Making People Equal: Paradoxes Aplenty

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Blacks and Social Justice, by Bernard Boxill, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 251 pages, $34.50

The title of Blacks and Social Justice succinctly summarizes its focus: justice in the treatment of blacks. It is a philosophical book in that it considers in great detail the writings of contemporary philosophers that bear on the subject: John Rawls, Thomas Nagel, Ronald Dworkin, and many others. Bernard Boxill takes them all on, dissecting their arguments, usually finding them flawed, attacking them in enormous detail even when he sympathizes with their general position.

The analysis is both exhaustive and exhausting: the arguments are intricate. Interspersed in these dissections are analyses of concepts such as harm, insult, self-respect, self-esteem, and many others—analyses that are usually insightful and penetrating and that unfortunately tend to get buried in a detailed consideration of the published views of assorted philosophers, down to the most obscure journals.

In an early chapter Boxill discusses the free market in relation to the welfare of blacks, particularly the writings of two distinguished black economists, Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell. He does not believe that operation of the market would do justice to blacks. He criticizes the idea that people have only negative rights (rights to others' noninterference) and not positive rights (rights to positive action, such as help, from others). He cites a definition of justice offered by Walter Williams—"I keep what I produce, and you keep what you produce"—with indignation, comparing its "cynicism" with that of Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic.

Sowell and Williams argue that in a free market racism would be greatly lessened, a view Boxill considers simplistic. I had thought that these economists made a good case for saying that the market tends to reduce racial prejudices: If you can get a good product more cheaply from A than from B, you will buy it from A regardless of A's race. And I doubt that many an employer, even if he had racist attitudes, would hire the white applicant if his choice were between a capable black applicant with initiative and imagination and a white applicant who is indolent and surly.

Boxill thus greatly underestimates the potency of the free market, both in reducing racism and in increasing the economic level of virtually everyone. But his attitude is not surprising, for nearly all the philosophers he considers throughout the book have little use for the free market.

More than half of Blacks and Social Justice is devoted to the topic of education. Boxill not only rejects at once the suggestion that all education be private and voluntary; he rejects also the more modest suggestion of Milton Friedman that the government should introduce a voucher system whereby parents could use the voucher to send their children to whatever schools they think best. Parents, he suggests, would not be likely to shop around for the best schools for their children, for many are unwise or uncaring. Moreover, if their children grow up to be criminals, or unemployable, "this affects the important interests of the taxpayers who must shoulder the costs of supporting them on welfare. Consequently, parents cannot have a complete right to choose their children's education."

Boxill is wholly committed to the idea of public, tax-supported education. But this is only the beginning: tax-supported education, when facilities were "separate but equal," resulted in notorious inequality, that is, inferior schools for blacks. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, some degree of integration was achieved. However, since children in the same neighborhoods tended to be of the same race, the degree of actual integration was minimal. Predominantly black schools were still short-changed.

So Boxill considers another alternative: Charles Hamilton's suggestion that each district within a community have total control over the education in that district. "The school would belong to the community; it would be a union of children, parents, teachers, social workers, psychologists, doctors, lawyers." But Boxill rejects this alternative, too, asking whether many ghettos have teachers, social workers, psychologists, doctors, and so on, within their confines.

Boxill proceeds to quote socialist writers who contend that the problem will not be solved until black incomes are equal to white incomes and that "society" has a right to enact transfer payments until all families' incomes are equal. (What this would do to the incentive to rise and succeed in life, including its effect on incentives in black families, is not discussed.) But this alternative, too, is rejected, because equal income is not enough: it doesn't guarantee equal opportunity. Some families would be indifferent to their children's education even if they were millionaires.

Is equal opportunity for all, then, the desired state of affairs? No, for opportunities are worthless unless they are used, and many persons have opportunities without taking advantage of them.

And this presents a problem: How do you make people take advantage of opportunities? The ideal that the author endorses is not equality of opportunity but equality of achievement. Only this will suffice; but how, one wonders, is this to be brought about? How can one ensure, even through the use of force, that the average achievements of one race will equal those of another?

Another perennial issue, busing, gets 60 pages of discussion by Boxill. He criticizes in detail the views of antibusing authors. Nor does Boxill spare from criticism probusing authors such as Ronald Dworkin, who in Boxill's opinion approves of busing for the wrong reasons. Boxill himself has nothing in principle against forced busing of children. But busing may not be enough, because of "white flight" to the suburbs.

The issue of state force arises not only with reference to the school system—one might improve that indefinitely without improving student achievement—but with the family. Too many families are simply indifferent to their children's education. The state could employ more extensive forced busing or raise taxes for education or pour more money into ghetto schools and yet not go very far toward the ideal of "equal achievement" for white and black students.

