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The existence of discrimination or bias is one of the most sensitive subjects in our multicultural society. There are some in the political class, especially liberals, who believe the government should strive to create a society in which there is no discrimination.
At first glance, this would seem to be a noble objective. Discrimination is associated with terrible things like slavery, Jim Crow laws, hate crimes, and even the Holocaust. Every sane person is against these things. However, the political movement to eliminate nearly all forms of discrimination has itself become a form of totalitarianism. Here are some reasons why.
In its most basic form, discrimination is simply freedom of choice by an individual or group. Any expression of preference for one person or thing over another is a form of discrimination. The only way completely to eliminate discrimination would be to take away the rights of people to make choices.
This obviously is not consistent with living in a free society. Politicians and the courts have tried to dance around this conflict between freedom and anti-discrimination by making choices for people about which forms of discriminate are allowed and which are not allowed, but the list of choices (or discrimination) that is not allowed keeps getting longer.
That list of government-prohibited forms of discrimination now includes race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, and in some cases even weight. The government and many people believe these are inappropriate forms of discrimination, and in most cases they are.
However, there are many situations in which even these prohibited forms of discrimination may be entirely appropriate. Is it really a good idea for a jockey to be fat? Or for a lifeguard to be 80 years old? Or for a firefighter to be a paraplegic? Or for a Catholic to be rabbi? Or for a man to counsel young women who have just been sexually assaulted? Or for a lesbian to be a Muslim cleric? Or for a white man to be president of the NAACP?
These may be extreme examples, but the point is that in a free society, no matter what the government tries to do, people still need to make choices about what they believe is right and wrong. Trying to take those rights away from people leads the government to be more and more involved and ultimately in control of private life. This is the definition of totalitarianism.
In practice, what really happens is that the government instead of people starts to make decisions about which forms of discrimination are allowed and which are not allowed. Discrimination still is happening, but now the government is in control of it rather than individuals.
A classic example of how this works is affirmative action. Whether you agree or not with affirmative action as policy, there is no denying that it is a form of government-sanctioned discrimination. It is not only allowed but often specifically mandated by the government even though it clearly violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
Basically, the government has decided that it’s appropriate and even necessary to discriminate against certain people to make up for past discrimination against other people. Although this possibly could make logical sense for a period of time, it’s equally logical that if it goes on forever the group that supposedly was victimized by discrimination in the past almost certainly would end up eventually in a superior position. How long that reversal of fortune would take to happen cannot be determined, but affirmative action typically does not have an expiration date on it. This basically guarantees that at some point the group receiving preference actually will be the advantaged group and the group being discriminated against actually will be the disadvantaged group. This would basically amount to discrimination on top of discrimination or kicking people when they’re already down.
Arguably, this reversal of fortune already has happened at most top universities. Specifically, the most underrepresented group in most top universities in this country is white conservative Christians. This group represents nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population, but at most top universities less than 20 percent of the students (and less than 10 percent of faculty and staff) identify themselves in this category. This is an extreme disparity that if it applied to any other group would be cause for government- or at least school-mandated affirmative action. Similarly, Asians and Jews are extremely overrepresented in most top universities. This is because they tend to have much better qualifications than other applicants.
However, the groups receiving preferential admission are still African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and to some extent those with disabilities, gays and lesbians, and athletes. None of these groups receiving preferential admissions is nearly as underrepresented (and some actually are overrepresented) at these top universities as white conservative Christians, yet they continue to receive preference. What is the explanation for that except the obvious political bias of the universities?
As a concept, affirmative action often is applied very selectively and arbitrarily, but this is how government and totalitarianism usually operates. Governments make decisions based on politics, not fairness. Affirmative action has been applied aggressively to university admissions and staffing, public sector jobs, government contractors and programs, finance and lending, and graduate schools. It has not been applied at all to areas such as professional sports and entertainment. Why not? The superficial explanation is that there is not a political objective in applying affirmative action equally across different sectors of the economy. At a deeper level, it’s equally apparent that the overriding objective of affirmative action is to disadvantage whites and males and to advantage minorities and women. Whether or not all of these groups actually need or should be receiving government help is subjective and debatable.
As a group, although women earn slightly less on average than men, they also work less, have more wealth on average, spend substantially more, and are much healthier. It wouldn’t seem obvious from these metrics that women really are worse off than men, and they’re also not a minority. So why do they receive affirmative action? The short answer probably is that it just helps certain politicians buy votes. It’s a way for politicians to appear sympathetic to more than half of the population.
Other forms of affirmative action, such as for African Americans, may have more of a rational economic basis. Nevertheless, the reason for it is still the same. Politicians want to buy votes and this is an easy way to do it. The people who benefit from the preferential treatment or feel that they might benefit from it are much more motivated to support the politicians who favor it than the people who are disadvantaged by affirmative action. It’s a good political calculation.
At the end of the day, discrimination always will be with us. It’s part of the human condition, and a necessary part of it. Government attempts to eradicate it from private life typically lead to other, more arbitrary and unfair, forms of government-controlled discrimination. In a free society, people should be free to choose how they want to live as much as possible unless other people are being severely harmed by their choices. If the government is going to get involved in fighting discrimination, it should at least try to do so in an even-handed way rather than picking winners and losers with selective and biased forms of affirmative action. Is that really too much to ask in supposedly free society?