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Yes, Privilege Exists, But Government Can’t Fix It


David Marcus says it’s time for the Right to take privilege theory seriously. This mutant of Marxist class warfare attempts to justify extensive and highly personal government intervention into all our lives. That should be reason enough for people who love liberty to reason through a response, just as it’s been reason enough for people who favor government redistribution to have increased their advocacy for it on these grounds.

I think there’s a second factor at work, too. It’s the deeply human feeling of being out of joint with the universe, something thinking people have been trying to describe and set right for centuries. At core, it’s about theodicy, or the Problem of Pain: Explaining how good and justice can exist, and be known and constant, if in this world they also clearly coexist with suffering.

How could it be just for me to be born whole when some are born disabled? It’s not their fault, right? How is it fair for me to have been born to parents who remained married, and thus benefited me immeasurably, while many children are born half or whole orphans, and also immeasurably harmed, again through no fault of their own? Privilege theory at its best, when it is not a cynical masquerade for socialism or worse, is one of many attempts to right these apparent wrongs in the universe.

First, let’s talk about what privilege theory asserts, the political implications, then its moral implications.

Some People Have Privilege—Duh

It’s pretty hard to dispute the basic proposition of privilege theory, that some people are born into advantages they, themselves, have not earned. That fact has been evident just about as long as society has existed. The truth of its converse is also obvious: Some people are born into adverse circumstances that are in no way their fault.

This truth was obvious to the same Founders who, as Abraham Lincoln summarized in his Gettysburg Address, themselves and in establishing this country were “dedicated to the proposition that all men are equal.” In the famous Federalist 10, James Madison wrote about the sources of factions, or natural divisions that contribute to class warfare within a society:

From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.

The truth of this statement is so obvious it hardly needs discussing. Some people have more good things than others, and not through some higher inherent worth, but apparently just because. This seems patently unfair, right? If I’m equal in value to someone who was born to a poor family, why should life be harder for the poor child?

If we don’t want to end up at the conclusion that natural inequality demands some complex government wealth and position redistribution scheme probably as sensible and immune to special interests as the typical state school funding formula (which, for those who don’t know, are highly politicized, favorable to insiders, and so complicated even lawyers who specialize in school finance aren’t sure what’s going on), we’re going to have to grapple with questions like these. So if privilege theory’s major premise is true, why is its conclusion insane? Well, because its major premise omits a lot, and its conclusion will make life worse for everyone rather than achieve genuine justice.

Privilege Is Intergenerational

The first thing to consider is that, while certain individuals may have advantages or disadvantages they did not earn, very often someone else did earn them. We know, for example, that children born into stable families have better odds at a happier life than do children born to fractured, dysfunctional families. It is hard work to fight relationship entropy. Therefore, it is certainly just for couples to enjoy the fruits of this labor, which include higher lifetime earnings and lower risk for many health problems, and it is just for them to pass the fruits of their labor on to their children. They have, indeed, earned this privilege.

We might call this a social inheritance. Consider some recent illustrations of it, from the new book by Robert Putnam, “Our Kids”:

the percentage of children living in single-parent homes has been falling in college-educated circles since the mid-1990s even as it has been rising in homes headed by parents with a high-school diploma or less. Mr. Putnam reports that, by the time they start kindergarten, children from professional families hear 19 million more words than children from working-class families. Even the religious gap between the rich and the poor—traditionally rather narrow—is widening. These days, Mr. Putnam laments, ‘poor families are generally less involved in religious communities than affluent families,’ which is unfortunate, he notes, given that churchgoing is associated with better performance in school, less drinking and drug use, and less delinquency.

Most people think it is fair for families to be able to pass on to their children what those families have earned through hard work. The ability to do so is a huge positive motivator for many parents, and sacrificing oneself to better one’s children is noble. The same people who would insist on snatching away these kids’ advantages are often the ones who cheer on illegal immigrants who are functionally pursuing (and often achieving) the same thing. Who would be so cold-hearted and selfish as to argue for taking away good things for some children simply because every child can’t have them? We should instead urge everyone to do what privileges their children, too, and show them how.

What is actually unfair is taking from a society the intellectual and financial riches it has, over time, accumulated and passed down to its children.

Further, the hard work that individual couples perform to provide a better life for their children has positive spillover effects for everyone else. Remember the recent study that showed social mobility for all children is highest in neighborhoods and cities where higher proportions of parents are married, more people attended church and were otherwise engaged in their communities, and people of different incomes live closer together? The poorest children stood the most to gain from living in such communities. In other words, it is impossible for government to forcibly redistribute fathers so that equal percentages of poor and rich kids have theirs in their lives. But it is possible for good fathers, of their own volition, to redistribute themselves, in a sense; for where there are more of them, the kids who don’t have dads are less likely to be damaged by their fatherlessness.

