Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thomas Sowell's, "The Fallacy of Fairness"

If you'd like to read this on a site with a white background and black font, click here.

If there is ever a contest to pick which word has done the most damage to people's thinking, and to actions to carry out that thinking, my nomination would be the word "fair." It is a word thrown around by far more people than have ever bothered to even try to define it.

This mushy vagueness may be a big handicap in logic but it is a big advantage in politics. All sorts of people, with very different notions about what is or is not fair, can be mobilized behind this nice-sounding word, in utter disregard of the fact that they mean very different things when they use that word.

Some years ago, for example, there was a big outcry that various mental tests used for college admissions or for employment were biased and "unfair" to many individuals or groups. Fortunately there was one voice of sanity – David Riesman, I believe – who said: "The tests are not unfair. LIFE is unfair and the tests measure the results."

If by "fair" you mean everyone having the same odds for achieving success, then life has never been anywhere close to being fair, anywhere or at any time. If you stop and think about it (however old-fashioned that may seem), it is hard even to conceive of how life could possibly be fair in that sense.

Even within the same family, among children born to the same parents and raised under the same roof, the firstborns on average have higher IQs than their brothers and sisters, and usually achieve more in life.

Unfairness is often blamed on somebody, even if only on "society." But whose fault is it if you were not the firstborn? Since some groups have more children than others, a higher percentage of the next generation will be firstborns in groups that have smaller families, so such groups have an advantage over other groups.

Despite all the sound and fury generated in controversies over whether different groups have different genetic potential, even if they all have identical genetic potential the outcomes can still differ if they have different birth rates.

Twins have average IQs several points lower than children born singly. Whether that is due to having to share resources in the womb or having to share parents' attention after birth, the fact is what it is – and, it certainly is not fair.

Many people fail to see the fundamental difference between saying that a particular thing – whether a mental test or an institution – is conveying a difference that already exists or is creating a difference that would not exist otherwise.

Creating a difference that would not exist otherwise is discrimination, and something can be done about that. But, in recent times, virtually any disparity in outcomes is almost automatically blamed on discrimination, despite the incredible range of other reasons for disparities between individuals and groups.

Nature's discrimination completely dwarfs man's discrimination. Geography alone makes equal chances virtually impossible. The geographic advantages of Western Europe over Eastern Europe – in climate and navigable waterways, among other things – have led to centuries of differences in income levels that were greater than income differences between blacks and whites in America today.

Just the fact that the lay of the land is different in different parts of Europe meant that it was easier for the Roman legions to invade Western Europe. This meant that Western Europeans had the advantages of the most advanced civilization in Europe at that time. Moreover, because Roman letters were used in Western Europe, the languages of that region had written versions centuries before the Slavic languages of Eastern Europe did.

The difference between literacy and illiteracy is a huge difference, and it remained huge for centuries. Was it the Slavs' fault that the Romans did not want to climb over so many mountains to get to them?

To those living in Western Europe in the days of the Roman Empire, the idea of being conquered, and many slaughtered, by the Romans probably had no great appeal. But their descendants would benefit from their bad luck. And that doesn't seem fair either.

A recent flap in a Berkeley high school reveals what a farce "fairness" can be. Because this is ultra-liberal Berkeley, perhaps we should not be surprised that a proposal has been made to eliminate four jobs as science teachers and use the money saved for programs to help low achievers.

In Berkeley, as in many other communities across the country, black and Latino students are not performing as well as Asian and white students. In fact, the racial gap in academic achievement at Berkeley High School is the highest in California – no doubt a special source of embarrassment in politically correct Berkeley.

According to the principal, "Our community at Berkeley High School has failed the African-Americans." Therefore "We need to bring everybody up – that's what this plan is about."

Surely no one, not even in Berkeley, seriously believes that you will "bring everybody up" by eliminating science teachers. This is a proposal to redistribute money from science to social work, by providing every student with advisors on note-taking, time management and other learning skills.

The point is to close educational gaps among groups, or at least go on record as trying. As with most equalization crusades, whether in education or in the economy, it is about equalizing downward, by lowering those at the top. "Fairness" strikes again!

This is not just a crazy idea by one principal in Berkeley. It is a crazy idea taught in schools of education across the country. A professor of education at the University of San Francisco has weighed in on the controversy at Berkeley, supporting the idea of "projects designed to narrow the achievement gap."

