Monday, May 29, 2006

Cosmic Justice

Personal characteristics should have nothing to do with one's fundamental rights as a citizen -- the peaceful enjoyment of life, liberty, and property -- and should affect a person's procedural rights (e.g., voting) only in an effort to ensure that those rights are exercised responsibly. The right to vote, for example, is circumscribed to take into account

  • the attainment of mature judgment, as best as can be determined by a voter's age (though 18 is hardly an age of mature judgment, and 30 would be closer to the mark)
  • a stake in the acts of government (though mere citizenship used not be be qualifying, it certainly is better than residence without citizenship); and
  • demonstrated respect for the rule of law (imprisoned felons cannot vote in any State but Vermont or Maine).

"Positive" governmental acts, that is, acts of intervention in private affairs, ought to be similarly neutral and minimally discriminatory. To the extent that such acts are necessary (e.g., taxation for the purpose of funding the common defense), they should be designed so as not to create dependence on government or to stifle initiative by penalizing success, and especially not to distort voluntary social and economic relationships.

Why? Because it is through those relationships that we signal each other to inculcate and elicit wanted behaviors, and to discourage unwanted behaviors. Those relationships and signals become less effective when government goes beyond the assurance of fundamental rights and the minimal administration of procedural rights, that is, when government abandons neutrality.

"Neutral government" is an oxymoron, of course. For example, government has at various times enforced slavery and racial segregation, denied voting rights on the basis of race and gender, and -- more recently -- enabled the suppression of political speech (through campaign finance "reform" and speech codes at public universities) and foisted racial discrimination (i.e., affirmative action) on private places of employment.

Affirmative action is one of those policies (like progressive taxation and tax-funded disaster relief) that has arisen from a misguided "quest for cosmic justice" (to use Thomas Sowell's term). Those who seek cosmic justice are not content to allow individuals to accomplish what they can, given their genes, their acquired traits, their parents' wealth (or lack of it), where they were born, when they live, and so on. Rather, those who seek cosmic justice cling to the Rawlsian notion that no one "deserves" better "luck" than anyone else. But "deserves" and "luck" are emotive, value-laden terms. Those terms suggest that there is some kind of great lottery in the sky, in which each of us participates, and that some of us hold winning tickets -- which equally "deserving" others might just have well held, were it not for "luck."

That is not what happens, of course. Humankind simply is varied in its genetic composition, personality traits, accumulated wealth, geographical distribution, etc. Consider a person who is born in the United States of brilliant, wealthy parents -- and who inherits their brilliance, cultivates his inheritance (mental and monetary), and goes on to live a life of accomplishment and wealth, while doing no harm and great good to others. Such a person is neither "lucky" nor less "deserving" than anyone else. He merely is who he is, and he does what he does. There is no question of desert or luck.

Such reasoning does not dissuade those who seek cosmic justice, which seems to be almost everyone. It's probably a good chunk of the "80 percent," who envy the other "20 percent," that is, those persons whose brains, talent, money, and/or drive yield them a disproportionate -- but not unwarranted -- degree of fortune, fame, and power. But among the seekers of cosmic justice also are many of the "20 percent," that is, the rich, famous, and powerful who hypocritically use government to enforce their notions of what is "right."

Our law-makers are, for the most part, seekers of cosmic justice. And they accrue power by appealing to their fellow seekers of cosmic justice. Thus they have saddled us with progressive taxation, affirmative action, and a plethora of other disincentivizing, relationship-shattering, signal-distorting policies. It is supremely ironic that those policies have made all of us (except perhaps thieves) far worse off than we would be if government were to get out of the cosmic justice business.