favoring' A. Note that there cannot be any
such thing as overcoming disadvantages in this formulation.
If businesses set up by poor Lebanese immigrants in colonial West Africa did better in competition with businesses set up there by more prosperous Europeans, then by cosmic definition that was because of Lebanese 'advantages' - which consisted in this case of their being willing to work harder and longer hours, charging lower prices, accepting lower profits and a lower standard of living.
In short, performance differences between groups vanish into thin air by being subsumed under the concept of 'advantages' or favorably biased prospects, even when the same prospects were available to both groups but only one group made the choices or the sacrifices, or had the capabilities, to make use of these prospects.
In their seeming simplicity, concepts of 'advantage' and 'disadvantage' can be treacherously misleading. While some advantages are simply differential benefits to one individual or group at the expense of some other individual or group - a zero sum game - other things that are called 'advantages' are in fact net benefits to the whole society that are unequally available to the various members of that society.
Among the first rights
to be sacrificed in the quest for cosmic justice are property rights. However,
just as freedom of the press does not exist for the sake of that tiny minority
of the population who are journalists, so property rights do not exist
for the sake of those people with substansial property holdings. Both rights
exist to serve social purposes reaching far beyond those who actually exercise
The whole operation of a democratic political system, and the kind of freedom it is intended to safeguard, would be undermined or destroyed of political power-holders could forbid journalists from saying things that were politically embarassing by censoring the press 'in the national interest' or by some other rationale. Such a power would be a blank check for violating all the other rights guaranteed by the Constitution to the population at large, for those violations could all be covered up if the press were controlled by the politicians. In short, the principle beneficiaries of the right of freedom of the press are people who are not part of the press.
A free market economy is as much dependent on property rights as the polotical system is on free speech rights. For a nation's investments to flow to those uses most highly valued by the consuming public, those who own assets must be free to deploy those assets where they can earn the highest return. For huge undertakings, such as building a railroad system or creating factories that will manufacture millions of automobiles, individuals must be allowed to accumulate vast aggregations of wealth - whether their own or those of stockholders.
The easiest way to
see the effects of property rights is to see what happens in their absence
or curtailment. Government abolition of private property in agricultural
land has created food shortages in countries around the world, among people
of every race, and in political systems of many sorts - even in countries
that were once exporters of food from Eastern Europe or sub-Saharan Africa.
Malnutrition and starvation were the price of collectivization of agriculture
in the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Yet the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in general contained some of the most fertile land in the world and historically this region exported vast amounts of grain to Western Europe and elsewhere - before property rights in land were abolished. Moreover, The small plots of land that the Soviet government allowed individuals to cultivate on their own produced an entirely disproportionate amount of the agricultural output of the country. Nor was this unique as a dramatic demonstration of the difference between what people will produce for the benefit of themselves and their families, as compared to what they will produce when their rewards are constrained in the name of some larger collectivity.
Mere curtailment of
property rights has often prodcued serious economic problems. Even when
property is allowed to remain in private hands, but the price charged by
property owners is restricted by law, detrimental effects on output, product
quality, and availability have been common around the world and over thousands
of years of history. All too often, mass hunger has followed in the wake
of price controls on food, whether in the era of the French revolution,
in modern African nations, or in Asia. Similarly, housing shortages have
followed rent control, whether in New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Melbourne,
Stockholm, or other places around the world. Price controls on medical
treatment have led to long waiting lines in doctors' offices and long waiting
lists for operations, whether in China, Europe, or elsewhere.
The property rights guaranteed to the few are essential to the economic well-being of the many, just as the freedom of the press is not just a special interest benefit to journalists.
A judge cannot do justice in the cases before him. When asked to 'Do justice, sir, do justice', Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes replied 'That is not my job, it is my job to apply the law.' Holmes wrote that his primary responsibility as a judge was 'to see the game is played according to the rules whether I like them or not.'
As Judge Robert Bork put it, 'Justice is for the Congress and the President to administer, if they see fit, through the creation of new law.' It might seem that, if justice is something desirable in law, then the question of who puts it there is secondary, if not trivial. On the contrary, however, the seperation of roles in creating law is crucial to the preservation of the rule of law itself.
