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I have been thinking about the way one poster formulated the–ack, I don’t have a word for it.  Maybe instead of “formulated” I should have said “described.”

The poster said that the students in our classes show varying degrees of ability and achievement, and that those varying degrees of ability and achievement are sometimes genetic, sometimes environmental, and sometimes behavioral, and always some combination of the three.

What interested me was not so much the formulation itself as the unstated but clear assumption that we need to “do” something about this situation.  It’s an interesting idea, on a number of levels, not the least of it being the fact that it is thoroughly modern.  The world existed for millennia without doing anything about what most of its inhabitants would have considered the obvious state of things.

The assumption exists because of another assumption, also unstated but very widely held:  that if differences exist in the material well being of individuals and families, then those differences need to be justified.  If there is no justification for them–if the individuals who get the most haven’t “earned” it–then the situation is not fair, and should be either eliminated or alleviated.

The unstated assumption goes farther than this, I think.  It assumes that “earning” it means that you have obtained whatever advantage you have from a deliberate act of your will–from working hard, and not from advantages you were born with and did nothing to acquire on your own.

Gene Tierney was born looking like that.  She did nothing to earn it, and yet it made it possible for her to be rich and famous in a way most other women could not.   There was no level playing field between Tierney and the girl who worked at the drugstore in her town.  One of them was born beautiful and the other was not.  Therefore, Tierney’s relative wealth and happiness was not fair and should not be tolerated without some attempt to allieve the lesser fortune of the drug store clerk.

I am, of course, simplifying this enormously.  I do not, however, think I’m misstating the position.

And the position is so common–the idea that there can be no justification for differences in outcome that are not caused entirely by “merit”–that most of us spend little time thinking about it, never mind examining it. 

And yet it is, really, a new thing under the sun.  It would not have been considered obvious to most people even 50 years ago.  It didn’t exist as an idea when Shakesepeare wrote his plays.

Let’s look, for a minute, at the three possible reasons for unequal outcomes:

1) genetic–some people just are born prettier, smarter, more talented than other people.

2) environmental–some people have better families, live in places with better schools, come from countries or family background that just have access to more resources. 

3) behavioral–some people work hard and perservere.  Some people spend their time drinking Smirnoff out of the bottle and buying scratch tickets.

Of the three categories above, I think we tend to think of the third as the least problematic.  Of course people who work hard and behave themselves should do better than people who slack off or indulge in mind-altering substances to the exclusion of all else.

The fact is that category (3) is very problematic, and in numerous ways.

Let’s take, for instance, the case of firefighters, police officers and soldiers–and, for that matter, stray civilians who take the responsibility of helping their fellows in a crisis of some kind.

The guy who leaps into the street and pushes the three year old out of the path of the oncoming truck, only to get hit himself, may have behaved admirably only to be rewarded by a lifelong disability.  That disability will almost certainly make him less materially successful than he would have been without it–or at least the percentages run that way. 

And his single act of heroism may impact not only himself, but his family–may make it impossible for him to put his kids through college or to take care of his mother in her old age.  His marriage may  not survive the years of care he’ll  need.  His mental health may not survive it, either.

I think we all respond instinctively to this scenario–that it is “not fair,’  and that something should be done to alleviate the afteraffects of the man’s decision.

And underneath the confusion of “fair” talk–and talk about what is “fair” is always confused–there is something real and important:  the reason we feel that category (3) outcomes should be accepted as merited lies at least as much in the fact that we want to encourage good behavior and discourage bad.

What we want is to ensure that more people take responsibility for their lives and contribute to society and fewer contribute nothing and become destructive to themselves and the world around them.

But the first responders–the people who take responsibity even when they don’t have to, especially–are the most important contributors to any society.  The more of them we have, the less will be the damage from any crisis, large or small.

Think about those nursing home residents left to drown as the staff at their facility fled the waters of Katrina.  The staff members were condemned and investigated even though doing what we wanted them to do–staying with the patients and putting their needs first–was not in their immediate or long-term self interest.

