Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Character of Scarcity

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: The "Dream" Speech
This is often used as an argument against Affirmative Action programs. But that winds up making Affirmative Action into a judgement of character, when it should be simply a way of distributing scarce resources. And in a culture of scarcity, it's simply not possible that all character judgments are going to be objective, because, I believe, we have a tendency to place the divide between good and bad character in the same place as the line where the resources run out.

I was watching a documentary on fundamentalist groups within the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, and one thing they noted was that in factions that practice polygamy, there are very strict rules that unmarried men have to abide by - so strict that many bachelors fail to live up to them and are expelled from the group. This tends to result in a only a very small number of eligible, but unmarried, men living in the community - thus reducing the competition and conflicts over sex partners. Thus harmony is maintained.

It would not surprise me to learn that the same goes on in our broader society, minus the expulsions, of course. When handing out scarce resources, like education or career opportunities, on the basis of character having more eligible people than there are resources to go around is simply a recipe for friction as people become upset by the unfairness of it all.

In the end, the easiest way to get to a society in which people are judged on character, and for those judgments to be objective, is to increase the pool of available resources to the point where the competition for them is sharply reduced. People who have what they need are rarely willing to go out of their way to deprive others, for reasons of color or character.

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