The Dumbing Down of America: Lawyer Edition

From the TaxProf comes the news that a number of states are lowering, or considering lowering, the scores needed to pass the bar exam. Why? So that more minorities will become lawyers:

Several states say they could make their bar exams easier to pass as a way to address racial diversity problems and access-to-justice issues entrenched in the legal profession.

Their statements coincide with the first data from California, which permanently lowered its “cut score” last summer just incrementally—but saw significant changes in the racial make-up of those passing the test to become its newest lawyers.

Last week, Rhode Island became the first to follow suit in lowering the state’s cut score. Several others say they’ll soon be weighing similar reforms. … Court officials from Texas, Arizona, and Michigan said they’re also monitoring efforts from a national testing group to modify the bar exam, with an eye toward eventual changes in their own states. …

Several other states—including New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Utah—said they could consider lowering cut scores based on their own reviews and after studying how the moves play out elsewhere.

California found that when it lowered the score needed to pass the bar exam, the passage rate naturally increased for all ethnic groups. But it increased somewhat more for Asian, black and Hispanic candidates than for whites.

Obviously, lowering the score needed to pass the bar exam will result in more lawyers in any given state. Is this a good thing? If you think we are a society with too few lawyers, yes. On the other hand, if you think it is important that lawyers licensed by the state demonstrate a minimum level of competence, and the bar exam is an important means of insuring such competence, then no.

The trend toward dumbing down bar exams is part of a broader phenomenon that Paul has written about many times–a decline in standards across many sectors of our economy and our culture, allegedly in service of racial equity. If members of a particular ethnic group are statistically less likely to get over any particular bar, one solution is to lower the bar. Whether this helps in the long run is of course another matter.

The racial quota system that is becoming ever more pervasive in industry, the academy and government can only undermine the quality of work done in all of those environments. If, to take just one recent example, United Air Lines establishes a quota system for pilots rather than hiring the most qualified pilots possible, a decline in pilot quality follows inexorably. Maybe it doesn’t matter, at least not catastrophically. Maybe no airplanes crash as a result of a less skilled pilot pool.

But it would be ridiculous to suggest that meritocracy doesn’t improve quality in any human endeavor, leading to a better life for all of us. For almost all of our history, America has been a beacon of meritocracy, compared with the rest of the world. That largely explains our economic and cultural success. But today, individual achievement is being subordinated to group politics.

Meanwhile, China–ostensibly ruled by a Communist Party in which all are equal–has become a ruthless meritocracy. If you are trying to get ahead in China, whether in science, engineering, business or government, you need the best scores, qualifications and experience. Being from an “under-represented” ethnic group gets you nowhere, although family relationship to the powerful is still a plus, if a rare one. It appears that China is now more a meritocracy than the U.S. The implications for our economic, cultural and military future are dire.

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