Doing what we wanted them to do, however, might have made the destructive effect of that storm just a little less awful than it was. 

It would have done so even if the staff had been able to do nothing but calm the fears and panic among the elderly patients before they all died anyway.

What also makes the third category problematic, however, is that it makes another assumption that doesn’t quite work out in the real world–that the harder you work, the more successful you’ll be, and you’ll definitely be more successful than somebody who does not work as hard.

In some areas of life, this is pretty near absolutely true.  In my town there is a family who has recently come over here from China.  The children, who are in local schools, are beginning to speak halfway decent English.  The parents and grandparents do not, and probably never will.

What they do do–all of them–is work like slaves.  They began working in local Chinese restaurants.  They lived in cheap rental apartments, often sleeping six or seven to a room, buying their clothes from thrift shops, socking away every cent.  Then they opened their own small restaurant, and worked that too. Then they opened a laundry next door. 

Give them another ten or fifteen years, and they’re going to be very well off.  Give them another 25, and you’ll probably going to be able to call them rich.

When I bring up instances like this, I often get told that “everybody can’t do that.”  And I think I’ll hold with Larry Block’s old proverb–everybody can’t, but anybody can.

Chance can certainly intervene–accidents, sickness–but in general, my father was right:  anybody can get rich if that’s all he wants.

The squiffy thing about “work hard and you’ll get ahead,” though, is that in some fields, how hard you have to work will be determined at least in part by factors outside your conscious control (inborn talent, say). 

A naturally gifted actor who works hard will definitely have more success than a naturally gifted actor who coasts, at least in the long run–but both of them will have more success than an actor with no talent, no matter how hard he works.

It is the recognition of this that accounts for so many actors and actresses being so determinedly lefty.  If we only deserve what we have worked for, then the fact that we only manage to get where we are through inherited advantages like good looks, charisma and natural acting ability means we don’t deserve what we have.

It’s difficult to find anybody, anywhere, who becomes successful “by merit alone.”   Or, as Thomas Sowell insists–and I think he’s right–performance.  It’s how we perform that makes the difference, not some innate quality of “merit.”

The question then becomes whether it is possible for anyone to fail entirely “by merit [performance] alone.”

And that I think I’ll leave until tomorrow, along with the other two categories.

It’s going to be a wretchedly hot and humid day.

Written by janeh

August 4th, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Fair'

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  1. A couple of stray points. First, I noticed that post, and was thinking at the time that for behavior to be something different than genetics and environment, you have to have something other than genetics and environment dictate behavior. As a Methodist, I’m OK with that, but I’m not sure that it was properly worked through.
    Second, you obviously can eliminate differences brought about by behavior. You can make the rewards of diligence and frugality the same as the rewards of sloth and waste. I would prefer to be elsewhere while the Great Experiment is carried out, of course, but it would still be better than equalizing genetic heritage, which can only be done downwards–except by euthanasia.

    Main point. I don’t worry about the ethics of enforcing equal outcomes–even setting aside DNA–because it can’t be done.
    Consider. It would have to be done by government. Someone has to decide what is unequal and what the suitable punishment or compensation ought to be, and to be able to enforce that decision. It can’t even be democratic government. Even apart from corruption–and a sufficiently powerful government will be corrupt–there’s nothing in the least undemocratic about oppressing or otherwise exploiting a minority. Read about the last 2,000 years of Jewish history for a start.
    So to pursue the egalitarian dream we need a government of absolute power, not bound by democracy, but committed to the principle of equality. This would be, say–setting aside National Socialist Germany–Pol Pot’s Democratic Campuchea, the early Bolshevik Soviet Union and Mao’s People’s Republic. And have any of the advocates really looked at the last survivor, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Apart from being bits of Hell brought to earth, none of them were notably equal even in material things.

