All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 1990

Affirmative Action: The New Road to Serfdom

Dr. Yates is a professor of philosophy at Auburn University.

1. Introduction

For over 20 years, policies calling for “affirmative action” for women and minorities have been part of American political life, and a source of enormous controversy. Advocates say the policies are morally justified, and necessary for the continued advancement of women and minorities in a society long characterized by racial prejudice and gender bias.

In this article I wish to examine this issue anew. Do the claims made on behalf of affirmative action hold up? How much substance is there to the charge that “affirmative action” is a euphemism for reverse discrimination? Moreover, has affirmative action benefited women and minorities in the ways originally intended, or have such policies worked to their detriment in some respects, as well as to the detriment of our organizations? Finally, to what extent is affirmative action compatible with the principles of a free and open society?

There are two aspects to the issue. First, many philosophers, legal scholars, and others have tried to defend affirmative action goals and policies on moral grounds alone. I will argue that these defenses as well as the responses to the reverse discrimination charge rest on dubious assumptions, and that sometimes these can be mined from the writings of its advocates themselves. But as it turns out, affirmative action has remained mostly untouched by such failures. Second, affirmative action and related policies like forced busing to achieve “racial balance” in public schools have usually been imposed not as a result of intellectual arguments but through political force (or threat of force), from the upper echelons of government ‘downward, usually through the courts. It is in this sense that affirmative action is a serious threat to a free society.

In the second and third sections, I will review the major arguments. I believe it is important to see where they fail and why. It is also important to understand how affirmative action fails in practice-how it harms its intended beneficiaries in a number of ways. In the fourth section I will turn to the political agenda and show how this was laid in place not as a result of public consensus but through top-down legislation and semantic subterfuge, including what amounts to an official taboo on criticism of what has become an orthodoxy. Finally, in the fifth section, I will argue that affirmative action is actually a species of social engineering, carried out in accordance with a general view of human beings. Accordingly, I will criticize both the assumptions and methods of social engineering as opposed to what I will call the phi-1osophy of social spontaneity, which regards individuals as owners of their own lives and supreme in their own sphere of influence. Only the latter, I conclude, is compatible with a free society.

I do not claim to make a comprehensive statement here. It would be impossible to summarize concisely all the literature this issue has triggered in the past two decades. However, my aim here is to deal not with details but fundamentals. The implicit reference to F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in my title is deliberate; for I will argue that affirmative action programs, far from leading to a more just society, are a major means by which a well-entrenched collectivism, the core of the social engineer’s philosophy, long institutionalized in the legislative and judicial branches of our government and in the universities, is taking us rapidly down the road Hayek has spent his career warning us against.

2. Affirmative Action: The Moral Debate

The starting point of the claim that affirmative action is morally justified is clear enough. Our society does have a legacy of discrimination against blacks, other minorities, and women, arbitrarily keeping them out of jobs, restaurants, and good schools, while concentrating power and influence in the hands of white males of European descent. As a result, many members of these groups are educationally and economically Well behind white males and show few signs of. catching up. Affirmative action’s proponents conclude from this that today society has obligations to these groups by offering them special advantages not available to white males. Or to make the point another way, preferential treatment of minorities and women is called for, and morally justified.

Arguments defending preferential treatment diverge at this point. Some are backward looking in the sense that their point of reference is the legacy of discrimination itself. What may be called the argument from compensatory justice holds that because blacks, women, and others were discriminated against in the past and excluded from full participation in the economic life of American society, reparation is owed these groups today. The way to make reparation includes offering them preferential treatment. This, we are told, will “balance the books.”

But what of the fact that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly repudiates preferential treatment?

Advocates of this backward-looking approach to affirmative action reply as follows: Simple nondiscrimination is not enough. First, socially inculcated biases, which are the legacy of generations, are difficult to eradicate and may not even be recognized as such by the perpetrators. Second, most members of past-victimized groups are still far behind most white males in their ability to compete for educational and employment opportunities. Hence even though blacks (to take the most obvious example) are no longer direct victims of legally sanctioned discrimination today, their descendents are nevertheless indirect victims.

This is sometimes called the shackled-runner argument, in the sense that these “runners” cannot compete effectively today because of “shackles” placed on them by their heritage. Since their immediate ancestors suffered direct discrimination while the white males of the time did not, they were born with disadvantages mostly nonexistent in the dominant white culture. According to the shackled-runner argument, the fact that today’s white males did not do the “shackling” does not affect the fact that they were born in an environment free from a history of discrimination, thus suggesting a justification for preferences even if they sometimes lead to a more qualified white male being passed over for a job or promotion. Backward-looking arguments, then, see compensation as a means to justice, and mandate reparation in the form of preferential treatment of mem bers of past-disadvantaged groups as the primary means of compensation.

