Partial Credit

Monday, August 16, 2010

Via Arts and Letters Daily comes a review by John McWhorter of Amy Wax's Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century. Wax makes an interesting argument against the notion that the government should the solve all the difficulties faced by many black Americans as a partial consequence of past racism and government dereliction in protecting individual rights for all citizens equally.

Wax identifies the illusion that mars American thinking on this subject as the myth of reverse causation -- that if racism was the cause of a problem, then eliminating racism will solve it. If only this were true. But it isn’t true: racism can set in motion cultural patterns that take on a life of their own. [It is also an illusion that a government, acting by force as it must, can eliminate racism. That can only occur with individuals changing their minds, one at a time -- something that it is impossible to make them do. --ed]

Wax appeals to a parable in which a pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian's medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossible. The legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience -- and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, "That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work."
This argument somewhat reminds me of so many in support of capitalism by economists in that it completely ignores underlying moral questions. To see the need for a normative dimension to any such argument one need only ask, "What does 'work' mean?"

Self-reliance and free markets both definitely produce material prosperity -- but that is because they are right for rational animals and societies thereof to adopt, and because material prosperity is good. Until that further fact is widely recognized, anti-materialistic preeners will feel perfectly free -- and morally justified -- to ignore and disparage all this practical (and moral) advice.

-- CAV

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