Social-Justifying the Means

The Move from Equality to Equity Invites Tyranny

"Equality," as understood in classical liberalism, is the state in which all persons, regardless of race, class, sex, religion, or ethnicity, are treated equally as citizens. Derived from the uniquely Christian conviction that "all men are created equal," equality was the battleground over which the campaigns for abolition, emancipation, women's suffrage, and civil rights were fought and won.

But with the rise of progressivism over the last half-century, the goal of social change shifted from equality to equity. Whereas equality is about equal treatment and opportunity, equity is about equal outcomes, which, contrary to the principles of liberalism,require the unequal treatment of persons according to race, class, sex, religion, ethnicity, and, now, sexual orientation and gender identity.

As Nobel economist F. A. Hayek once explained to William F. Buckley, "To make people equal a goal of governmental policy would force government to treat people very unequally indeed."1

Fighting Discrimination with Discrimination

In California v. Bakke (1978), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while racial quotas were unconstitutional in college admissions, affirmative action, whereby "significant but not determinative weight" is given to race, was not. In defense of that decision, Justice Harry Blackmun opined, "In order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently." Critical race theorist Ibram X. Kendi agrees.

In his book How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi argues that "the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination."

If you're a benighted soul who was taught that "two wrongs don't make a right," Kendi wants to educate you. "Racist power," you see, "has transform[ed] the act of discriminating on the basis of race into an inherently racist act." But if racial discrimination "is creating equity, then it is antiracist," not racist. Got it?

Evidently, Gary Garrels didn't. Garrels was a senior curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until public pressure led to his resignation. His crime? While affirming continued commitment to diversity in art collections, Garrels refused to discriminate against white artists by banning their acquisitions.

Sadly, this ends-justifies-the-means remedy is catching on. A few more examples:

  • In June 2020, Adidas and Google announced that 30 percent of new positions would be filled with "underrepresented" groups by 2025.
  • In September 2020, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rolled out "representation and inclusion" criteria that future movies would have to meet to be eligible for the Best Picture Oscar. The new standards require representation of racial, ethnic, LGBT, and other minority  groups, not only in the cast (in both leading and minor roles) but also on the creative and production teams, in the subject matter and storyline, and in the way films are marketed.
  • In December 2020, thirty-seven companies pledged to cumulatively hire one million black Americans over the next ten years.
  • In May 2021, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that she would only grant one-on-one interviews to journalists of color.
  • In June 2021, up to 13,000 non-white farmers received debt forgiveness on USDA loans, plus a 20-percent payout to cover the tax burden on that benefit.

Call it what you will—"affirmative action," "inclusion," "diversity," "representation," whatever—all these measures are instances of privileging certain races over others, thus of using racial discrimination to fight racial discrimination, just as Kendi demands.

Ironically, two years before California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects whites against discrimination the same as it does blacks. (The majority opinion was written by none other than Justice Thurgood Marshall, the country's first black justice.) While affirmative action was not the subject of that case, the ruling signified that "ends-justifies-the-means" social justice is no justice at all.

Two Visions of Justice

In the classical understanding, justice is giving people what is owed them, without bias or favoritism, out of a cultivated2 sense of fairness (e.g., an employee is owed a fair wage by his employer; an accused criminal is owed a fair trial by a court, a child is owed the protection and care of his parents).

By contrast, social justice is giving certain "groups" what is allegedly owed them by other "groups" through the force of law and/or social and economic pressure. However, instead of achieving justice, social justice movements tend to create more or different types of injustice. For instance:

  • Progressive tax and income redistribution policies were intended to lift people out of poverty but instead created a subculture of idleness, dependence, and victimization among the people they were supposed to help.
  • The welfare programs of the Great Society subsidized sex without consequences, procreation without marriage, and homes without fathers, resulting in large increases in single-parent homes, fatherless families, and out-of-wedlock births—conditions strongly correlated to poverty, crime, and other negative outcomes.
  • Roe v. Wade, which putatively leveled the playing field for women with respect to sexual freedom, did so at the price of denying the unborn their natural right to life.

The impact of these policies on the black community has been staggeringly disproportionate. Consider: prior to 1960, two-parent households were the norm in black families, and the rates of out-of-wedlock births and crime were on par with those of whites.3 Today among blacks, fatherless homes are the norm, and illegitimate births and per capita violent crimes are three times greater than among whites.4 What's more, black babies account for nearly 40 percent of the 1.2 million annual abortions in the U.S.5 Over the last 45 years, that's 25 million black artists, poets, scientists, teachers, statesmen, businessmen, doctors, engineers, and others whose lives were cut short before they could take their first breath.

Rushing to Reparations

Recently, there has been a renewed push for so-called monetary reparations, something that, ever since the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, has been proposed now and again as a form of redress for slavery.

When originally proposed, reparations were intended for the direct victims of slavery, i.e., former slaves and their families, but today they are proposed not just for the direct descendants of slaves, but for everyone in the black community, in order to make up for racist practices deemed responsible for the black-white wealth gap.

Even apart from the difficulty of tracing someone's ancestry back to an actual slave, there is the even greater problem of determining the monetary value of wrongs committed 150 and more years ago. Any figure one came up with would be arbitrary at best, and would provoke contention and criticism on all sides. What, for instance, would be done about biracial people (like Barack Obama) or about those whose ancestors were slave owners in this country, or whose ancestors were slave owners or slave traders in their native lands? But principally, what's the moral justification for taking money from people who had no part in antebellum slavery and giving it to those who were not its victims?

Those difficulties notwithstanding, last June, the mayors of eleven U.S. cities, from sprawling Los Angeles to tiny Tullahassee, Oklahoma (pop. 200), pledged to pay reparations for slavery. As one mayor explained, "We need decisive action to address the racial wealth gap holding communities back across our country." The "decisive action" decided upon in Evanston, Illinois, was to award $400,000 to "eligible black households," part of a pledge to spend $10,000,000 over the next ten years.6

While such measures may assuage black poverty for a time, it is not likely to present a long-term solution. The "rags-to-riches-to-rags" stories of lottery winners demonstrates that not all poor people—black or white—are poor simply because they lack wealth; many are poor because they make poor choices.

The upshot is that money and opportunity are not sufficient to keep people out of poverty if they have a faulty view of the world, life, and human flourishing. Without a worldview that engenders wholesome values, prudence, and good judgment, the "suddenly rich" are likely to be drawn back into the orbit of dependence by unwise choices.

Freedom or Tyranny?

In his book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth, Thaddeus J. Williams points out that "different people with different priorities making different choices will experience different outcomes." These "different outcomes are the price of freedom," he writes, while, conversely, "tyranny is the price for equal outcomes."

Consider those "eligible black households" in Evanston, Illinois. If they do not share the same value system, economic equity will last among them only until each household starts choosing how to spend its windfall. With each choice made by each household, disparity will grow until someone again complains of "inequity." At which point, there will again be a decision to make: Do we want freedom or "equity"?

If we choose the former, we will be obliged to respect the value system of our neighbor even if it results in inequity. If the latter, we will be obliged to accept the value system of the state at the cost of liberty and, if the statist regimes of the twentieth century are any guide, consequences up to and including re-education camps, gulags, and mass graves.  

Regis Nicoll  is a retired nuclear engineer and physicist, a Colson Center fellow, and a Christian commentator on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters, available at Amazon.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #58, Fall 2021 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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