    The rulers, being people and with absolute power, were, of course, corrupted. They lived well themselves, and they made sure their children had the best possible starts in life. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Mao lived in palaces, and the children of people with low Party membership numbers had cushy jobs, good educations and tailored Mao jackets. Much the same for Stalin’s inner circle, who sent a cleaning lady to the Gulag for bringing table scraps home to her family. Read THE AQUARIUMS OF PYONGYANG on the current state of the DPRK. This would not surprise anyone but the advocates of mandatory material equality, who always imagine that when THEY are in charge, things will be different.

    Or at least that’s what they keep telling the rest of us.


    4 Aug 11 at 6:28 pm

  2. I’ve always thought of equality or fairness in terms of one person sitting on a throne looking down at everyone else crawling on the floor and saying “that person has too much” and “that one has too little.”

    Robert is right. The people deciding who has too much or too little will have too much power.

    Perhaps society should provide a safety net but why should it enforce an upper limit? So long as no one starves, I have no objection to one person eating fillet mignon and strawberry shortcake while someone else eats lentils and rice.


    4 Aug 11 at 6:42 pm

  3. Robert’s “absolute equality” government reminds me of the John Varley story called “The Barbie Murders.” In it, a community of people who believe in absolute equality in *all things* including physical appearance and personality, live in the moon.

    They all get the same body modifications, to appear somewhat like barbie dolls, thus the title. Male AND female. No genitalia, so no sex to divide people. Every evening, they get together in one large group and share every detail of their experience of the day, so that the entire group shares that experience, and so becomes more similar to one another. No private thoughts. No particular leaders, anyone can fill those roles, at random.

    The drama of the story is provided by two perverts among them who commit murder to cover their perversion, which is to wear wigs, regular clothes and merkins, hide away from the group, and (gasp!) have sex.

    Although these people were participating in this odd cult voluntarily, it occurred to me that the culmination of Robert’s “absolutely powerful government with the single aim of total equality” would end up something like that. Perhaps forcing people to marry someone of a different ethnicity, so that within 3 generations all people would essentially be the same color. Or forcing smart people to marry stupid ones, so everyone ended up within 10 points of average IQ. You can’t make clumsy people run faster, but you can certainly hobble the fleet ones. Mediocrity would become the ideal. Whack-a-mole would become a sacrament, and a model for dealing with the unique.

    jd, the problem with your concept of equality is that while it seems reasonable, there’s no telling where someone else, particularly someone in power, is going to draw the line. Maybe they feel that if everyone can’t have strawberry shortcake, the solution is to eliminate strawberries altogether. Then you could grow more lentils.

    Unfortunately, the real solution to most of our problems comes from the exceptional end of the spectrum, the geniuses in various fields who are so maligned by the vast middle. Creating wealth, from scratch, the way Bill Gates has, is a kind of genius. Do we want to cripple and limit the upper reaches of achievement, so those who will never reach that can feel they’re “just as good,” even though they clearly are not?

    I don’t want anyone to starve, or lack opportunity. Tends to clutter up the public spaces and encourage crime. But beyond providing opportunity, I’m not sure what our obligations are. It’s certainly not to provide false reassurance that we’re all the same in every way, really, you’re just as smart as anyone else, just as clever, just as pretty.

    Funny thing…the other day I was driving past South Central LA on the freeway. Street after street of very poor people’s housing. You know what? Nearly every rooftop had at least one satellite dish, and you know most of those “poor” people have at least one TV. The poor in the US, in fact most of the western world, are far better off than most middle class or wealthy people throughout history, if you consider food, medical care, sanitation, and available entertainment. People in Africa who try to live on less than a dollar a day…THOSE people are poor.

    I am unabashed in saying that I *want* there to be superior people, and I want them to be given the opportunity to become great, because their greatness will benefit us all. That is NOT the same as saying I want them to direct the lives of anyone but themselves. I also respect the rights of the average and below average to be self-determining, and to make mistakes, and to screw their lives up.