Forward-looking arguments have as their reference point not past discrimination per se but rather a certain kind of society that presumably would have existed had there been no past discrimination or oppression. In this society the educational, political, and economic influence of all social groups would have been roughly equal, with no one group dominant. We may call this the argument from social justice.

The Moral Mandate

For advocates of this position, the moral mandate is not so much to make reparation but rather to increase the strength of these groups to the point where all have equal access to educational facilities and positions of power, and are represented in the work force in proportion to their percentage in the population. Affirmative action pro grams are then justified on the grounds that they help fulfill these demands of social justice, and again this holds even when they occasionally result in the selection of a woman or minority job applicant (or candidate for admission to a college or university program) over a white male with superior paper credentials; for it is reasonable that the group which has long been unjustifiably dominant be expected to make the sacrifices.

But wouldn’t this last be detrimental to organizations? Not necessarily, it is asserted; it might even be to their advantage. For the larger and more diverse the applicant pool for a desirable position, the more potential talent to draw on and the greater the likelihood of a firm or university being able to hire first-rate employees or faculty members. With regard to universities in particular, long at the center of affirmative action-related controversies, the diversity achieved through preferential faculty hiring and admissions policies should help further one of the aims of the university: the quest to uncover and communicate knowledge, which(given that “knowledge” is no longer something over which white males of European descent can claim a monopoly) should rightly include perspectives that can be had only from incorporating diverse points of view into the curriculum.

Furthermore, black faculty members can serve as role models for black students, representing examples of black success; in this sense, being black can be considered by itself a bona fide qualification for a certain kind of university position. Consequently, it is maintained, preferential treatment of women and minority groups is practical as well as on solid ground morally.

This completes what is, I believe, a fair statement of the most important arguments of those favoring preferential treatment. Despite their long-standing support in the academic world and endorsement by the courts, there are good reasons for denying that they succeed. Let us consider some criticisms.


The major complaint against preferential policies is that they inevitably lead to reverse discrimination against young white males and hence only perpetuate the very sort of injustice they purport to redress; let us call this the reverse discrimination counter-argument. Justice, in this view, requires equal treatment under the law for all citizens. Preferential treatment violates this by going beyond the original, carefully worded provisions in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; in practice it violates rather than helps bring about equality of opportunity. Thomas Sowell expresses this as follows: “’Equal opportunity’ laws and policies require that individuals be judged on their qualifications as individuals without regard to race, sex, age, etc.’ Affirmative action’ requires that they be judged with regard to such group membership, receiving preferential or compensatory treatment in some cases to achieve a more proportional ‘representation’ in various institutions and occupations.”

Philosopher Thomas Nagel, a long-time defender of preferences, readily concedes that preferential treatment “is a departure from the ideal—one of the values finally recognized in our society is that people should be judged so far as possible on the basis of individual characteristics rather than involuntary group membership.” Nagel therefore recommends the practice as a temporary measure to be abandoned once its goal of increasing the strength of previously disadvantaged groups is achieved. Nagel maintains that this goal outweighs the complaints of white males who occasionally lose out.

Considerations suggested by the shackled-runner argument indicate, contrary to Sowell, that preferential treatment does not run counter to equal opportunity but is actually a necessary condition for it. What ultimately justifies preferential treatment in the present, continues Nagel, is that it “further[s] a social goal of the first importance,” that of the removal of the race- and gender-based caste system that prevailed in the United States prior to the Civil Rights era and which still persists in muted form. According to Nagel, despite the seeming “element of individual unfairness” present, preferential treatment programs do not involve the sense of racially based contempt or gender-based superiority that characterized discrimination in the past; rather, they flow from the mandate of “increasing the social and economic strength of formerly victimized groups.”

Will this kind of reply do? There are several reasons for thinking not, and many of Nagel’s own remarks indicate serious problems with the response to the reverse discrimination counter-argument as well as related problems.

Saddling the Beneficiaries

It is often taken for granted that affirmative action has benefited blacks and women in particular, and is said to be needed for other groups as well (e.g., the elderly and the handicapped). But in fact it saddles its alleged beneficiaries with the stigma of having obtained a position not by virtue of abilities or qualifications but because of involuntary group membership.

This can have two immediate adverse results. First, co-workers are apt to regard those workers with a certain amount of skepticism that wouldn’t have been there had merit been the major criterion in hiring. This will be all the more so in universities: will a person be in a position to serve as a good “role model” if his students suspect that the only reason for his being there is affirmative action? Second, alleged beneficiaries might come to regard themselves with suspicion and lose self-confidence. Nagel summarizes: “Even those who would have made it anyway fall under suspicion, from themselves and from others: it comes to be widely felt that success does not mean the same thing for women and minorities.”

