If you read this blog, you’ve probably noticed its writers largely agree that the political state does more than its share of unjust things. But that point is pretty mundane. I’d venture that a majority of academic folks we associate with across the political spectrum broadly agree about the most egregious examples of political injustice.
Sometimes, however, there is a case where something seems obviously unjust to me, but for some reason a lot of academics I know see it differently. This post is about Lori Loughlin, who yesterday was sentenced over her well-publicized ploy to get her children into USC under the guise of a rowing scholarship. I confess this strikes me as crazy.
Here’s a case to warm you up to my view. Imagine you want to get into Fancyperson Richclub, an exclusive fraternity for the well-heeled and well-mannered. One of the rules of admission is that your parents and grandparents must have also met certain criteria of membership among the social elite. As it happens, your family’s past is checkered with markers of low and middle class heritage. Your application is turned down. Indignant, you fabricate a new family history, purging old family pictures of birthdays at Cheesecake Factory and photoshopping in nights at the symphony, etc. etc. Unused to your plucky ambition, Fancyperson Richclub is duped. They admit you.
Is your action wrong? Well, there is some deception, which is often wrong. But in some cases, deception as a way of parrying unjust background conditions – or what philosophers sometimes call defensive deception – is ok. I’ll admit mileage may vary on this question.
Is your action unjust? Here I say no, it’s not unjust. If they smell you out as a low class striver, they’re free to excommunicate you. That’s freedom of association. But nothing more.
Second case. Over the years, Fancyperson Richclub starts losing members and money. Sure, they still have their pride, but that doesn’t pay for the ice sculptures. They decide to take a few members with less distinguished pedigrees, provided they can make a “donation” up front. You just have to take your "donation" to the Appropriate Office. As long as you do, you’re in. But if by chance you take your “donation” to the Inappropriate Office, the attendant there calls the police on you. As it happens, you bring your briefcase of cash to the Inappropriate Office and get made. The police arrest you.
Here is what puzzles me. I don’t know why the state should intervene at all. And if the state intervenes, why take the side of Fancyperson Richclub? Doing that looks plain suspicious. It’s almost as if the state had some interest in defending the old class structure.
I’m going to introduce a technical term. I will call something a “scam” whenever some agent or group represents themselves as something they’re not in order to get a positional advantage. Elite colleges like to represent themselves as not trading admissions for money. That way they can maintain certain reputational gains that give them a positional edge. At the same time, elite colleges trade admissions for money. So elite colleges are engaged in a scam.
Astonishingly, Lori Loughlin got the better of them. How did a middle class divorcee turned B-list celebrity do it? The answer to that question is the stuff of what I regret will probably not be first Hallmark true-crime thriller.
How should an egalitarian minded political society regard people who scam the scammers? Polite indifference? Public commendation? A medal of some kind? Those are my pre-theoretical intuitions.
Not so. Lori Loughlin was sentenced to two months in jail. I think this is unjust.
I’ve had this argument with a few people. Sometimes I’m told that it wasn’t fair for Lori Loughlin’s kids to get admitted to USC because they took some else’s spot. Three responses. First, I want to note that most academics tend to think “you took my spot!” reasoning betrays a kind of category mistake. Second, for spot-taking to be unfair, it must be the case that the person who’s spot was taken was in fact more deserving. But third, let’s say for the sake of the argument they were more deserving. Now some star high school rower is slumming it on the crew team at UC Santa Barbara instead of USC. And we’re going to put Lori Loughlin in a cage used by some humans to physically contain other humans as a form of punishment? Insanity. At the worst, we should make her send a note of apology or something.
But really, why should the state intervene at all? To me it looks suspicious. It’s almost as if they had some interest in defending the existing class structure. Maybe you disagree. I realize I’m in the minority. But if you’re on the other side, I am curious who you think the bad guys are in any heist movie you’ve ever watched.