‘Fairness’ and Other Weasel Words

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Since this is an election year, we can expect to hear a lot of words — and the meaning of those words is not always clear. So it may be helpful to have a glossary of political terms.

One of the most versatile terms in the political vocabulary is “fairness.” It has been used over a vast range of issues, from “fair trade” laws to the Fair Labor Standards Act. And recently we have heard that the rich don’t pay their “fair share” of taxes.

Some of us may want to see a definition of what is “fair.” But a concrete definition would destroy the versatility of the word, which is what makes it so useful politically.

If you said, for example, that 46.7 percent of their income — or any other number — is the “fair share” of their income that the rich should have to pay in taxes, then once they paid that amount, there would be no basis for politicians to come back to them for more — and “more” is what “fair share” means in practice.

Life in general has never been even close to fair, so the pretense that the government can make it fair is a valuable and inexhaustible asset to politicians who want to expand government.

“Racism” is another term we can expect to hear a lot this election year, especially if the public opinion polls are going against President Barack Obama.

Former big-time TV journalist Sam Donaldson and current fledgling CNN host Don Lemon have already proclaimed racism to be the reason for criticisms of Obama, and we can expect more and more other talking heads to say the same thing as the election campaign goes on. The word “racism” is like ketchup. It can be put on practically anything — and demanding evidence makes you a “racist.”

A more positive term that is likely to be heard a lot, during election years especially, is “compassion.” But what does it mean concretely? More often than not, in practice it means a willingness to spend the taxpayers’ money in ways that will increase the spender’s chances of getting reelected.

If you are skeptical — or, worse yet, critical — of this practice, then you qualify for a different political label: “mean-spirited.” A related political label is “greedy.”

In the political language of today, people who want to keep what they have earned are said to be “greedy,” while those who wish to take their earnings from them and give it to others (who will vote for them in return) show “compassion.”

A political term that had me baffled for a long time was “the hungry.” Since we all get hungry, it was not obvious to me how you single out some particular segment of the population to refer to as “the hungry.”

Eventually, over the years, it finally dawned on me what the distinction was. People who make no provision to feed themselves, but expect others to provide food for them, are those whom politicians and the media refer to as “the hungry.”

Those who meet this definition may have money for alcohol, drugs or even various electronic devices. And many of them are overweight. But, if they look to voluntary donations, or money taken from the taxpayers, to provide them with something to eat, then they are “the hungry.”

I can remember a time, long ago, when I was hungry in the old-fashioned sense. I was a young fellow out of work, couldn’t find work, fell behind in my room rent — and, when I finally found a job, I had to walk miles to get there, because I couldn’t afford both subway fare and food.

But this was back in those “earlier and simpler times” we hear about. I was so naive that I thought it was up to me to go find a job, and to save some money when I did. Even though I knew that Joe DiMaggio was making $100,000 a year — a staggering sum in the money of that time — it never occurred to me that it was up to him to see that I got fed.

So, even though I was hungry, I never qualified for the political definition of “the hungry.” Moreover, I never thereafter spent all the money I made, whether that was a little or a lot, because being hungry back then was a lot worse than being one of “the hungry” today.

As a result, I was never of any use to politicians looking for dependents who would vote for them. Nor have I ever had much use for such politicians.

Politicians seem to have a special fondness for words that have two very different meanings, so we are likely to hear a lot of these kinds of words this election year.

“Access” is one of those words. Politicians seem to be forever coming to the rescue of people who have been denied “access” to credit, college or whatever.

But what does that mean, concretely?

It could mean that some external force is blocking you from whatever your goal might be. Or it could mean that you just don’t have whatever it takes to reach that goal.

To take a personal example, Michael Jordan became a basketball star — and a very rich man. I did neither. Was that because I was denied “access” to professional basketball?

Anyone who saw me as a teenager trying to play basketball could tell you that I was lucky to hit the back board, much less the basket.

By the first definition, I had as much “access” to the NBA as Michael Jordan had. Nobody was blocking me. They didn’t have to block, because I was not going to make the basket — or the NBA — anyway.

Making a distinction between external and internal reasons for failing to reach one’s goal would clarify the meaning of the word “access.” But clarification would destroy the political usefulness of the word, along with the government programs that this word is used to justify.

For years, politicians and the media went ballistic over the fact that different groups had different approval rates for mortgage loans. This was supposed to show that some racial groups were denied “access” to mortgage loans, and especially access to the most desired loans with the lowest interest rates.

No one even asked the question: Denied access by which definition of “access”?

