27 March 2010

Bomb Patterns and Social Justice

“Bomb patters?” General Peckham repeated, twinkling with self-satisfied good humor. “A bomb pattern is a term I dreamed up just several weeks ago. It means nothing, but you’d be surprised at how rapidly it’s caught on. Why, I’ve got all sorts of people convinced I think it’s important for the bombs to explode close together and make a neat aerial photograph. There’s one colonel in Pianosa who’s hardly concerned any more with whether he hits the target or not.”
                                  - Joseph Heller, Catch-22

For good or for ill, I’ve attempted sporadically to find a sound definition for the term social justice. I have failed. And then just several days ago, I read the above portion of Catch-22 and realized that searching for a definition would be chasing the wind. There is no definition; it is some mushy bit of diction used to justify whatever might need to be justified at the moment, and it’s only apparent application involved political power and exercising a “victim” class so as to gain and/or maintain political power.

Yet, just as Peckham’s bomb pattern idea found devotees quickly, social justice has its own political following – or perhaps it is one of the tools of choice for one political party and flirted with by the other (under the heading of “compassion”). Take the recent passage of health care insurance “reform.” The public has been told varying reasons that the type of reform Democrats pushed through was required, including endless stories of special cases where some bit or piece – or the whole lot – of the health care machinery failed someone. This is the perfect situation where social justice is applicable. Never mind that bad things happen to people, that no human being is healthy forever, or that as imperfect beings, humans make mistakes. The victim of the deleterious health care system must have justice, social justice. Thus, the overhaul and extended regulation is justified; a tighter bomb pattern is achieved. Equality of outcome. At least that’s how it may look from on high by the experts who have begun to administer the program will perceive it. Perhaps we’ll be hearing about the number of lives “created or saved” under the “reform” at some point around 2016. The aerial photo of health care, in other words, will be appealing.

Indeed, the bombs in the health care “solution” may land very close together in the near future. But equality does not mean quality, just as precision does not mean accuracy. A very precise bowler can knock down the number ten pin only on a regular basis, but a professional career is not in that person’s future unless accuracy is improved. I would argue that equality of outcome, which is at least superficially the goal of social justice, is an attempt to create more precise outcomes for everyone. If every shot is off-target in exactly the same way, then equality has been achieved. Not that this precision will make health care better. Nor will it make people happier if the outcomes of health “care” are, to put it euphemistically, undesirable. One might argue that one technique, universally applied, does not account for the natural diversity of people, communities, and particularities. An equally applied solution which makes matters worse over time does not tend to make folks feel good about being equal. It might even make them rightly distrustful of those in power who precisely and firmly believe that they know better.

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