In keeping with the rhetoric of the prevailing ideology, our education professor refers to "privileged" parents and "privileged" children who want to "forestall any progress toward equity."

In the language of the politically correct, achievement is equated with privilege. Such verbal sleight of hand evades the question whether individuals' own priorities and efforts affect outcomes, whether in education or in other endeavors. No need to look at empirical evidence when a clever phrase can take that whole question off the table.

This verbal sleight of hand is not confined to education. A study of incomes of various groups in Toronto concluded that Canadians of Japanese ancestry were the most "privileged" group in that city. That is, people of Japanese ancestry there had higher incomes than members of other minorities and higher than that of the white majority in Toronto.

What makes the "privileged" label a particularly bad joke in this case is a history of blatant discrimination against the Japanese in Canada in years past, including a longer internment during World War II than that of Japanese Americans. But, to some on the left, the very concept of achievement must be banished by all means necessary, regardless of the facts.

Achievement by overcoming obstacles is a special threat to the left's vision of the world, and so must be magically transformed into privilege through rhetoric.

Those with that vision do not want to even discuss evidence that students from different groups spend different amounts of time on homework and different amounts of time on social activities. To admit that inputs affect outputs, whether in education, in the economy or in other areas, would be to undermine the vision and agenda of the left, and deprive those who believe in that vision of a moral melodrama, starring themselves as defenders of the oppressed and crusaders against the forces of evil.

Redistribution of material resources has a very poor track record when it comes to actually helping those who are lagging, whether in education, in the economy or elsewhere. What they need are the attitudes, priorities and behavior which produce the outcomes desired.

But changing anyone's attitudes, priorities and behavior is a lot harder than taking a stance as defenders of the oppressed and crusaders against the forces of evil.

To the extent that doing the latter misdiagnoses the problem, it makes solving the problem even harder. That does no good for those who are lagging, however much it exalts those who pose as their defenders. "Fairness" indeed!

Most of us want to be fair, in the sense of treating everyone equally. We want laws to be applied the same to everyone. We want educational, economic or other criteria for rewards to be the same as well. But this concept of fairness is not only different from prevailing ideas of fairness among many of the intelligentsia, it contradicts their idea of fairness.

People like philosopher John Rawls call treating everyone alike merely "formal" fairness. Professor Rawls advocated "a conception of justice that nullifies the accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstances." He called for a society which "arranges" end-results, rather than simply treating everyone the same and letting the chips fall where they may.

This more hands-on concept of fairness gives third parties a much bigger role to play. But whether any human being has ever had the omniscience to determine and undo the many differences among people born into different families and cultures – with different priorities, attitudes and behavior – is a very big question. And to concentrate the vast amount of power needed to carry out that sweeping agenda is a dangerous gamble, whose actual consequences have too often been written on the pages of history in blood.

There is no question that the accident of birth is a huge factor in the fate of people. What is a very serious question is how much anyone can do about that without creating other, and often worse, problems. Providing free public education, scholarships to colleges and other opportunities for achievement are fine as far as they go, but there should be no illusion that they can undo all the differences in priorities, attitudes and efforts among different individuals and groups.

Trying to change whole cultures and subcultures in which different individuals are raised would be a staggering task. But the ideology of multiculturalism, which pronounces all cultures to be equally valid, puts that task off limits. This paints people into whatever corner the accident of birth has put them.

Under these severe constraints, all that is left is to blame others when the outcomes are different for different individuals and groups. Apparently those who are lagging are to continue to think and act as they have in the past – and yet somehow have better outcomes in the future. And, if they don't get the same outcomes as others, then according to this way of seeing the world, it is society's fault!

Society may lavish thousands of dollars per year on schooling for a youngster who does not bother to study, and yet when he or she emerges as a semi-literate adult, it is considered to be society's fault if such youngsters cannot get the same kinds of jobs and incomes as other youngsters who studied conscientiously during their years in school.

It is certainly a great misfortune to be born into families or communities whose values make educational or economic success less likely. But to have intellectuals and others come along and misstate the problem does not help to produce better results, even if it produces a better image.

Political correctness may make it hard for anyone to challenge the image of helpless victims of an evil society. But those who are lagging do not need a better public relations image. They need the ability to produce better results for themselves – and a romantic image is an obstacle to directing their efforts toward developing that ability.