The case for upholding legal principles, known and relied upon by others, is precisely that it can be done, and done while preserving a free society, whears playing cases by ear requires far more knowledge than anyone possesses and is incompatible with the rule of law and the freedom which depends on that rule. Christians and Jews were able to prosper in business under the dependable laws of the Ottoman Empire, even though these laws denied them equality and made them subordinate in many ways to Moslems.
When an athlete is offered a multimillion dollar contract to play football, that may well modify any previous plans he had to become a dentist or an accountant. Few people would regard that as a restriction of his pre-existing options. On the contrary, it is adding an option that may prove to be far more attractive, though the athlete remains free to make any of the other choices that were available to him before.
Despite numerous studies showing that the amount of money spent per pupil has little or no effect on the quality of education, federal officials are constantly pushing for an expansion of federal aid to education. However little effect this money will have on the quality of these children's education, it has had an enormous effect of federal power. This money may not buy a better education for the students but it unquestionably buys up the freedom of parents, voters, and local authorities, and transfers decision-making to Washington.
The ideal of impartiality in the law, exemplified by statues of Justice blindfoled, implies that particular results for particular individuals and groups are to be disregarded when dispensing justice. It is precisely this conception of justice - at the heart of the American revoltuion - that is being disregarded. As was aptly said : "The blindfolded Goddess of Justice has been encouraged to peek and she now says, with the jurists of the ancient regime, 'First tell me who you are and then I'll tell you what your rights are.'
In politics the great non sequitur of out time is that (1) things are not right and that (2) the government should make them right. Where right all too often means cosmic justice, trying to set things right means writing a blank check for a never-ending expansion of government power. That in turn means the quiet and piecemeal repeal of the American revolution and the freedom that it signified as an ideal for everyone. It means muffling the shot that was heard around the world and bringing back the old idea that some are booted and spurred to ride others. That they are riding with a heady sense of moral mission and personal gratification only makes them more dangerous.
Such moral and intellectual arrogance is in fundamental and irreconcilable conflict with the American creed of the common man. Someone once referred to the masses of immigrants coming to the United States as 'the beaten men of beaten races.' In one sense he was right, but in a deeper sense, history has proved him wrong. From its colonial beginnings, American society was a 'decapitated' society - largely lacking the topmost social layers of European society. The rise of American society to pre-eminence as an economic, political and military power in the world was thus the triumph of the common man and a slap across the face to the presumptions of the arrogant, whether an elite of blood or books.
Plain facts are easily
forgotten and their crucial implications ignored when the whole orientation
is toward finding fault with one's own country and seeking to 'learn' from
others. What that means too often in practice is that one focusses only
on the flaws at home and only on the virtues - or assumed virtues - abroad.
Thus Americans may fail to ask why American is one of a relative handful
of rare exceptions among the countries in the world in having freedom,
prosperity, military secuity, and social generosity. All these things may
be of-coursed aside and the prerequisites for such benefits overlooked.
For foreign countries, claimed virtues are all too readily accepted as
realized virtues, whether these be 'social justice' in Communist countries
or spirituality in India.
It simply does not matter how many brides are beaten or even killed in India because their dowries are disappointing, nor does the continued oppression of the untouchables makes a dent on the image of India as a land that has transcended the materialism and violence of the United States.
What is important -
and more dangerous - is that there is little sense of the institutions
and traditions which produce the enormous social and economic good fortune
of Americans - and therefore little or no sense of the dangers from letting
those institutions and traditions erode or be pushed aside for the sake
of some political goal of the moment. Much of the world today and down
through the centuries of history has suffered the terrible consequences
of unbridled government power, the prime evil that the writers of the American
Constitution sought to guard against.
Judges who 'interpret' constitutional safeguards out of existence for the sake of some ideological crusade, presidents who over-reach their authority for personal or political reasons, and a Congress whose powers are extended into matters that the Constiution never empowered them to legislate about are all part of the quiet repeal of the American revolution.
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