Indeed, the compounded effects of many generations of most families within a certain culture making the hard choices and sacrifices to better their children creates a certain inheritance that ultimately lifts that entire society above others. Notice that I am granting cultural and even ethnic privilege to some extent. But my argument again indicates that it is often deserved privilege, not at all random and unfair. What is actually unfair is taking from a society the intellectual and financial riches it has, over time, accumulated and passed down to its children.

Redistributing Privilege Really Isn’t Sensible

The hard-core privilege theorists will argue that it doesn’t matter if a person’s parents or ancestors earned a good portion of the good things he enjoys but didn’t work for. They, like other modern liberals, sound much like their intellectual father, John Rawls. Here’s a summary of part of his theory of Justice from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Rawls’s negative thesis is that citizens do not deserve to be born into a rich or a poor family, to be born naturally more or less gifted than others, to be born female or male, to be born a member of a particular racial group, and so on. Since these features of persons are in this sense morally arbitrary, citizens are not at the deepest level entitled to more or less of the benefits of social cooperation because of them. For example the fact that a citizen was born rich, white, and male provides no reason in itself for this citizen to be either favored or disfavored by social institutions…All social goods are to be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution would be to everyone’s advantage.

Here we see Rawls tossing the reality that cultural and financial wealth accumulates (and deteriorates) over time, and refusing to admit the justice of allowing parents to create a better life for their children through hard work, self-control, and sacrifice. In his world, individuals must stand alone. Therefore, they must not receive any benefits from their parents, and any benefits available to anyone must be broken up and shared by all.

It is literally impossible to create any sensible system of redistribution for every advantaging or disadvantaging characteristic known to humankind.

This theory of equality may sound attractive and sensible, but it leads to mayhem and cruelty. For one, it would require either redistributing children randomly to ensure none get a better chance at better parents by being born into a stronger cultural tradition, or holding back the children and parents who exhibit higher natural gifts than anyone else. Or, I suppose, one could give children no parents at all and whisk them away from their mothers at birth to grow in communal daycare centers until maturity—but even then some children will simply have better genes than others, and some will be born with defects.

I’ll get to the acts of nature in a second, but first a last point here: Privilege theorists pretend that we can create a more just society by creating complex systems of affirmative action centered on their favored Marxist categories: Race, sexuality, class. But there are almost countless ways people are born and develop unequally. Some are more gifted at art, or mechanics. Some are more bookish, while others are acrobatic. Some have worse tempers. It is literally impossible to create any sensible system of redistribution for every advantaging or disadvantaging characteristic known to humankind. Government can’t even calculate, much less right, human disparities. But, under Rawls’ theory of justice, it is utterly unfair not to do so. People must be substantially equalized in every way. The implications are both comical and horrific.

What About Random Acts of Chance?

Not every good or bad thing in a person’s life is something someone has earned. There’s another variable outside of human influence, something that creates the inherent infairness that seems to operate in this world. It manifests in unchangeable, uncontrollable realities such as genetics and accidents. We all feel the injustice of a child born disabled, or into poverty, or into a country like North Korea. That child could be me. It could be you. How is it right for some people to have a bigger share of apparently accidental evil in their lives?

Really, what people who support government action for reasons of privilege theory are doing is demanding a temporal solution to an eternal question.

This is a cosmic question no government program can answer, even if it were possible and practical for some machine to compute each of our advantages and disadvantages and adjust our lives accordingly. Really, what people who support government action for reasons of privilege theory are doing is demanding a temporal solution to an eternal question. This is a common key problem with liberal politics. It asks the State to save men’s souls to perfect us completely. In this instance, it’s asking the State to provide omniscient justice. The State cannot do that. Only God can.

Yes, our universe is, as Hamlet complained of time, “out of joint.” But humans cannot put the universe back into its joint. Only God can provide cosmic justice, can ultimately satisfy our need for all wrongs to end, because only God knows all the various strengths and weaknesses of our individual souls, and all the things that went into producing them, and whether a particular action or outcome was entirely our fault or some portion inborn or due to someone else’s fault. Only the one who made the world can put it right.

In “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis explains how impossible it is for us to know why one person has a nice life and another does not, on precisely these grounds. We cannot judge whether we have earned each good or evil thing in our lives, and to what extent. He concludes with this, of which the first paragraph and last sentence are my favorites:

if you are a poor creature—poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels—saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion—nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends—do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all—not least yourself: For you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)

…We must try by every medical, educational, economic, and political means in our power to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up ‘nice’; just as we must try to produce a world where all have plenty to eat. But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might be even more difficult to save.

For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.