In recent years this situation has become much worse. The rise of racial tensions throughout American society and particularly on college campuses during the past several years has been the subject of intense scrutiny. Most observers take the line that such tensions are a by-product of Reagan-era conservative politics which, they allege, were hostile (or, at best, indifferent) to the interests of minorities. They add that racial disturbances on campuses, including “hate speech” and even violence by white students aimed at black students, indicate a residuum of racism that the civil rights movement has so far failed to eradicate. But if one listens to what is being said by the more politically astute of the white students, it becomes clear that their target is not minorities but the preferential treatment of minorities. They see themselves as now being at a semi-permanent disadvantage, and resent the politicizing of universities.

The point is, preferential treatment invariably favors members of some groups at the expense of members of others, and this can hardly help but produce resentment and hostility among those sacrificed. At least some of the hostility will be aimed at the favored groups. Of course, this is inappropriate: the appropriate target is a policy, not individuals; but most white male victims of preferential policies are not philosophers or policy analysts and will therefore choose the most convenient scapegoat. In this sense, then, too, the policy indirectly brings harm to its intended beneficiaries.

Additional difficulties cast even more doubt on the ability of preferential treatment programs to achieve their stated goals. Nagel notes that in practice “no effort is made to give preference to those who have suffered most from discrimination . . . .” This suggests fatal objections to the shackled-run-ner argument. Let us assume for the moment that a legacy of racial discrimination is impossible to overcome without preferences. Some runners, then, will be more shackled than others by this legacy, with many not being helped by even the most far- reaching programs.

Who Benefits?

But preferential treatment cannot help blacks who don’t have the qualifications even to be considered for a desirable position or college admission. It is more likely to work in favor of those who both happen to be in the right place at the right time and whose qualifications seem to be at least marginal. Consequently, preferential treatment works most in favor of those least handicapped by past discrimination and benefits little, if at all, those presumably most handicapped.

A parallel situation exists for white males, White males who are financially very well off—who we may assume for the sake of argument are the main beneficiaries of past discrimination—can often obtain jobs and promotions through connections and thus circumvent affirmative action policies. On the other hand, white males who themselves come from impoverished or lower-class backgrounds are often in no position to benefit from preferential policies of any kind. Furthermore, these men are usually the ones to be sacrificed since they have minimal resources to fight back.

Finally, “runners” from various ethnic groups can be “shackled” for a variety of reasons, many not involving racial discrimination. Recent emigres from Korea and Vietnam have arrived in the United States unable to speak English and with no possessions other than what they had on their backs. They might well claim to have worn far heavier “shackles,” but have succeeded in American society nevertheless. Thomas Sowell has argued persuasively that even institutionalized discrimination need not be a barrier to the advancement of members of groups who are sufficiently resourceful.

These considerations all help point the way to a major objection to the moral defenses of affirmative action: their main emphasis is on groups or group identity instead of on individuals and individual merit. In the world of affirmative action, an individual is not an autonomous agent in his or her own right but a member of a group for classification. Indeed, groups are often seen as moral entities, agents, or victims of morally reprehensible acts by other groups. Thus blacks as a group or women as a group are often deemed victims of discrimination; white males as group are deemed responsible and forced to make restitution.

This point is admittedly not new, but in my view its strength has never been appreciated. Affirmative action seems inevitably to benefit individuals who typically are not the ones who have suffered the worst forms or even significant amounts of racial or sexual discrimination, and the white males sacrificed are typically too young or economically vulnerable to have had any role in instituting or perpetuating discriminatory practices or to have benefited from them. That there is something seriously wrong with this reification of groups should be evident by noting that despite claims that reparation is owed to groups (e.g., blacks) because the groups were wronged by past acts of discrimination, reparation can only be made to the groups by providing recompense to individual members, with the only criterion frequently being that those receiving the reparation happened to be in the right place at the time.

This brings us to the crux of the issue: do moral categories (rights, obligations, and so on) apply at all to involuntary and mostly unstructured human collectives such as races, genders, and age brackets? Such entities aren’t capable of sensation or consciousness. They do not think or act. In other words, they are not agents, where an agent is understood as an entity that can set goals, direct its own actions, or be harmed by the actions of others. So if a capacity to act or be acted on is a necessary condition for moral attributes, then the claim that certain groups owe, or are owed, reparation for past wrongs is unintelligible.

Moral wrongs can be committed only by individuals, and only individuals can be owed reparation for acts committed against them. Given this, we need only add the obvious fact that both the worst perpetrators of racial discrimination in the past and their most maligned victims are no longer alive either to make reparation or to receive such recompense; it is no more just to make today’s white males pay reparation than it would be to penalize this year’s incoming freshman class for acts committed by last year’s graduated seniors. This, I submit, is the main basis of the charge that affirmative action amounts to unjust reverse discrimination against white males.

