Can you all stand some semi-philosophical musing? Because I’ve been mulling something over, and wonder where you all come down on my rethinking of an old adage…
We’ve all heard the saying, usually credited to Winston Churchill, to the effect that “if you’re under 30 and not a liberal, you don’t have a heart, but if you are over 30 and not conservative, you don’t have a brain.”
As I have aged, studied law and history, and dabbled in political philosophy, I’ve come to think old Winston (or whoever) got it exactly backwards.
When I was much younger, the importance of individualism, of personal responsibility for success or failure seemed obvious: one’s life prospects were shaped by one’s energy, skill, hard work, moral merit…People who failed to do well in life simply lacked some essential personal attribute (if it was intellect, that was an unfortunate consequence of heredity, but other deficits seemed more optional.)
As a young person, I shared America’s cultural emphasis on individual merit and obliviousness of systemic realities. It never occurred to me that the popular admonition to “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps!” incorporated the very misleading assumption that everyone had bootstraps.(Not to mention feet.)
When I had lived a little longer–and especially when I went to law school–I began to see the flaw in those early assumptions. It turns out that our society has a number of structural elements that make life a lot harder for some individuals than for others.
A couple of random examples:
I still remember a long-ago conversation with a friend–a criminal defense lawyer–who explained that when the police arrested a middle-class white kid for smoking pot, he could usually get him off with what amounted to a slap on the wrist. If that kid was Black, however, the result was usually different. The system was less forgiving. (He also pointed out that the White kid from the suburbs who was “using” in the basement rec room of his house was far less likely to be apprehended than the the poor Black kid who was nabbed on the street…)
And I often think of another friend–White male, intelligent, 6’2,” athletic, whose parents had both graduated from prestigious universities– who firmly believed that his own (moderate) success was exclusively the result of his individual merit and hard work, and who insisted that anyone in America could achieve what he had if they just tried.
There are–as most of us now recognize–many, many more examples of what we’ve come to call the operation of “privilege”–a status that may not confer benefits, but does eliminate structural barriers faced by people who encounter those barriers by virtue of their race, religion, gender, poverty or other facet of their identity or status.
It was my encounter with the political philosophy of John Rawls, and especially his “veil of ignorance,” that really opened my eyes to the importance of social systems to our individual life prospects. Rawls’ challenge is deceptively simple: imagine you haven’t been born yet, and you don’t have any way of knowing what your circumstances and personal attributes will be. You might be Black or White, beautiful or ugly, smart or mentally stunted, healthy or maimed, born into wealth or poverty…the lists (and options) go on. What kind of world– with what kind of social contract– would you want to be born into?
What sort of society would be most likely to treat you fairly no matter who or what you turned out to be?
Individual merit, however we define that, is obviously important. So are the social systems within which we individuals must apply our particular skills and talents. If America ever emerges from the “cold civil war” in which it is currently embroiled, we need to consider the appropriate balance between the two. We don’t want or need a system that fails to reward diligence and creativity–but we also can’t afford to perpetuate the structural barriers that prevent too many of our citizens from applying their diligence and creativity in ways that benefit us all.