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A century later, the Japanese "bullet train" would be one of the technological wonders of the world, surpassing anything available in the United States. But, before this happened, a major cultural transformation had to take place among the Japanese people. A painful awareness of their own backwardness spread through Japan. Western nations in general and the United States in particular were held up as models to their children. Japanese textbooks urged imitation of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin, even more so than Japanese heroes. Many laments about their own shortcomings by the Japanese of that era would today be called "self-hate." But there were no cultural relativists then to tell them that what they had achieved was just as good, in its own way, as what others had. Instead, the Japanese overcame their backwardness, through generations of dedicated work and study, rather than redefining it out of existence.
Both the British and the Japanese became renowned for their ability to absorb the ideas and the technology of others and to carry them forward to higher levels. So did the Scots. At one time, it was common for Scots to blindly imitate the English, even using an English plow that proved to be unsuitable for the soil of Scotland. Yet, once they had absorbed what the English had to offer, the Scots then surpassed the English in some fields, notably medicine and engineering.
History does not offer blueprints for the present but it does offer examples and insights. If nothing else, it can warn us against becoming mesmerized by the heady visions and soaring rhetoric of the moment.
One of the most seductive visions of our time is the vision of "fairness" in a sense that the word never had before. At one time we all understood what was meant by a "fair fight." It meant that both fighters fought by the same Marquis of Queensbury rules. It did not mean that both fighters had equal strength, skill, experience or other factors that would make them equally likely to win.
In today's conception of fairness, only when all have the same prospects of winning is the fight fair. It was not in The Nation or some other left-wing magazine, but in the neoconservative quarterly The Public Interest that we find opportunity equated with "the same chance to succeed" or "an equal shot at a good outcome"-- regardless of the influence of social, cultural, or family background.
This confusion between the fairness of rules and the equality of prospects is spreading across the political spectrum. Regardless of which of these two things might be considered preferable, we must first be very clear in our own minds that they are completely different, and often mutually incompatible, if we are to have any hope of a rational discussion of policy issues ranging from anti-trust to affirmative action.
To add to the confusion, when prospects are not the same for all, this is then blamed on "the system" or "the rules of the game," as Brookings Senior Fellow Isabel V. Sawhill does in the Spring issue of The Public Interest. Rules and standards are the creation of particular human beings but circumstances need not be. Ms. Sawhill herself includes "good genes" among the circumstances which affect economic inequalities, and we might add all sorts of other geographic, demographic, cultural and historical factors that were not created by today's "rules of the game" or by "the system" or by anyone currently on the scene.
It makes sense to blame human beings for biased rules and standards. But who is to be blamed for circumstances that are the results of a confluence of all sorts of conditions of the past and present, interacting in ways that are hard to specify and virtually impossible to disentangle? Unless we wish to start a class action suit against geography or against the cosmos or the Almighty, we need to stop the pretense that somebody is guilty whenever the world does not present a tableau that suits our desires or fits our theories.
This new kind of "fairness" has never existed anywhere at any time. The real world has always been astronomically remote from any such condition. Nor are the costs and risks of trying to achieve this cosmic fairness small.
Crime rates soared when our courts began to concern themselves with such things as the unhappy childhoods of violent criminals or the "root causes" of crime in general. Those who paid the highest price for these excursions into cosmic justice were not the judges or the theorists whose notions the judges reflected, but the victims of rape, murder and terrorization by hoodlums.
The same preoccupation with "fairness" in some cosmic sense has often turned our anti-trust laws into ways of penalizing those whose lower costs enable them to sell profitably to the public at lower prices than those of their competitors who are struggling to survive. Here again there is often a pretense of villainy enshrined in rhetoric about "predatory" pricing or "domination" or "control" of the market. And here again there are third parties who lose-- the consumers.
Equating an absence of cosmic justice with villainy has become common in employment law as well. Companies whose employees do not statistically mirror the ethnic composition of the local labor force can be found guilty of "discrimination," even if no one can find a single employee or job applicant who has been treated unfairly by having different rules or standards applied to his or her work or qualifications.
Do we as individuals and as a nation wish that others less fortunate had our blessings? We should and we do. But our blessings as a nation did not consist of having other nations give us foreign aid. The blessings of individuals who have achieved in life have seldom taken the form of having others accept mediocre performances from them or make excuses for their counterproductive behavior.
Almost as mushy as the quest for cosmic justice is the notion that the alternative is to "do nothing" about the gross disparities in prospects that are common around the world. There has never been a moment in the entire history of the United States when we have done nothing. There are innumerable things that still need to be done, but spreading confusion is not one of them.
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