Monday, August 02, 2004

On the level

(Rant warning. Proceed with caution.)

Both sides in this political season have already managed to hit one of my pet peeves (there are many) by talking about the "need to level the playing field". This is one of those phrases that has an emotional appeal to our sense of fair play, but when you stop and think about it is just a fancy way of saying, "WAH!"

We tell our children all the time, "Life's not fair." And it isn't. There are people in this world who are smarter than me. And richer. And more famous. And more talented. And more well liked. And better looking. (Though that last one isn't too hard to manage.) Does the fact that others have an advantage over me excuse me from being responsible for the outcome of my life? I wish.

The appeal to level the playing field is simply a ploy to take from the "haves" and give to the "have nots". The underlying assumption is that folks are randomly distributed on the high/low scale through no fault of their own. And who among us would think this is right or fair? But the reality is that we are all born with different strengths, weaknesses, drives and ambitions. And even those who have the same strengths have differing levels of effort and commitment. Leveling the playing field ignores our uniqueness as individuals. It demands equal outcomes regardless of how much time and effort is expended. An appeal to "level the playing field" is at best class warfare and at worst, socialism.

I have some musical ability. Better than average for the most part. In high school I was first chair trumpet and was in the all district band. I have a decent singing voice. As I told Francesca the other night, I'm not anywhere near good enough to be a professional (like she is), but I can sing without people throwing up, leaving the room or wincing in pain. However, there are others who have had more success than I, either through their hard work, or just sheer raw talent, or more likely, a combination of both. But I think I enjoy playing and singing just as much as they do. It's not fair that THEY should be successful while no one pays any attention to me. Yeah, I know they've put more into it, but doggone it, if we just LEVELED THE PLAYING FIELD, I'd have a better chance at success.

Ridiculous, right?

And let's take it to the logical end. Say the musical playing field was somehow leveled. I still have the same level of talent I did before and I'm still going to put the same effort into it that I currently do. How long before things are back where they started? Do we level the playing field again? If so, just how many times should it be leveled? Two? Ten? Once a year? Once every ten years? And who gets to decide how to level it anyway?

We hear about level playing fields a lot when politicians talk about business opportunities. But the next time you hear someone use the phrase, pay attention to what they bring up as examples. In almost every case, their examples point to a lack of equal OUTCOMES, not equal opportunities. Can unequal outcomes be caused by lack of equal opportunity? You betcha. But can unequal outcomes also be the direct result of the level of talent and ambition and effort? You betcha again. So, unequal outcomes are NOT proof of an unleveled playing field. Yet, more often than not, that's the only proof given.

You know what I think would be better than telling people that we should be leveling the playing fields of life, that life should be fair and that we should change the rules mid-stream? Tell them to grow up. Tell them that instead of complaining about the rules and about how disadvantaged they are, they should be learning the rules and finding a way to succeed on the existing field of play. It happens all the time.

You want examples? How about two from the left and two from the right: John Edwards, Clarence Thomas, Barack Obama and Miguel Estrada. None of them had the good life handed to them, yet they worked within the existing rules and found a way to succeed.

Now quit your whining and get to work.

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