Some would reply that this doesn’t touch the argument from social justice, which doesn’t rely on the notion of reparation. But nonetheless this for-ward-looking argument does depend on the idea of increasing the economic strength of members of groups by virtue of group identity; it still, therefore, treats groups as prior to individuals for the purpose of moral evaluation, making the same mistake as the backward-looking argument.

The Pseudo-Concept of Social Justice

To my mind the idea of “social justice” was shown to be a pseudo-concept by philosopher and libertarian theorist John Hospers. Hospers, following Aristotle, argues that justice is directly connected with desert, it involves individuals treating other individuals as they deserve, based on their actions. Justice requires, then, that hiring and promotion be done on the basis of individual merit and qualification rather than group membership and entitlement. In this case, “social justice” in practice leads not to justice but to its opposite.

The advocates of “social justice” maintain that the economic strength of members of certain groups ought to be increased. In practice, this can only involve a redistribution of wealth and jobs from those most deserving of them based on qualifications as measured by past performance, to those who are not.

This assumes, of course, another direct connection between being the most qualified for a position and deserving to be hired for it. The theorists of “social justice” have worked mightily to try to break this connection. Usually this involves pointing out that no one deserves to be born with a certain ability. However, it is not so much the having of abilities but what one does with them. it is not abilities as such that lead to desert but rather the volitional, willful exercise of one’s abilities; ability without action produces nothing. Some theorists of “social justice” have bemoaned the fact that some people seem to be born with more intelligence and ability than others. But how could matters be otherwise? And does it follow that those born with more intelligence and ability deserve to be penalized for it?

It should be clear by this point that the argument from social justice depends on an essentially egalitarian view of the human condition, and connects justice with equality, involving entitlements, instead of desert. Though I will defer further discussion of egalitarianism to section 5, it seems pertinent to note at this point that in practice egalitarianism can only lead to what amounts to penalizing the more meritorious while rewarding the less meritorious, given that justice as equality leads to group entitlements instead of reward for the exercise of individual ability; at the very least, no one receives just deserts. Thus “social justice” leads not to genuine justice but to injustice, and we may safely conclude that the argument from social justice fails.

4. Affirmative Action Politics: A History Of Coercion And Intimidation

The failure of the moral arguments has mattered little to those involved in one way or another in implementing the affirmative action agenda, and a close look at the masons for this will bring us to the main theme of this article. First of all, the language of this agenda has been vague and equivocal from the outset. Legislators, judges, and bureaucrats have therefore been free to engage in semantic manipulations worthy of an Orwell villain. Secondly, critics of the agenda have often found themselves charged with being racists or of defending a “racist status quo” (even though one of affirmative action’s severest critics, Thomas Sowell, is black). Finally, white males alleging reverse discrimination have found that the corms are almost totally indifferent to them; the very existence of reverse discrimination is sometimes denied.

Let us take these in order. The first appearance of the term affirmative action was in President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925, where organizations were ordered to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Lyndon Johnson’s better known Executive Order 11246 simply repeated this passage almost word for word. Nowhere in either document was affirmative action defined; no policy was delineated; how to “take affirmative action” was not spelled out.

Two possible interpretations surfaced. Either the legislation called for simple nondiscrimination; or, contrary to the original wording of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it called for race and gender preferences. Early warning signs that the second interpretation would triumph appeared in 1968 when the Department of Labor expanded on the meaning of affirmative action as designating a specific policy for the first time:

A necessary prerequisite to the development of a satisfactory affirmative action program is the identification and analysis of problem areas inherent in minority employment and an evaluation of opportunities for utilization of minority group personnel. The contractor’s program shall provide in detail for specific steps to guarantee equal employment of members of minority groups, including, when there are deficiencies, the development of specific goals and time-tables for the prompt achievement of full and equal employment opportunity.

Let us focus on equal employment opportunity and deficiency (later called underutilization). Ensuing guidelines dated February 5, 1970, made it increasingly clear that equal employment opportunity was being redefined as result:

An affirmative action program is a set of specific and result-oriented procedures to which a contractor commits himself to apply every good faith. The objective of these procedures plus such efforts is equal employment opportunity. Procedures without effort to make them work are meaningless; and effort, undirected by specific and meaningful procedures, is inadequate. (emphases mine)

The next set of guidelines, dated December 4, 1971, indicated that underutilization was to be redefined as lack of proportional representation:

An acceptable affirmative action program must include an analysis of areas within which the contractor is deficient in the utilization of minority groups and women, and further, goals and timetables to which the contractor’s good faith efforts must be directed to correct the deficiencies and, thus to increase materially the utilization of minorities and women, at all levels and in all segments of his work force where deficiencies exist . . . . [The employer must take] an analysis of all major classifications at the facility, with explanations if minorities or women are currently being underutilized in any one or more job classifications . . . . “Underutilization” is defined as having fewer minorities or women in a particular job classification than would reasonably be expected by their availability . . . . (emphasis mine)

In other words, in the guise of providing “equal opportunity,” employers now found themselves forced to keep extensive records on the race, and sex, of every employee and every applicant for every position. If there was an imbalance between, say, the percentage of blacks at a particular firm and their presumed availability in the population, a presumption of discrimination was virtually automatic.