Tests and other criteria which convey the realities of their existing capabilities, compared to that of others, can have what is called a "disparate impact," and are condemned not only in editorial offices but also in courts of law.

But criteria exist precisely to have a disparate impact on those who do not have what these criteria exist to measure. Track meets discriminate against those who are slow afoot. Tests in school discriminate against students who did not study.

Disregarding criteria in the interest of "fairness" – in the sense of outcomes independent of inputs – adds to the handicaps of those who already have other handicaps, by lying to them about the reasons for their situation and the things they need to do to make their situation better.

Mixed up with the question of fairness to individuals and groups has been the explosive question of whether individuals and groups have the innate ability to perform at the same levels, if they are all treated alike or even given the same objective opportunities.

Intellectuals have swung from one side of this question at the beginning of the 20th century to the opposite side at the end. Both those who said that achievement differences among races and classes were due to genes, in the early years of the 20th century, and those who said that these differences were due to discrimination, in the later years, ignored the old statisticians' warnings that correlation is not causation.

The idea that some people are innately superior (usually one's own group) goes back for centuries, but various new facts that came out in the 19th and early 20th centuries gave the appearance of "science" to such beliefs during the Progressive era.

Sir Francis Galton's research turned up the fact of remarkable achievements among members of the same family, which he regarded as evidence of genetic superiority. The rise of IQ testing, and especially the massive mental testing of soldiers in the U.S. Army during the First World War, showed great differences in test scores among various racial and ethnic groups.

In the public schools, there were similarly large differences in which ethnic group's children failed to get promoted. In both the Army mental tests and in the schools, Polish Jews did poorly at that time. Carl Brigham – a leading authority on mental tests and the author of the SAT – said that the Army tests tended to "disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent."

It should be noted that all of these conclusions were based on hard data, not mere "perceptions" or "stereotypes," as so many inconvenient facts are dismissed today. What was wrong were not the data but the inferences.

Polish Jews were among the many immigrants from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe who were relatively recent arrivals in the United States. Many of these immigrants grew up in homes where English was not spoken, as Carl Brigham acknowledged in later years, when he recanted his earlier statements. In later years, Jews scored above average on mental tests.

It is also a hard fact of history that some races had far more advanced technological, economic and other achievements than others at particular times and places. But those who were ahead in some centuries were often behind in other centuries – the Chinese and the Europeans having changed positions dramatically after Europe eventually caught up with China and then surpassed it within recent centuries. But there was no evidence of any dramatic changes in genetics among either the Chinese or the Europeans.

While striking changes in the relative positions of different races at different periods of history undermine genetic explanations, the fact that there has been no period when their achievements have been the same undermines today's presumption that different economic or other outcomes are due to discrimination.

Whatever the innate capacity of any race, class or other group, what pays off in the real world are developed capabilities, and these have never been the same – or even close to being the same – for individuals or groups.

All the leading brands of beer in the United States were created by people of German ancestry and so is the leading beer in China, not to mention breweries created by Germans in Australia, Argentina and elsewhere. Germans were producing beer in the days of the Roman Empire.

This does not mean that beer brewing skill is genetic but it also does not mean that this skill – or any other skill – is randomly distributed among peoples, so that a failure to have equal "representation" of groups in a given institutions can be presumed to be due to discrimination by that institution.

Fairness as equal treatment does not produce fairness as equal outcomes. The confusion between the two meanings of the same word has created enormous mischief, much of it at the expense of lagging groups, who have been distracted from the things that would enable them to catch up. And whole societies have been kept in a turmoil pursing a will o' the wisp in the name of "fairness."


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
M.L.J.C. said...

Good stuff. Reminds me of my time teaching English Lit in Watts trying to "close the achievement gap." But really the kids that did the best where the ones who had parental support (very few).

Chris Almond said...

