Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2004 / 27 Shevat, 5764

Thomas Sowell

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Equality, inequality, and fate | One of the confusions that plagues discussions of equality and inequality is a confusion between the vagaries of fate and the sins of man. There are plenty of both but they need to be sharply distinguished from one another.

The plain fact that there are large differences among individuals in incomes, occupations and whole ways of life dependent upon these things has been widely seen as "unfair," especially when the accident of birth has had much to do with these large economic and social differences.

Life is unfair. There is no point denying it. Indeed, it is hard even to imagine how life could possibly be fair, given all the innumerable factors that go into individual success or failure — and how these factors vary greatly from one person to another, one group to another, and one nation or civilization to another.

Whatever the potentialities with which anyone enters the world, the development of those potentialities into specific skills and abilities depends on each individual's parents, schools, peers and the surrounding culture and its values. These are never the same for everyone.

Eskimos no doubt have all the intelligence required to grow pineapples but they are unlikely to have the experience to do so. Nor are Hawaiians likely to know how to hunt seals in the Arctic.

Children who grow up in homes where sports are discussed constantly, but science is not, are unlikely to have the same goals or careers as children who grow up in homes where the reverse is true.

None of this is really anyone's fault, not even that universal scapegoat, "society." These are simply the vagaries of fate.

For thousands of years, the whole Western Hemisphere had no opportunity to develop in the same way as Europe or Asia, because horses and oxen enabled Europeans and Asians to build their agriculture and their transport around these beasts of burden — neither of which existed in the Western Hemisphere until they were brought here by European invaders.

Whole ways of life had to be different on this half of the planet from what they were on the vast Eurasian land mass. Whose fault was that?

Some ethnic groups have an average age that is a decade older than the average age of others, and whole countries like Germany and Italy have average ages that are two decades older than the average age in Afghanistan or Yemen.

Is that a level playing field? No! It is an unfair advantage to those with more experience and the increased capabilities that come with experience.

Other differences are due to the sins of man — discrimination, conquest, slavery and more. Yet, whatever the sources of the differences among people, those differences are huge and the economic consequences are huge.

None of this is hard to understand in itself. But much of it gets confused and twisted by the rhetoric, the visions and the crusades of the intelligentsia, politicians, mush heads and hot heads.

Even our courts of law are ready to consider different distributions of groups in employment as evidence that the employer discriminated, since it is apparently beyond the pale to consider that the groups themselves may differ, whether in quantifiable ways like age or in intangible ways like attitudes.

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So deeply ingrained is this egalitarian dogma that different rates of passing tests from one group to another are taken as evidence that something is wrong with the tests. Different rates of promotion at work or in school are taken as virtual proof that the employer or the school is doing something wrong.

Best-selling author Shelby Steele has argued persuasively that whites are afraid of being considered racists and blacks are afraid of being considered innately inferior — and that both do many foolish and counterproductive things as a result. Such attitudes apply even beyond racial issues.

A nation's laws and policies need to serve more serious purposes than allowing people to escape their psychological hangups. The time is overdue for these laws and policies to be based on realities and geared toward consequences.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)


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