A Perspective on Social Justice

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Consider the expression “social justice”. What does it actually mean? Presumably, everyone is in favor of justice, as opposed to unfairness. But let’s consider what the people bloviating most strongly actually mean by the expression. What do they really want?

In the broadest sense the expression suggests that someone (or some group) is getting more than they deserve, while someone else (or some other group) is getting less than they deserve. It is not necessarily money. It can be anything from treatment by police to treatment by banks when considering mortgage applications or treatment by employers when deciding whom to promote.

Proponents of social justice always assume that either there is bad will on the part of someone making decisions or else that unfair outcomes have been institutionalized by historical events. In other words, either decisions are being made by racists or inherent racism is just the way things have developed over time. Such racism may be either overt or covert. Here I am using the word “racism” to cover all forms of discrimination for reasons of gender, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

I don’t think there is much argument that overt racism has been on the decline for many years. It certainly is not gone completely but incidents of everything from lynching to official redlining are no longer acceptable. When they do occur (as it appears may have been the case in the George Floyd killing) public outcry swiftly condemns perpetrators.

It is the hidden aspects of the problem that is causing the recent upsurge in controversy. How do we account for disparate punishment of criminals by courts? How do we explain pay disparities between groups that seems alike except for race, gender, etc.? Why do certain groups never seem to make it into positions of preference, power or prestige?  Is “the system” somehow holding them back or do they have certain characteristics or behavior that is a root cause of the problem?

I do not want to get caught up in debate over whether cops arrest more blacks because blacks commit more crimes or the issue of why blacks get harsher sentences on average than white. I know the arguments on both sides and I know the remedies that have been suggested. If society does not like “search and frisk” policies, it has to choose between frisking fewer blacks, frisking more whites, or frisking no one. NYC is conducting a lab with respect to the third alternative under Mayor de Blasio and the results are not encouraging.

However, the debate over social justice has moved beyond preventing discrimination in the future to undoing it in the past. In its most daring form, it is called “a conversation about reparations”. It starts with a recitation of past history and argues that bad things that happened in the past have effects that carry over into current generations and prevent them from achieving equality. Therefore, the argument goes, society has a moral obligation to somehow make up to the current generation of “victims” for the past injustices to their forebears. For example, if slave families were callously broken up a century and a half ago, that should excuse weak acceptance of familial responsibilities among many black men today. Similarly, if slaves were denied an education, that explains (at least in part) why blacks tend to do less well in school today, since they may not have grown up in a family environment that fostered educational achievement.

While these arguments are weakened by the multigenerational time periods involved since slavery ended, nevertheless, they cannot be dismissed out of hand.

The question is what can and should be done about it, if anything?

No matter how one tries to present it in order to make it palatable, social “justice” boils down to taking money from one group (taxpayers) and transferring it either in cash or services to a group labeled as “victims” of past injustice, even if was perpetrated on others many years ago. The scheme proposed by Senator Warren involves a wealth tax, which is simply a way of clawing back “ill-gotten gains” and redistributing them. If an entrepreneur or CEO paid his employees starvation wages while rewarding himself handsomely, the concept is to recapture and redistribute some of his accumulated wealth.

In theory, that is not absurd, although obviously not all of those being clawed would agree that their wealth was obtained immorally. This is not like seizing Bernie Madoff’s stolen funds and making restitution to those whom he defrauded. This is an all-wise Government deciding who is deserving of fleecing, who was shorn and who should benefit from it all.

In practice, “reparations” is a non-starter, even if you believe it has moral value (which I don’t, for reasons I will get to in a minute). Here are some real practical problems.

  1. Who decides and on what basis?
  2. What is the justification for taxing wealthy individuals whose parents were immigrants and did not benefit from slavery?
  3. Do those who qualify on racial grounds but are already wealthy get benefits or do they pay a reparations tax?
  4. How can the public be protected from benefits going primarily to supporters of the party in power?
  5. Why just blacks? Many other groups have also suffered from lack of social justice. Once we start deciding on victims, where does it end?
  6. Reparations are just another form of reverse-discrimination, doing good for one group by doing bad for the rest.

America was created out of equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. There is no question that various groups have been used and abused, starting with the indigenous peoples we threw off their lands and extending through various waves of immigrants. Not just black slaves, but also Irish, middle Europeans, Asians, Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, etc. all had to fight their way out of poverty and extreme, often brutal discrimination. Women also were in many ways kept in bondage for many decades. It may not have been as legal slaves, but they were systematically denied opportunities for education, training, and admission to professions for which they were deemed incompetent. Women were told they were mentally inferior.

This was all unjust. But tearing everything down in order to right the wrongs of the past will not make a stronger America. It will only strengthen the bitter animosity that divides us now. It will be in everyone’s interest to personally identify with some group of victims in order to get in on the largess. (Pocahontas comes to mind.) All of the groups mentioned above have made tremendous strides, sometimes helped by laws but more often by hard work and sacrifice. Little was handed to them on a silver platter. Now the folks clamoring for more social justice today want it for free, by taking from someone else, in order that they may live better. Confiscation is never a sound basis for social harmony and economic strength. Progress takes time, but we are increasingly living in a world dangerously used to and insistent upon instant answers.

Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of players in the NBA and NFL are black, the BLM movement insists that there is discrimination because too few coaches are black. There are few jobs more competitive than sports coaching. It is truly a matter of produce or perish. Black coaches have been appointed, but only a few have succeeded. I have no easy explanation. Undoubtedly, more will be tried. But is it not insanity for teams to aim for racial equality in the coaching positions instead of success on the field? If black coaches have talent, they will succeed, just as they have in the games. But most coaches fail. It isn’t easy nor should it be.

Some will argue that economic growth should take a back seat to social justice. This is the naive thinking of dreamers who believe that mankind is a perfectible species, capable of whatever sacrifice is needed to realize their dreams. While civilized humans possess an unusual willingness to help their neighbor and often exhibit a high degree of altruism, there are limits. Martyrs for a cause are in short supply. Dreamers would prefer that someone else be the martyr for their cause.

The economist Henry Hazlitt once summed it up by observing that when A and B get together and worry about the plight of C, they often call on D to do something about it. Hazlitt said that in that situation, the one that he worries about more is D.

I do not advocate doing nothing about discrimination, bad cops, etc. Specific situations need to be addressed, as it seems they have not been in the past. But defunding the police, toppling statues, rewriting history, and reparations are not the answer. Many injustices were ignored for too long and many remain to be corrected. Nothing, however, will be achieved by hatred and violence.

Ken Veit is a retired insurance company CEO and actuary.

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