by Eric Oppen
Exclusive to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
Bn the 19th century, the British Army had a problem. After the Napoleonic Wars, it had had little of importance to do. In this atmosphere, the evils of the “purchase” system of obtaining officers’ commissions came to full flower. It took some spectacular scandals and the experience of the Crimean War to get rid of this system, and even then, there was resistance.
In actual wartime the system did not work too badly. Incompetents either died or learned their trade. And many excellent officers, the first Duke of Wellington prominent among them, came up through purchase. But in peacetime, the system was abused by wealthy young idlers who fancied themselves in pretty uniforms. These young men would buy commissions, and then buy their way up the ranks, “exchanging” regiments when the units they were assigned to were due to go overseas. It was notorious that “plungers” and “swells,” two terms used for such gilded youths, were seldom or never seen serving in India or the rest of the Empire. They were to be found in fashionable parts of London, or at Brighton, or other such haunts of the upper class.
The apotheosis of this was James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan. He had longed to be a soldier all his life, but as the only son of his noble house, he had been prevented from joining up even though he had been of age to do so in the last years of the Napoleonic Wars. Only after the fighting was he allowed to become an officer, but after that, his advancement was rapid. Not because of his great military skill. While he had some of the elements of a good soldier—he was an expert, fearless horseman, and had a keen eye for detail—he was also stupid, had no sense of proportion and was a martinet. In addition to all of these faults, he was a raving snob with a particular dislike for “Indian” officers—i.e., those who had served in India. Since “Indian” officers were almost always of lower social rank than himself, he set to work to drive them from the regiment.
Cardigan’s tyranny and abuse of his position forced the War Office to remove him from command of his regiment, an unheard-of thing. But since his family had very great influence at Court, he was able to assume command of another regiment, where he showed quickly that he had learned nothing. Fresh scandals and uproars ensued, until the Duke of Wellington had to intervene personally.
In the Crimean War, this whole system started showing its flaws very openly. On the British side, things were a muddled mess, with a senile old man who had last held command against Napoleon I in command and the gilded youths I have mentioned making a general hash of things. The Charge of the Light Brigade is the best-known example of this. It was not Lord Cardigan’s fault, but between personal jealousies among the officers on the scene and an incompetently-written, vague order, the Light Brigade rode to glory and near-destruction.
You may ask why I am discussing this old problem. The purchase system in the British Army was abolished in 1871, and the parallel problem of “political generals” (men whose political clout ensured them high-ranking positions) in the US Army ended with the Civil War. The reason I am bringing it up is because we have a parallel problem today. That problem is affirmative action.
Affirmative action was originally well-meant. But we all know what road is paved with good intentions, don’t we? As originally set up, it was nothing more than a way to get colleges and employers to consider candidates who were otherwise well-qualified, but would have been overlooked due to their race or gender. But it very rapidly morphed into a quota program, due to it being required by the government.
How better, after all, to show compliance, should the equal-opportunity police come snooping, than by having some conspicuous “minority” employees in the office or workplace? If these employees can actually do the work for which they were ostensibly hired, that’s a plus—but if they can’t, no big deal. Just slough as much of their work as possible off onto other employees. The other employees won’t mind. Not if they want to stay employees, they won’t!
This has led to real bad feeling in many workplaces. The other employees who have to do the work that the “affirmative action” employees should have done do resent the extra workload, and resent even more the fact that the “affirmative action” employees get promotions they do not deserve, and are more likely to be retained in the event of retrenchment than the regular rank-and-file.
Note that I do not speak of all minority employees, by any means. Unfortunately, the existence of affirmative action means that legitimate accomplishments by members of politically-favored minorities are always under a shadow. There is always the suspicion that those accomplishments were either not real, or were puffed up beyond their deserts, by the equity-mongers.
In some areas, this is not a real problem, or a major problem. The affirmative action employees are quietly covered for, and work goes on. In other areas, the existence and continuation of affirmative action is a real menace. One of these areas is medicine.
In 1978, Allan Bakke sued the University of California, saying that he had been turned down for entrance into their medical school despite having had higher test results and better grades than members of politically-favored minorities who were admitted. Much to the horror of our politically-correct media, there was a lot of ground-level support for Bakke. While not overturning affirmative action, Bakke ended up being admitted, and went on to a career as an anastheologist.
“Affirmative action” doctors and other medical personnel have a dodgy reputation at best. Their grades in medical school are generally poor, and those who graduate and go into the medical field have often become known for negligence, misdiagnosis and malpractice. Meanwhile, would-be doctors who have the misfortune to not be members of politically-favored minorities are turned away from medical schools, to go into other professions.
As for myself, I am utterly indifferent to the skin color of the people serving as my medical attendants. As long as they know what they are doing, they can be black, Asian, Hispanic or white. But I object strongly to being treated by someone who got into, and through, medical school because the goodthinkers felt sorry for them on account of their skin color. I do not want to be treated by Dr. Taza.
For those not familiar, Dr. Taza is a character in Mario Puzo’s original novel, The Godfather. He is the uncle of Don Tomassino, with whom Michael Corleone stays while hiding out in Sicily. He offers to treat Michael Corleone’s damaged face, but Michael refuses, for good reasons. He know that Dr. Taza is “the worst doctor in Sicily.” While the good doctor is a reader, and intelligent, he does not read his medical journals, and admits privately that he cannot understand them.
Dr. Taza did not get his medical degree by merit. Don Tomassino is stated in the novel to have made a journey to Palermo, to discuss matters with the professors of his medical school. Being no fools, the professors had passed Dr. Taza, despite a performance that should have flunked him out. And his patients paid the price.
I call affirmative action “the Dr. Taza problem.” As long as it exists, it will afflict us with underachievers in the workplace, underqualified and incompetent medical personnel, and poisoned relations between the politically-favored minorities and those who feel, rightly, that members of favored minorities have taken jobs, promotions and places in school that were not theirs on the merits.
Affirmative action was presented originally as a temporary measure. “Temporary” like New York City rent control. Rent control came in in NYC as a wartime measure during WWII. The Big One has been over for quite some time, but rent control goes merrily on. As long as we have a bunch of well-meaning do-gooders and “white knights” (if you will pardon the phrase) who think the best thing to do for their favorite minorities is to not demand that they live up to the standards others must meet, we will have it in one form or another. The Federal and state thumb will be on the scale. And resentment against the favored ones will grow and grow.
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