    I don’t know how we move from “everybody should end up equal, no matter what they started with or how they worked” to “everybody is equally worthy of respect and self-determination, no matter what they end up with.”

    The first destroys the ambition of individuals, and leads to a poorer society. The second gives dignity even to those who fail, or could never have succeeded.


    4 Aug 11 at 7:23 pm

  4. I failed to give credit where I meant to. The first author I ran into who asked just how far equality could be pushed was Jerome K. Jerome, author of THREE MEN IN A BOAT, in a short story whose title, alas, I cannot remember. He was a regular wargame companion of HG Wells, and I expect they exchanged a few words on the subject.


    4 Aug 11 at 7:44 pm

  5. I don’t know how we move from “everybody should end up equal, no matter what they started with or how they worked” to “everybody is equally worthy of respect and self-determination, no matter what they end up with.”

    Well, if you start with the idea that everyone is equally worthy of respect and self-determination, everyone would at least have a place in society regardless of wealth or ability or personal difficulties and failings. You wouldn’t get equality of outcome, of course, but you’d have some protection against mistreating both those who achieve and those who don’t. That’s the old equal before God argument, of course, and needs to be combined with a strong idea of duty towards others to ensure that the really desperate cases get fed and housed.

    We can’t, no way no how, ensure equal outcomes. I was quite interested in the idea of ensuring equal opportunity instead, but more recently I’ve become convinced that although help getting over barriers (school lunch programs, tutoring etc) can help, there’s not only no way to ensure everyone gets an equal crack at whatever they want, it’s certain they won’t. And this isn’t just because some people are born without the talent they need to excel in the field they choose, it’s because in some cases the barriers caused by poverty and family support (or lack thereof) and similar factors are never going to be eliminated. There’s no perfection on this earth – which is no excuse for not trying to improve things; just a warning not to expect to achieve perfection.

    When I read about Mao and such, I wonder to what extent did they admit to themselves how tragically badly their utopian plans for perfect equality failed.


    4 Aug 11 at 8:07 pm

  6. I think it was Thomas Sowell in his autobiography who made the very telling point about affirmative action as interpreted by some modern universities, including, I think, even places like Harvard, to the effect that if you wouldn’t send your own family to a medical doctor graduated on dumbed down standards, why should African Americans and other minorities be expected to do so.

    We choose not to license pilots who do not demonstrate a minimal standard of competence in all relevant skill areas, and we take considerable care and go to great expense to prevent people without those skills and relevant qualifications and experience from getting behind the controls of an aircraft in controlled airspace at least, regardless of their wealth, political or other influence.

    Equality of outcomes is a fantasy. Unfortunately, to many of those sorts of fantasists have gained control of the educational asylums here in Australia.


    4 Aug 11 at 9:43 pm

  7. I don’t propose imposing equality, a level playing field, and “fairness,” or confiscating/taxing away large percentages of earned or unearned income and property. That has been tried, never works well. I don’t tell people that behaving well (by some standard) should or will be rewarded generously or that behaving badly (by some standard) should or will have negative consequences. That seems disingenuous and dishonest. I doubt that eliminating strawberries or satellite dishes in the projects would create a heaven on earth. I’ve never seen a regulation that couldn’t be subverted. Doing social work, being married to a war gamer, and seeing my daughter find herself when she was a Head Start mother have been edifying.

    Although many societies value “honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion.” (See R.M. Kidder, Moral Courage) doing nothing about those who have little or nothing has been characteristic of societies for millennia. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has always been a serious question. Life would be simpler if all the brothers out there would take care of themselves. However, life isn’t simple, and many can’t or don’t take care of themselves, which “tends to clutter up the public spaces and encourage crime.” I’m looking forward to what Jane has to say about the other two points.

    The heat is miserable here, but it’s a dry heat.


    4 Aug 11 at 10:03 pm

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