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Jewish World Review May 5, 2000 / 1 Iyar, 5760

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
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"Unfair" advantages -- IF MICHAEL JORDAN had played basketball no better than I did, there would have been no reason for anybody to watch him. If Pavoratti sang no better than most of us, why would anyone pay to listen to him? The benefits that millions of people have derived from these performers have been evident in their paying their hard-earned cash to see or hear them.

The same principle is involved when millions of people around the world have paid billions of dollars to use computer software from the Microsoft Corporation. We all derive many benefits from a wide variety of people who have intellectual skills or other capabilities that we ourselves do not have. Yet, politically, such exceptional contributions to the general benefit are often portrayed as "advantages" that need to be counteracted as "unfair."

In some cosmic sense, it is indeed unfair that Michael Jordan had such huge talents for playing basketball, while yours truly had none. But should the rules have been changed to bring the basket down to four feet for me -- or raise it 10 feet higher for Michael Jordan?

It would have been a net loss for everybody if any such stupid policies had been followed. Yet policies based on similar reasons and resentments dominate issues ranging from antitrust to education.

A whole political vocabulary has come into existence in antitrust law to portray achievement as "advantage" and contributions which attract customers as "control" of the market. If 80 percent of the consumers prefer buying your product over those of your competitors, then antitrust lawyers and judges will speak of you as "controlling" 80 percent of the market.

Of course, if someone else comes up with a better product or a lower price tomorrow, you will discover very quickly that you control nothing. Yet, until that happens, you can be prosecuted for "monopolizing."

Our public schools have likewise treated high intellectual ability as an unfair advantage that some students have over others. The fact that American society as a whole can benefit from developing the abilities of children with high potential means no more to our "educators" than the benefits created by Microsoft mean to government antitrust lawyers. The name of the game is stamping out unfair advantages.

Over the past several decades, public schools across the country have been stamping out "tracking" or grouping students in classes by their ability or performance. Special schools for bright students, such as the Bronx High School of Science in New York or Lowell High School in San Francisco, have been under all sorts of political and legal pressures to admit students on some basis other than ability or performance.

Mental tests have been under ferocious attack because some people do much better on them than others, giving them "advantages" in applying for jobs or to colleges. The tests are called "unfair" when in fact it is life that is unfair, while the tests simply show the results.

Even prudent behavior in taking responsibility for one's own life is treated as if it were an unfair advantage. People who saved to prepare for their old age are taxed to pay for people who didn't. It is considered terrible that people who "happen to have money" can have all sorts of things -- from computers to better housing -- that people who do not "happen to have money" find harder to afford.

In reality, very few people simply "happen" to have money. Even the great majority of millionaires earned their money in their own lifetime, rather than inheriting it from rich parents. People who work more and save more tend to have more money. This is not rocket science. Nor is it an unfair advantage.

The political answer is to create "rights" to things, equally available to all, regardless of what they did or didn't contribute to society, and regardless of whether they behaved responsibly or irresponsibly in schools, at work or in life.

The war against achievement is fought every day on a thousand fronts. To the extent that that war is won, all of us lose. After all, what makes achievements benefit those who have them is that they benefit the rest of us, and we are willing to pay for those benefits. What is really unfair is allowing self-righteous egalitarian crusaders to deprive the rest of us of an opportunity to get the most bang for our bucks.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate