All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 1995

Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action

Civil-Rights Legislation Pretends to Peer into the Hearts of Men

“Sensitive” is the word people use to describe political rows over civil rights, an issue that mixes economics, social policy, and race. We know what we’re supposed to think: the “civil-rights struggle” was the most heroic political movement in American history. We are not, however, supposed to notice its catastrophic results: race relations are worse than ever, businesses are less free, labor markets are locked up, the academy is sinking into mediocrity, crime is rampant, and the central government is even more brutal in thwarting liberty and community autonomy.

Having dispensed with traditional standards of merit, civil-rights laws have created a separate class of people, whose “prosperity” is government induced, whose “merit” is a fabrication of bureaucrats, and whose “rights” always seem to come at the expense of everyone else’s.

Thank goodness that none of these issues is too sensitive for Steven Yates, a courageous young philosopher influenced by Ludwig von Mises. Lucidly and forcefully, he writes of a confused and statist America, where being born into a victim group is worth more politically and economically than a good education, a strong will, and sheer talent.

Appropriately, Mr. Yates concentrates on a serious injustice of modern life: the central government’s policy of mandatory discrimination against white males. There are only two options an employer, for example, faces when considering two applicants of different races. Hire the white and face the prospect of lawsuits, fines, and public humiliation. Hire the black and face none of that. Which will be the norm?

The macroeconomic result of this policy, defended as remedial of the sins of the past, is an inefficient use of labor and intellectual resources. It’s also immoral and socially destructive, and not only in the business world. In the university, it has reached poisonous bloom.

Free speech and free inquiry are today barred on campus in a whole range of areas, and even dorm assignments are politicized. Incompetents are hired for prestigious professorships, while bright young scholars are forced into one temporary position after another. Perhaps the most serious casualties are the good scholars with real credentials, who drop out of the academy because they can no longer tolerate the injustice.

Mr. Yates gives us a useful legal and political history of affirmative action and quotas. Especially valuable is his material on campus race hatred. Whites typically view black achievement as tainted even when it isn’t (for who’s to know?), and white achievement calls down official discrimination. When major universities employ editors to rewrite the Ph.D. dissertations of the racially privileged, an inevitable result is increased envy against the productive.

Because of affirmative action, the academy exalts what Mr. Yates calls “anti-scholarship,” a substructure of campus life in which affirmative-action professors teach affirmative-action students about the glories of affirmative action. For students and faculty outside the substructure, intimidation is the norm.

A graduate teaching assistant at a major university was told by his superiors in the economics department to “give every minority a B.” Otherwise, even bad students could appeal and cause him endless trouble. A professor at a Midwestern college discovered that some of his students had copied their term papers straight out of the encyclopedia. The academic dean told him it would be “racist” to flunk them. Most professors—being risk averse—don’t have to be told. They know, and accept it without protest. But the entire process is in no one’s interests, except those who would destroy all standards, the academy, and even civilization itself.

Affirmative action and quotas do not stand alone. They stem necessarily from the concept of civil rights. By forbidding actions based on certain categories of racial and sexual motivation, civil-rights legislation pretends to peer into the hearts of men. Yet even our government—the biggest, richest, most powerful in history—can’t read minds. The result is that bureaucrats ferret out what Richard Epstein has called the “forbidden grounds” by counting numbers, which is where quotas come from.

Despite his heroic attack on affirmative action, Mr. Yates has yet to come around entirely to this understanding. Like the right to housing or medical care, civil rights must trample on the freedoms of association, contract, and even speech. As Michael Oakeshott has pointed out, these are what distinguish the free man from the slave. Civil rights laws even enshrine involuntary servitude, as when restaurant owners are forced to wait on people they don’t want to serve.

We must seek to end not only state mandated affirmative action but also anti-discrimination and public accommodation laws. There is no valid theoretical distinction between private property and commercial property, despite the attempt of Beltway intellectuals to manufacture one. It is all private, and private individuals ought to be able to own and control it. Steven Yates’s thrilling defense of liberty can lead nowhere else. []

Mr. Rockwell is President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.

  • 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).

  • Lew Rockwell, Jr. is a libertarian author and editor, self-professed anarcho-capitalist, a promoter of the Austrian School of economics, and founder and chairman of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.