Below is the final part of a four-part guest essay by Richard Cocks about Social Justice. Previously: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Social Justice: An Analysis
by Richard Cocks
Who gets to be a student?
In the 1980s in New Zealand, university students tended to be the children of parents who had also been university students. This was at a time when only five percent of the population was admitted to college. Universities were funded by the government at great expense and reserved for the academically capable. Standards were high, with no grade inflation. Every student was literate and/or numerate and tended to be interested in his studies. Nearly every student pursued his own reading agenda and most would take an interest in classical literature and foreign (i.e., difficult) movies.
This fact about the parentage of university students was presented as a problem.
However, far from being unfair, it only stands to reason. The children of academically successful people are likely to have inherited a higher genetically derived intelligence. They are more likely to be exposed to a larger vocabulary from their parents, along with relatively sophisticated concepts. Their parents are likely to read to them and to treat education as valuable and important. There will likely be easy access to books with frequent trips to the library. The parents are more likely to be exemplary role models in their own reading habits. Academic subjects might be treated as interesting and discussed around the dinner table.
Many of these New Zealand students grew up wanting to be educated and knowledgeable. Some of it was just vanity and fear — not wanting to be the only person at the party who did not know about, say, Freud.
In my own case, long before attending university, “The Academic Calendar,” a bound book in which all university courses were listed along with their reading requirements, would be eagerly examined. Practically salivating at the books that would be read and discussed, fantasies of alternative course loads ensued. Imitating a friend of the family meant wanting from the age of seven to be a philosophy professor, before even knowing what philosophy really was.
The advantages of having university-educated parents were ones of class, family and genetic inheritance. Are those advantages fair? They are neither fair nor unfair. They are certainly an undeserved good fortune a.k.a. luck.
Crucially, what is the alternative to such a state of affairs?
Social justice would require “fixing” these advantages. One problem with this is that a student who is less able, less literate, less motivated, less interested, with a smaller vocabulary, having read fewer books would take the other’s place. This is a poor use of resources and creates its own unfairness. The other problem is that social justice attempts a kind of unknowable counterfactual — one of putting someone where they would have been had not social, familial and genetic factors counted against him. Sowell points out that social justice requires non-existent God-like abilities to determine what might have been.
Unintended consequences of social justice
One thing that was attempted in many countries to try to counteract disadvantages acquired “through no fault of their own” was to take children away from parents who were poor, unemployed, perhaps drug- or alcohol-addicted, unsuccessful, with bad attitudes towards education and industriousness and to put those children in more middle-class and successful households. This happened to Australian Aboriginal children and to Native American children among others. This attempt at cosmic justice is now regarded as an abomination, though it was well-meaning. Ripping such children from their birth home changes their likely educational and employment attainments positively, but destroys families and the parent/child bond. It is now completely out of fashion and widely condemned.
However, the desire for cosmic justice continues in other forms and similar sorts of things result from it.
In the 1960s liberal judges argued that amateur criminals often implicated themselves in ways that professional offenders would not. Bizarrely, the judges wanted to even the playing field for the amateurs and instituted the Miranda Rights rule. This means more violent criminals wandering the streets, getting off on technicalities, and more difficulty in prosecuting them. A certain number of extra victims will have died as a result of judges’ wanting amateur criminals to avoid conviction as often as the professionals. Those living in high-crime areas such as inner cities will have particularly suffered, and a very high proportion will have been black. Similarly, justices wanted hard-luck stories concerning murderer’s childhoods to be considered, even though there is no way to tell how much this contributed to their offending. These kinds of considerations mean murder trials commonly extend for three years at great expense, while violent criminals are out on bail.
“Social justice” for criminals means more victims, rapes and deaths, especially among the poor.
Traditional justice means one rule for all. Social justice for vicious murderers means the punishment will vary depending on how bad the killer’s childhood was. This means a different punishment for two criminals who commit the same crime. A criminal who could prove he had a particularly harsh childhood could expect a reduced punishment. Reducing the punishment means there is less of a disincentive to offend. If anything that contributes to his greater chance of offending should mean a lighter sentence, then the rule that criminals with bad childhoods should get lighter sentences will justify giving criminals even lighter sentences, thereby reducing the disincentive to offend, ad infinitum.
Affirmative action programs in California, for instance, were shown to actually reduce the graduation rates of blacks and Hispanics. By putting such students in colleges for which they did not qualify based on their grades, the students found themselves outgunned and at the bottom of their classes. This discouraging state of affairs tends to undermine self-confidence and reduce graduation rates. When the University of California system was forbidden by legal decisions to engage in affirmative action admission policies, the graduation rates of blacks and Hispanics rose by 55%.The number of doctorates among that group in the sciences went up 25% after affirmative action policies were banned.