Twenty-Six Letters

Essay by Tom Gregg       June 15, 2007


Life is Unfair—But They're Working on It

Recite it in English and you’ll find that the quasi-official motto of contemporary progressivism lacks a certain gravitas. Surely it would sound better in Latin—Ut est non mediocris. Better still, it could be rendered into Newspeak—Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc. 

I suppose it’s no surprise that in the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Orwell, the battle cry of the latte Leninists sounds so puerile. That’s not fair! It vibrates with the whine of gay activists, socially conscious Hollywood airheads, self-styled community leaders, Democratic members of Congress, global warming cultists, assistant professors of gender studies, Mothers against Drunk Driving, the New York Times editorial page—in short, the whole of what passes, in these degenerate times, for the Western intelligencia. And the particular object of their ire is good old unfair, retrograde America. 

Now of course it’s true that American society is unfair—but then (as John F. Kennedy memorably remarked) life is unfair. Sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off; sometimes virtue isn’t its own reward; sometimes bad things do happen to good people. Bigotry, hatred, laziness, stupidity and plain bum luck will always be with us. That may not be fair, but it’s the way of the world. People used to accept this as an immutable fact that couldn’t be dodged, like death or gravity. 

Nowadays, however, people are confused about the distinction between injustice and unfairness—because the intelligencia has a habit of conflating the two. But while it’s certainly true that what is unjust is also unfair, not all unfairness arises from injustice. I take injustice to denote a purposeful, deliberate injury—say, a denial of the right to vote. When it’s obvious that unfairness is the result, in whole or in part, of malice, bigotry, etc., injustice exists and the state has a duty to act. When, on the other hand, unfairness arises from an individual’s own lack of ambition, lack of talent, bad judgment or bad fortune—well, I for one am not sanguine about government’s ability to make everything all better. 

I’m not suggesting that societal unfairness should simply be ignored; I am arguing for realism. Given the limitations of both government activism and human wisdom, the best we can hope for is a society that minimizes the ill effects of unfairness. But progressives have always been dissatisfied with so puny an objective. Take that hardy perennial of progressive political rhetoric, “the widening gap between rich and poor.” This is the centerpiece of John Edward’s “two Americas” troupe, which he hopes will propel him into the White House. 

 Edwards claims that (1) the gap between rich and poor proves that there’s something fundamentally, needlessly unfair about American society, and (2) that purposeful political action can close the gap between the two Americas, ensuring fairness for all. But we hear very little from Edwards and other progressives about the specific causes of this widening gap. Oh, they emote over the evils of tax cuts and excessive executive compensation, decry the inadequacy of the minimum wage, lambaste Wal-Mart, etc., etc., but they seem curiously uninterested in discussing certain details. 

And no wonder, for on close examination the ideal to which they aspire—“economic fairness”—appears suspect if not totally bogus. It may be claimed that for Bill Gates to possess billions while a never-married nineteen-year-old single mother languishes on welfare is grossly unfair. But since it wasn’t Gates who impregnated and then abandoned her, why should anyone be pointing the finger at him? The person primarily responsible for our hypothetical single mom’s sad situation is the mom herself. If she now finds herself saddled with the consequences of her own bad choices, perhaps that’s fair enough. Those who still insist on pinning the blame elsewhere might consider going after the lowlife slacker who knocked her up and then vamoosed. 

But though unfairness can never be banished, it can easily be maximized. Despotic regimes do this deliberately so as to provide the ruling nomenklatura with its perks and privileges. Much more common, however, is the unfairness produced in democratic countries by well-meaning social engineers seeking to stamp out such evils as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The classic example is affirmative action, supposedly an anti-racist social policy. Surely the inventors of affirmative action had no intention of exacerbating racial tensions. Yet they have done precisely that by saddling America with a vast, Orwellian system of racial quotas—a kinder, gentler version of Jim Crow. 

John Edwards’ “two Americas” came into existence in somewhat the same manner, through disregard of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Take a look at America’s poor. Who are they? They are Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, they are inner-city blacks, and they are women. They are the products of a dysfunctional immigration system, of a second-rate educational system, and of a host failed or wrong-headed social policies. 

Current immigration policies (high levels of legal immigration, toleration of illegal immigration, neglect of assimilation) enable Mexico to export its poverty problem to the United States. Poor public schools, particularly in the inner cities, make it virtually impossible for children of poor families, immigrant or native-born, to take the first step out of poverty by acquiring a good basic education. Since the 1960s, social welfare policies (aided and abetted by an increasingly corrupt and frivolous popular culture) have conspired to break the link between marriage and childbearing, soft-pedal the importance of the traditional two-parent family, and drive up the divorce rate. 

These pathologies account for a substantial chunk of the poverty problem in America. And they can all be traced back to the well-intentioned actions of progressively minded people who wished to eradicate some real or perceived unfairness: discriminatory immigration quotas, racism, the tyranny of the patriarchy, the stigma of bastardy, etc., etc. Progressives of earlier generations labored hard and long to ameliorate these ills, with the result that the sum total of unfairness afflicting America may actually have increased since the 1960s.

But today even the excuse of good intentions gone awry is wearing thin. Fairness, once an ideal, has degenerated into a fetish. Like global warming hysteria or the farcical campaign against genocide in Darfur, the quest for fairness bears the stigmata of baby boomer narcissism. It’s no longer about finding effective answers to social problems; after so many failures and broken promises, “social engineering” has about the same degree of intellectual respectability as the Flat Earth Theory. Nowadays, “fighting for fairness” is just another way for trendy progressives and phony-baloney populists like John Edwards to bolster their self-esteem while grabbing more and more power for themselves. In the process, they are systematically tearing up the roots of American prosperity, order and liberty. And that’s just not fair.


Copyright © 2007 by Thomas M. Gregg