Legislators have avoided the unpopular term quota like the plague; but it should be clear that what they were mandating was impossible without something like a quota system. The merit system was almost universally subject to legal challenge, since any employee test attempting to specify objective criteria for what counts as merit in job performance at which blacks passed at a lower rate than whites for whatever reason would be taken as prima facie evidence of the discriminatory nature of the test. Even literacy tests were challenged under these guidelines. (One thinks of today’s embattled SAT.)

This was all in place by the early 1970s, and resulted in the largest restructuring of government policy toward business and education in American history. Federal bureaucracies mushroomed and their intrusion into the marketplace and control over society at large increased. This restructuring was not accomplished without a certain amount of resistance, both from intellectual critics of affirmative action (e.g., Nathan Glazer and Thomas Sowell, among others) and from the public which has all along passively resisted quota-hiring and forced busing.

But by and large, critics of affirmative action have faced a stone wall similar to that of white males bringing reverse discrimination lawsuits. In his recent study, Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action, Sociologist Frederick R. Lynch documents how affirmative action has been protected from serious criticism in the universities, throughout the federal government, and even in the business community, by a system of informal but nonetheless rigidly enforced taboos, a state of affairs he calls the New McCarthyism.

The New McCarthyism

The New McCarthyism has bred intense pressures not to criticize what has become a received orthodoxy—whether defended with arguments of the Sort examined above or simply imposed by _force. Critics of affirmative action thus frequently find themselves attacked ad hominem. At worst, they are accused of being closet racists and/or sexism. At best, ensuing discussion is diverted from issues and arguments to the presumed ulterior motives of the critics.

This is the case even in the universities, which are staffed by people who in their own areas of expertise would never tolerate this sort of thing. Consider academic philosophy for a moment. Academic philosophers are usually scrupulously careful in their use of language and critical of anyone who isn’t. Their training should equip them to detect improper uses of terms and expressions. They can usually spot poor arguments. But “main stream” academic philosophers have rarely criticized the language of affirmative action legislation—even those specializing in legal reasoning and the philosophy of law, who as it turns out usually support the standard legal impositions.

What emerges from both this and the previous section should be deeply disturbing to all supporters of an open society and a free market. The New McCarthyism has to a large extent prevented open, critical discussion of affirmative action in the universities while allowing the policy to run unchecked, often permitting the hiring of marginally qualified people to tenurable faculty jobs. And, generally, the means by which affirmative action has been implemented run completely counter to principles in which citizens compete for desirable positions (where what is desirable differs from citizen to citizen and from organization to organization) and in which employers are free to hire on merit and on the basis of their needs rather than according to criteria dictated from the outside.

Affirmative action, we conclude, is simply incompatible with freedom, whether intellectual or economic, and incompatible with the idea of equal treatment for all citizens under the law. In the next section we will consider some deeply entrenched presumptions of affirmative action which help explain its enormous intellectual appeal.

5. Affirmative Action As Social Engineering

Let us summarize our results so far: (1) All arguments attempting to justify affirmative action fall; (2) the affirmative action agenda has nevertheless been implemented by force (or threat of force), often using verbal subterfuge intended to disguise the coercive element as much as possible. These results suggest that affirmative action is a rather different kind of policy from that envisioned by its well-intentioned intellectual advocates and even by the original architects of the civil rights movement who were agitating for genuine equal opportunity.

Social engineering involves a fairly definite set of commitments and methods, and I submit that we have been looking at a textbook example. The philosophy of social engineering is committed to (1) collectivism, understood as the “deliberate organization of the labors of society for a definite social goal,” as a result of which individuals are regarded as subordinate to larger social units including society as a whole, which as we saw above is the case with affirmative action; (2) social determinism, which holds that individuals are essentially the products of social and class environments and hence in the last analysis are pawns of forces they are incapable of transcending on their own, a conviction which has allowed “victimology” to become a major growth industry; (3) egalitarianism, the doctrine that equality of condition is both a possible and morally desirable state of affairs; and (4) elitism, the view that a special group of individuals, usually intellectuals, alone has the knowledge and methods needed to construct a planned social order. I will argue that the position which results from these commitments is ultimately incoherent.

Collectivism goes back at least as far as Plato, who saw individuals as imperfect copies of a universal Form: Man. In Plato’s view, the differences which existed among individuals were accidental; what mattered was what all had in common. In the last analysis, Plato’s vision in the Republic was of a utopia in which the interests of individuals were entirely subordinate to those of the whole. While other conceptions of the relationship between the individual and society certainly came out of that milieu, it is fair to say that Plato’s vision has exercised a stronger hold on the political mind than that of any other thinker—it was not without reason that Alfred North Whitehead could refer to the history of Western philosophy as a “series of footnotes to Plato.”