Political crusaders don’t pause to define words. Their shrill rhetoric suggested that external barriers were the problem. And that meant government intervention was the solution, to smite the wicked and deliver “social justice” (another undefined term).

When statistics showed that blacks were turned down for conventional mortgage loans at twice the rate of whites, that was the clincher for those saying that “access” was the problem and that racial discrimination was the reason. Since this fit the existing preconceptions in many quarters, what more could you want?

Other statistics, however, showed that whites were turned down for conventional mortgage loans at nearly double the rate for Asian Americans. By the very same reasoning, that would suggest that whites were being racially discriminated against by banks that were mostly run by whites.

But this unlikely conclusion never surfaced, because the second set of statistics seldom saw the light of day in the mainstream media, even though both sets of statistics were available from the same sources.

To publish the second set of statistics would undermine the whole moral melodrama in the media, and the political crusade based on it.

Statistics on the average credit ratings of people in different racial groups likewise seldom saw the light of day. The average credit ratings of whites were higher than the average credit ratings of blacks, and the average credit ratings of Asian Americans were higher than the average credit ratings of whites.

But to lay all these facts before the public and say, “We report, you decide” might well result in the public’s deciding that banks and other financial institutions prefer lending to individuals who were more likely to pay them back.

Also lost in media stories was the fact that many, if not most, of the financial officials who actually made loan approval decisions never laid eyes on the people who applied, but based their decisions on the paperwork sent by those who dealt directly with the applicants.

Equal “access” does not automatically lead to equal outcomes, either in lending institutions or in basketball, or anywhere else. But words like “access” have led to much political success and much economic disaster, the housing market being just one example.

If there were a Hall of Fame for political rhetoric, the phrase “social justice” would deserve a prominent place there. It has the prime virtue of political catchwords: It means many different things to many different people.

In other words, if you are a politician, you can get lots of people, with different concrete ideas, to agree with you when you come out boldly for the vague generality of “social justice.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that a good catchword can stop thought for 50 years. The phrase “social justice” has stopped many people from thinking, for at least a century — and counting.

If someone told you that Country A had more “social justice” than Country B, and you had all the statistics in the world available to you, how would you go about determining whether Country A or Country B had more “social justice”? In short, what does the phrase mean in practice — if it has any concrete meaning?

In political and ideological discussions, the issue is usually whether there is some social injustice. Even if we can agree that there is some injustice, what makes it social?

Surely most of us are repelled by the thought that some people are born into dire poverty, while others are born into extravagant luxury — each through no fault of their own and no virtue of their own. If this is an injustice, does that make it social?

The baby born into dire poverty might belong to a family in Bangladesh, and the one born to extravagant luxury might belong to a family in America. Whose fault is this disparity or injustice? Is there some specific society that caused this? Or is it just one of those things in the world that we wish was very different?

If it is an injustice, it is unjust from some cosmic perspective, an unjust fate, rather than necessarily an unjust policy, institution or society.

Making a distinction between cosmic justice and social justice is more than just a semantic fine point. Once we recognize that there are innumerable causes of innumerable disparities, we can no longer blithely assume that either the cause or the cure can be found in the government of a particular society.

Anyone who studies geography in any depth can see that different peoples and nations never had the same exposure to the progress of the rest of the human race. People living in isolated mountain valleys have for centuries lagged behind the progress of people living in busy ports, where both new products and new ideas constantly arrive from around the world.

If you study history in addition to geography, you are almost forced to acknowledge that there was never any realistic chance for all peoples to have the same achievements — even if they were all born with the same potential and even if there were no social injustices.

Once I asked a class of black college students what they thought would happen if a black baby were born, in the middle of a ghetto, and entered the world with brain cells the same as those with which Albert Einstein was born.

There were many different opinions — but no one in that room thought that such a baby, in such a place, would grow up to become another Einstein. Some blamed discrimination but others saw the social setting as too much to overcome.

If discrimination is the main reason that such a baby has little or no chance for great intellectual achievements, then that is something caused by society — a social injustice. But if the main reason is that the surrounding cultural environment provides little incentive to develop great intellectual potential, and many distractions from that goal, that is a cosmic injustice.

Many years ago, a study of black adults with high IQs found that they described their childhoods as “extremely unhappy” more often than other black adults did. There is little that politicians can do about that — except stop pretending that all problems in black communities originate in other communities.

Similar principles apply around the world. Every group trails the long shadow of its cultural heritage — and no politician or society can change the past. But they can stop leading people into the blind alley of resentments of other people. A better future often requires internal changes that pay off better than mysticism about one’s own group or about “social justice.”

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His Web site is www.tsowell.com. To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page.

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