But how is one to change the home environment? Should the state take children away from "improper" parents? And should the state force parents to be more sensitive to their children's education or make them take opportunities when offered? Boxill doesn't mind a high degree of state paternalism, but when it comes to trying to change the family he again stops short of the fateful abyss. And so in the end it is not clear how the ideal is to be reached, other than through Boxill's usual formula, the elimination of racism.

It is true, unfortunately, that racism is much with us and will not easily go away. But in cases I am familiar with, other factors figure far more prominently than racism.

A few years ago, for example, the city of Los Angeles bused thousands of children all over the city to achieve nonsegregation (in the hope that this would garner equality of educational quality). Millions of dollars were spent busing black children into white neighborhoods and vice versa. Most children, white and black alike (as well as Mexican and Oriental), didn't like getting up before dawn to be bused to a school 30 miles away. And so much was spent on busing that schools deteriorated. New equipment couldn't be bought; good teachers were fired right and left, resulting in larger classes for those remaining. Soon the city high schools started to turn out graduates of all races who were functional illiterates. It is difficult to buy the thesis that racism was a major factor in this result.

Boxill discusses at length many other topics, such as affirmative action and civil disobedience, but space permits me only a few brief assorted comments:

• To make restitution to blacks for past discrimination, Boxill favors preferential hiring and affirmative action programs in the interests of justice. But justice is treatment in accord with desert, and desert varies from one individual to another. If a man was a slave in 1865, he is not helped by the fact that his great-granddaughter is the beneficiary of preferential hiring in 1985. Preferential hiring must be justified, if at all (and there are countless arguments and counterarguments here), by harms done to individuals. Many black individuals have been wronged in the past—as have American Indians, whom Boxill never mentions. But one shouldn't accord preference in hiring to A just because B, who happens to belong to the same race, was wronged in the past. That is sheer collectivism, like punishing an entire tribe for a crime committed by one of its members.

Of course, if each and every member of a certain group has been wronged, then each and every member deserves restitution—not because he or she is a member of a group, but because he or she individually has been wronged. And indeed, the author believes this to be actually the case, that all blacks in America have been wronged. But this is a sweeping assertion: Have all blacks been wronged?

• Boxill approves philosopher John Rawls's "difference principle," which states that economic inequalities should not be permitted if they involve economic disadvantage to anyone. Surely this would be fatal to most progress. No great benefit in technology has occurred without putting someone at a temporary disadvantage. When automobiles were invented, for example, buggy-makers suffered.

But Boxill not only approves of Rawls's "difference principle"; he chides Rawls for not extending it from individuals to nations and endorsing it on an international scale. Its international application would mean that wealthy nations should provide massive economic aid to poorer nations.

One shudders to contemplate the consequences of such transfers of wealth. Individuals may voluntarily go to the aid of individuals and groups in poor countries and genuinely improve their lot. But Boxill's reference is specifically to nations. Yet pouring billions of American taxpayers' money into economically depressed foreign nations can be expected only to bankrupt the Americans who had to surrender some of their paychecks for this purpose, without even aiding the individuals in the poorer nations. These nation-to-nation transfers of wealth only fill the pockets of local dictators while the people remain as impoverished and dependent as ever. This is what 40 years and almost as many billions of dollars of American foreign aid have already conspicuously achieved, especially in Africa. (See Jonathan Kwitny, Endless Enemies.)

• In the 1890s, thousands of European immigrants poured into America, where many of them labored in sweatshops under conditions hardly imaginable today. But most of them did not remain there; most of them improved their lot quite rapidly, obtained better employment on their own, and some of them were millionaires within a decade. The secret was upward mobility. The government did not help them, but neither did it (as it does today) stand in their way.

Upward mobility is more difficult now than it was then because of the high level of taxation and the omnipresence of nuisance-regulations that keep most new businesses from succeeding. Yet even today one is moved by occasional brief newspaper accounts of individuals and families—Vietnamese, black, Lithuanian—who started out penniless and by dint of hard work, adaptability, and willingness to surmount difficulties, achieved a share in the "good life" that is still possible in America.

Boxill, in his highly motivated endeavor to rid America of racial discrimination, would call into being mechanisms and institutions that would reduce that upward mobility, eliminate the capitalization required to produce new jobs, and thus condemn to yet further generations of economic inferiority the very group he seeks most to help. The wheels of economic principles may grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly sure. In the process of tampering with their operation, Boxill, so high-mindedly devoted to the correction of injustice, may crush the very individuals for whose benefit he labors with such sincerity and intensity.

John Hospers is a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California and the author of numerous works on rights and social justice.

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