In more recent times, collectivism has drawn impetus from doctrines such as Rousseau’s “general will” and Hegel’s “organic” conception of the state. What it required to achieve its modern form was the application of the mechanistic view of the universe to human beings, leading to the rise of a determinism holding that necessary and sufficient conditions could be specified for every human action (the preferred term became behavior). Marx integrated Hegel’s views with determinism and arrived at the materialist conception of history which reduced individual thought, consciousness, and hence motive and action, to class interest. While it would be unfair to accuse our modern social engineers of being full-fledged Marxists, most work from similar determinist premises, which deny that individuals are capable of autonomous action and maintain that they are products of their immediate social environment. The social engineer’s philosophy depends crucially on the view that individuals are products of their environment and therefore malleable in the sense that a redesigned environment will produce a different kind of human being.

What kind of human being—and society—does the social engineer want to produce? The guiding ethic of the affirmative action agenda seems to be that equality of condition is the most natural and morally desirable state of affairs. Inequalities, where they exist, are to be carefully scrutinized and, if lacking justification, to be minimized through state action redistributing wealth and power aimed at maximizing equality of condition. This justifies measuring equality of opportunity by equality of results, and when the latter is lacking to infer that the former must be lacking as well. Proportional representation and “racial balance” become the only allowable states of affairs, in schools at all levels, in businesses (including business boardrooms), and throughout society at large.

Finally, there is the most basic tenet of the social engineer’s world view: that there is a cadre of intellectuals with the necessary knowledge and tools to engage in successful economic planning of this sort on a large scale. This cadre understands human nature, race relations, and socio-economic interaction sufficiently well to produce the blueprint for a new social order in which men and women of different races will all exist and inter mingle in harmony.

This, then, is the world view in which affirmative action is most at home. To what extent is it credible?

Collectivism, as we saw earlier, begins to falter on the notion that the groups it reifies are not conscious or capable of sensation, cannot take any form of action, therefore, and (unlike other groups such as corporations) have no internal organization and did not originate from the conscious, volitional actions of their members. The reasons for preferring individualism to collectivism can perhaps be better understood with an analogy.

Consider social insects. Their nature (and evolutionary heritage) is sufficiently different from ours that a kind of collectivism might offer a good description of their interactions. It might make sense to say that a colony of bees is united by a kind of “group mind.” But human beings are not social insects. No sense can be made of the view that a human society is governed by a “group mind.” There are only individual minds which happen to share language, concepts, and customs, who can sometimes benefit from cooperative actions and at other times from competitive ones, depending on the context. Thus it is not what we have in common which counts in a social context, but rather our individual differences, those factors that make each of us unique beings. These differences, I submit, cannot be “engineered” out of us.

This requires that we see ourselves as beings who act rather than merely respond causally to stimuli; it requires that determinism be rejected. A careful look at the internal logic of determinism suggests additional problems. We have been speaking of actions, i.e., acts of volition or “free will.” An argument for libertarianism in this sense can begin by noting that to the extent determinism is assumed true it applies to its own advocates and yields the result that their advocacy of determinism is itself a causal product. In logic we normally distinguish between the causes Of our beliefs and the reasons which support them; such a distinction is necessary because causal processes don’t aim at truth (or, for that matter, at anything else). Hence although the determinist may claim reasons for believing determinism, it should be clear that on his own terms some means of accounting for these reasons as reasons are barred, and justification for believing determinism superior to alternatives is lost. Rational deliberation and acceptance of a thesis is, by its very nature, volitional and hence free. So if we begin by assuming the truth of determinism, we reach the result that on its own terms there can be no rational grounds for believing determinism to be true. While this may not constitute an absolute refutation of determinism, it certainly seems to render the position pointless.

Incoherent Social Policy

The self-applicability of determinism also yields incoherent results as social policy. If social determinism is true, then the social engineers of whatever stripe are as subject to determinants as anyone else. A successful social blueprint, though, would have to have succeeded at redesigning society as a whole, presupposing some means of access to or control over the determinants of everyone. Now either the social engineers can achieve control over the determinants of their own behavior or they cannot. The former would seem impossible on logical grounds alone; thus the social engineers must exclude themselves and their own activities from their plan. This latter option not only contradicts their starting assumptions, but if pushed far enough quickly takes on overtones of the kind of technocratic totalitarianism found in, say, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Indeed, the very existence of a technocratic elite of social engineers compromises the commitment to egalitarianism, in that there remains a dominant group—the elite. Any attempt to redistribute wealth and power presupposes the existence of at least one agent with the power to plan and carry out the redistribution, and this agent is necessarily “outside” the social order being acted upon. This suggests that egalitarianism is an impossible dream; even as a regulative ideal, it will inevitably tend to concentrate power in the hands of an elite, not dis. tribute it evenly. As the previous section strongly suggests, the implementation of affirmative action has done just this; it has concentrated power in the hands of bureaucrats and Federal judges.

Finally, a more basic assumption animates the social engineer—the view that he alone has the knowledge to construct a blueprint that will better society. But real people are a diverse lot, with an enormous variety of interests, wants, needs, merits, and talents. Says Hayek on this point in a passage worth quoting at length:

. . . it is impossible for any man to survey more than a limited field, to be aware of the urgency of more than a limited number of needs. Whether his interests center round his own physical needs, or whether he takes a warm interest in the welfare of every human being he knows, the ends about which he can be concerned will always be only an infinitesimal fraction of the needs of all men.

This is the fundamental fact on which the whole philosophy of individualism is based. It does not assume, as is often asserted that man is egoistic or selfish or ought to be. It merely starts from the indisputable fact that the limits of our powers of imagination make it impossible to include in our scale of values more than a sector of the needs of the whole society . . . . From this the individualist concludes that the individuals should be allowed, within defined limits, to follow their own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s; that within these spheres the individual’s system of ends should be supreme and not subject to any dictation by others. It is this recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position.”

Discord Increases

From this we can see why collectivist policies such as affirmative action are doing more harm than good, even to their alleged beneficiaries, why instead of bringing “social justice” they are only increasing racial discord (and can clashes between feminists and anti-feminists be far behind?). People will allow themselves to be pushed around for only so long; then they will rebel in the name of self-determination, as the civil rights movement itself attests.

This explains, too, why egalitarian policies calling for redistribution of wealth and jobs invariably lead to economic impoverishment. When producers see the fruits of their labor taken from them by force, the incentive to produce disappears. Soon, as production declines, there is less and less wealth to redistribute. This has been the bane of every socialist society in history, and gives us a decisive argument against egalitarianism: when we’re all coerced into economic equality (except for the elite, that is), we’ll all be equally poor.

Finally, our institutions—specially educational ones—are rapidly showing the results of 20 years of coercive preferential policies (lowered standards and test scores, widespread illiteracy, and so on). Affirmative action and forced busing have already done extensive damage to the schools at all levels. And there are many occupations in which the lowering of standards, which demands for proportional representation inevitably cause, is actually dangerous. Consider an airline that takes demands for proportional representation literally. It will follow that because 15 percent of the population is black, 15 percent of all its pilots and air traffic controllers should be black. If qualifications are regarded as “undeserved” and merit hiring as “discriminatory” in cases like this, the resulting dangers to the public should be obvious.

Thus it is urgent that preferential treatment be rejected, and individualism and the spontaneity of the marketplace replace it. Admittedly this will be easier said than done; many careers ranging from academic to bureaucratic depend on the perpetuation of affirmative action whether or not it helps average women and minorities.

The best thing would be for more women and minorities to express skepticism toward the affirmative action agenda. Intellectual arguments favoring affirmative action for, say, blacks, come up as empty verbiage for the simple reason that no one knows enough about the situations of all blacks as individuals. Ultimately the conclusion is unavoidable that they, like everyone else, must stop waiting on ineffective statist policies, take matters into their own hands, and rise by their own efforts. It is encouraging to note that more and more blacks are doing just this. Poll after poll shows their growing suspicion of both white liberals and the black civil rights establishment, with the focal point of their distrust being affirmative action as having produced dependence instead of the sort of economic empowerment that can be had only by individual effort.

6. Conclusion: The Fate Of Racism In A Free Society

There are still plenty of writers who would respond to the conclusion of the last section with: but you haven’t once seriously addressed the problems of racism and racial discrimination that still exist in American society! Indeed, one of the legacies of the far left has been the all-too-common view that American institutions are inherently racist, and that free-market capitalism itself helps foster and maintain racist institutions and attitudes. Response to these charges is called for. I will argue that they reflect a misunderstanding of how a free market works, and in particular, how racists will end up at a disadvantage when markets are permitted to function.

Consider two competing businesses operating under free market conditions; call them B and C. Let us assume that racism prevails at B, and that it has the following results: B refuses to hire black employees at any level other than for common labor (e.g., as janitors); it does not permit them to rise to positions of responsibility. Likewise, B doesn’t have any black clientele; its board of directors doesn’t carry on significant dealings with blacks. C, on the other hand, has instituted a policy of hiring on the basis of merit and of promotion as part of a uniform reward system. Thus a job applicant’s race is considered irrelevant to his or her qualifications; as a result, C employs a number of qualified blacks who were unable to find jobs with B. Likewise, C obtains the black clients whom B turned away and does business with black enterprises B wouldn’t deal with. In these admittedly hypothetical circumstances, it should be clear that B’s racism is doing it enormous and perhaps irreparable harm, in that B is losing business to C. In a free market, C is in a position to outperform B; and if the board of directors at B refuses to change its policies, B may eventually face being forced out of business. To sum up, in a free society racist enterprises end up harming themselves more than the targets of their racism.

The Free Market vs. Racism

My thesis, therefore, is that a free market and racism are ultimately at odds with one another, and in a way surprisingly similar to how a free market and affirmative action are at odds with one another. Both give preferences to certain individuals at the expense of other individuals on grounds other than merit.

Under free-market conditions, a firm must seek to hire the best available employees. If it does not do so, it will lose them to competitors. It should not discriminate among its customers; a restaurant owner who refuses to serve blacks will only send them to the competition across the street and reduce his own income. So while a free market may permit private racist attitudes to survive—for not even market forces can regulate thought—bottom- line business considerations will render them impotent.

On the other hand, efforts to end whatever institutional racism still exists by using affirmative action are counterproductive and doomed to failure: (1) they discriminate in reverse against white males, and hence perpetuate the basic injustice of discrimination on the basis of involuntary group identity; (2) this fuels racial tensions by producing resentment on the part of those who lose out; (3) affirmative action further harms its intended beneficiaries by insinuating that double standards are needed for their advancement, suggesting, to my mind, that affirmative action orthodoxy is closer to a kind of racism than its advocates would care to admit; finally and perhaps most important of all, (4) the aims of affirmative action are impossible to realize without massive increases in centralized state power.

The institutionalization of double standards in such a way that no one could violate them and get away with it would require a massive governmental machinery. This supervision would ultimately lead to a controlled, fascistic economy instead of a free economy. Now to my mind F. A. Hayek has provided the best and most extensive reasons for why supervision and coercive planning of this sort can only lead us down a “road to serfdom.” Let us hope that we check our premises before we discover the hard way that the road is a dead end. []

1.   For a more complete statement see my Civil Wrongs, work in progress.

2.   Though some writers challenge the claim that there is today no direct discrimination; cf. Tom Beauchamp, “The Justification of Reverse Discrimination,” in Social Justice and Preferential Treatment, eds. William T. Blackstone and Robert D. Heslep (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1977), pp. 34-110.

3.   Thomas Sewell, Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? (New York: Quill Paperbacks, 1984), p. 38.

4.   Thomas Nagel, “A Defense of Affirmative Action,” reprinted in Ethical Theory and Business, 3rd ed., eds. Tom L. Beauchamp and Norman E. Bowie (Englewood Cliffs, N.J,: Prentice Hall, 1988), p. 346.

5.   Ibid., pp. 346-7.

6.   Ibid., p. 346.

7.   Cf. Sewell, Civil Rights, pp. 19-20.

8.   For an in-depth exchange of views on the subject of groups, individuals, and moral agency see the articles by James W. Nickel, J. L. Cowan, Philip Silvestri, Paul W. Taylor, Michael D. Bayles, William A. Nunn, Roger Shiner, and Alan H. Goldman, all reprinted in Reverse Discrimination, ed. Barry R. Gross (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1977), pp. 288-347. Cf. also George Sher, “Groups and Justice,” reprinted in Moral Rights in the Workplace, ed, Gertrude Ezorsky (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1987), pp. 253-58.

9.   John Hospers, “Justice versus ‘Social Justice,’” The Freeman, January 1985, pp. 9-24.

10.   See e.g., Richard Wasserstrom, “A Defense of Programs of Preferential Treatment,” in Ethical Issues in Business, 3rd ed., eds. Thomas Donaldson and Patricia H. Wetbane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988), pp. 33944.

11.   This point is developed in more detail in On Preferential Treatment, ch. 4.

12.   Quoted in Nathan Glazer, Affirmative Discrimination (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p. 45. The following quotes are also from Glazer, pp. 47f.

13.   Frederick R. Lynch, Invisible Victims.’ White Mules and the Crisis of Affirmative Action (Westport, Cf.: Greenwood Press, 1989).

14.   E A. Hayek, The Road m Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944,1976), p. 56.

15.   For more details cf. Civil Wrongs see. 4, from which the present section is excerpted.

16.   For an extended development of this kind of argument see J. Boyle, G. Grisez, and O. Tollefsen, Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument (Notre Dame, Ind.; University of Notre Dame Press, 1976). The authors also do an admirable job of organizing the literature and sorting relevant issues from irrelevant ones.

17.   Hayek, p. 59.

18.   See Nicholas Capaldi, Out of Order: Affirmative Action and the Crisis of Doctrinaire Liberalism (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986), esp. ch. 7, “The Politics of Affirmative Action.”

  • Steven Yates, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer and consultant living in Columbia, S.C. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994).