(i hope you don't mind me commenting on your blog. I saw your facebook post and was curious to see what you wrote. You are an excellent writer!)
I found this entry very interesting Marshall.
I very much agree that equal treatment does not equal fairness. Often times, it can even be the exact opposite.
If you give a slice of cake to every child in your family out of fairness, yet only one child in your family loves cake while the rest love pie, that isn't fair, it is playing favorites to the cake lover.
(I am going to confess this entry was very long, and while I read most of it, I skimmed over about 1/3. So I apologize if what I write here misinterprets something you have said or seems to be unaware of something you mentioned)
What is especially interesting to me is the political connotations you make here.
I think the left would strongly agree with what you are saying about life being inherently unfair all around,(although some on the left seem to still believe in the 'blank slate' theory. That everyone is born with the same capacities. I strongly disagree with this, and as science is coming around to realize it as well, the left is slowly coming around also. First in the sciences, lastly will be the humanities. and that would be the basis of their political idealogy.
Life is SO unfair, that no matter how hard certain people work, they will never, ever be successful. My father is one of the hardest workers I have ever known. I have often been at awe how hard and long he can work, yet I will likely make much more money than he ever did because even though I am not as hard a worker as he, my lazy work will likely be more profitable than his hard work. (he is a mailman, has to walk nearly 13 miles a day. Sometimes has to work 30 days in a row. Less now now than when he first began working. Unions have helped my dad's working conditions out a lot. Which is ironic because my dad doesn't really support anything left leaning such as unions).
I see this as unfair that no matter how hard my dad could ever work, he will make less money than myself, because I am fortunate enough to have interests and skills which will likely be more profitable. My dad doesn't need an attitude adjustment. Within his capacity he is doing all that he can. He simply doesn't have the skills or knowledge to funnel that hard work into more financially profitable work.
Anyway, my point here is that the inherent unfairness of the world is what drives my left leaning beliefs. I specifically do not believe everyone should be treated equally, because as we both stated, that only is not fair, but it is often unfair.
Because the world is so unfair, I don't believe it means we should roll over and accept it, but because we should love our neighbors as ourselves, we should do all we can to overcome the inherent unfairness of the world.

Because of the way the world works, a select few people have an unFAIR advantage over most others, the government (ie the community)should help level the playing field. One means this may be accomplished is to create not only a much higher minimum wage, but also to implement a maximum wage.(spread the wealth) That, I believe, would help the world be more fair.
However, I wholeheartedly agree that some on the left abuse the idea of fairness to mean equal treatment for all in all circumstances, and that will often do more harm than good.

Chris Almond said...

ohhh, whoops, I see now that you were quoting Thomas Sowell. I see that now. While reading my previous comment, it can be noted that i now realize this.

mush said...

You are more than welcome to comment here, Chris, and I'm glad you did! I guess this is a natural continuation of our point, counterpoint discussions.

A lot of this depends upon one’s operational definition for success. I’m interested to discover how your dad came to work for the postal service and whether or not he’d describe his life’s work as a success or not. Could your dad have developed skills earlier on in life that would have increased his profitability? Could he have changed his priorities and behavior then to have had a different now?

To me, money is never an appropriate measurement of success. It can only be incidental to it. Because of that, I’d say your father is a huge success (I’m sure you’d agree) because of his unique consistency, hard work, and determination. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable or unfair to recompense on the lower end the labors of a job which don’t require specialized training or uncommon expertise. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t think it’s fair, logical, or reasonable to award lower lever Wal-Mart employees with anything more than they currently earn. Those are jobs that require only the competence and training received in high school. The compensation of higher earning jobs is a big motivating factor for acquiring the education and skills necessary to function in those jobs.

But I agree. I think we should accept the rational truth of inherent unfairness and then act to succeed despite it, but more efforts unfortunately seem to be focused outside of ourselves when we try to counteract life’s unfairness. Everyone ought to be significantly more concerned with changing his or her own “attitudes, priorities, and behaviors” to succeed in spite of adversity rather than trying to eliminate what’s naturally unfair.

The government efforts centered around evening people’s odds at success fall in line with the elimination of natural unfairness, and I think Sowell does a pretty good job at highlighting the futility of such efforts. The Marxist philosophy of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is a great sounding idea that would supersede life’s inherent unfairness, but it would do so through third party force and would restrict a person’s ability to choose. There’s no choice when the government takes people’s money, even in the name of goodness. They may choose jail for resisting, but the government will take away the money regardless and thus the individual choice.

That system can only work when it’s presided over by the benevolent and when all parties agreeing to it are also benevolent. Until then, no government efforts will ever supplant man's and woman's baser tendencies and natures and therefore will never be able to even out the odds for success.