Thomas Sowell

THERE was a time when Thanksgiving meant an occasion for counting our blessings. But, now that we have so many blessings that previous generations could hardly have dreamed about, we take them all for granted and are much more likely to count our grievances and the ways in which others have been unfair to us.

Everybody is for "fairness" -- because we all use the same word to mean very different things. Most of us think you have been treated fairly when you have been treated the same as everyone else -- subjected to the same rules and judged by the same standards. But some think that you have been treated fairly only if you have had the same chances as everyone else.

These are very different and completely incompatible notions. When the rules of basketball treat me the same as they treat Michael Jordan, that does not mean that we have equal chances of success. In fact, that virtually guarantees that I have no chance.

People on opposite sides of political and legal issues often talk right past each other because they are using the same words to mean totally different and mutually contradictory things. When statistics are flung around on the "disparities" -- often called "inequities" -- between different groups, the implication is that such statistical differences could not exist without unfair treatment.

Even in situations where there is a total absence of evidence for this unfair treatment, that scarcely causes a pause. If there is no evidence, then there must be "covert" discrimination, a "glass ceiling" or some other elusive and sinister influence that you cannot substantiate. This kind of circular reasoning says in effect, "heads I win and tails you lose."

Politically, there are few ideas more potent than the notion that all your problems are caused by other people and their unfairness to you. That notion was the royal road to unbridled power for Hitler, Lenin, Mao, and Pol Pot -- which is to say, millions of human beings paid with their lives for believing it.

The unfairness that these demagogues talked about was not a myth. Nothing is easier than finding examples of unfair treatment among human beings. The fatal misstep is in assuming that such unfairness can be presumed whenever results are unequal. For the truly clever, unfairness is simply defined as anything producing unequal results or unequal prospects.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate