Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Rights and Racism

The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son ~ Ezekiel 18:19-20 
[They’re saying] let’s help individual A by punishing individual B for what individual C did to individual D some years ago ~ Walter Williams
Last week I had the opportunity to speak with an ethnically diverse group of young people about what it meant to be a New Zealander. The discussion was, for the most part, constructive and respectful. The most encouraging voices were those of recent immigrants, all of whom saw themselves as Kiwis and who were keen to make the best of the opportunities in this country. The only discord came from those of Maori descent, who saw themselves as something special with rights that trumped those of other New Zealanders.

The great achievement of Western civilisation is its recognition of the dignity and sovereignty of the individual, and the best manifestation of this achievement is the idea of universal individual rights. But we seem to have forgotten the true nature of such rights. If they are universal, they cannot be diminished by anyone else's rights, and if they are individual, they cannot be vitiated by notions of the collective good. Governments do not bestow these rights - they are inherent to us as human beings and the role of a government is to protect, not to abrogate, them. They are certainly not the right to anything (such as a job or a house). The corollary of the idea of universal individual rights is that we should judge others as individuals rather than as members of some identity group over which they have control and which they did not choose to join.

Racism means judging someone primarily on the basis of their race. There is no denying that racism still exists in Western societies but the term is so overused today as to be either meaningless or antonymic. If I decide a Maori shouldn't get a job because he is a Maori then I am being racist. If I decide a Maori shouldn't get a job because he is not as well qualified for the position as a non-Maori candidate, then I am not being racist. Nor is it racist to object to 'affirmative action' programmes, which discriminate in favour of people on the basis of race. Such programmes are racist in themselves because they assume that those who benefit from the programme are not capable of competing on even terms with people of other races.

Institutional racism is the premise that the institutions of society, such as schools, universities, employers, the courts, etc., are racially biased. The term is used to explain any situation where one racial group has different average outcomes to another racial group - for example, the fact that there are approximately five times the number of African-Americans in prison compared to 'white' Americans is often attributed to institutional racism in the US justice system. There is no doubt that there is a history of institutional racism in the United States - the Jim Crow laws in the South were obvious examples. However, claims of insitutional racism today are usually made on the basis of single variant analysis, i.e. the difference in outcomes is ascribed to solely to one factor - in this case, race. This is usually lazy and inept science because almost any significant difference between defined groups in a population, when subject to comprehensive analysis, turns out to have multi-variant causes (for example, this excellent article in Quillette magazine explains why the commonly-held beliefs about institutional racism for African-Americans are at best simplistic, and at worst false).

Institutional racism is a convenient cause for activists on the political left because the theory supports collectivist political solutions. If minority groups are institutionally discriminated against then surely we must change society's institutions? Nothing is off-limits - the legal, educational, economic and social systems are all fair game - and the need for total change justifies totalitarian solutions. Marxism, the political philosophy that is predicated on group victimhood, is particularly attractive to those who define all human interaction in oppressor-victim terms. It does not matter that Marxism has produced worse outcomes for everyone everywhere it has been tried - the good intentions justify the means and of course this time it will be different.

Here in New Zealand it has become popular to ascribe the relatively poor economic, social and justice outcomes for people of Maori descent to institutional racism and the attempts at redress have come to dominate our political discourse and to affect every aspect of political, economic and social policy. The most significant redress has been taxpayer-funded compensation to present-day Maori tribal leaders for alleged historical breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi (which was signed between the British Crown and Maori chiefs in 1840, making Maori British subjects and protecting their property). Recently, we have moved beyond Treaty of Waitangi compensation to granting Maori special legal rights over and above those of other New Zealanders, such as enabling them to claim ownership of the entire New Zealand coastline and territorial waters and to have superior voting rights in local government elections.

Preferential rights based on racial characteristics are morally and legally repugnant, whether they are the Jim Crow laws or special voting rights for Maori. They cannot be implemented without abrogating the rights of others. They aggravate the divisions and antagonisms that may already exist between racial groups and do nothing to enhance the individual achievement of the people concerned (for example, there is good empirical evidence that preferential racial admission programmes in US universities lead to higher levels of academic failure amongst those granted preferential admission).

It is worrying that many New Zealanders think that people of Maori ancestry should have superior rights to the rest of us. It means that they regard rights as goods to be allocated according to some arbitrary criteria such as racial inheritance. Of course, if rights are so tradable, then whoever doles them out can take them away just as arbitrarily.

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