A Theory of Racial Harmony; Reverse Discrimination


A Theory of Racial Harmony, by Alvin Rabushka, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1974, 106 pp., $5.95.

Reverse Discrimination, edited by Barry R. Gross, Buffalo: Prometheus, 1977, 401 pp., $14.95.

One among the more vexing political questions today is how to devise social structures that would permit diverse ethnic and racial groups to live together at peace within a single polity. The problem ranges from the phenomenon, newly arisen in the United States, of "preferential" admissions and quotas for "disadvantaged" groups to the aggravated tensions—between the English and French of Canada, the Turks and Greeks in Cyprus, the Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the whites and blacks in South Africa—that have led, or could lead, to total rupture of the political association between the respective groups.

Two important books focus on different aspects of this problem. The first is Alvin Rabushka's Theory of Racial Harmony, which seeks to explain the steadily increasing occurrence of racial and ethnic conflict around the world, proceeding from the feature that seems common to all of these struggles—that peoples' fundamental fear is not of rival groups per se but only of the threat they might pose once they gain control of the powers of government.

The book's basic thesis is this: that the risk of racial and ethnic antagonisms is greatly reduced in those societies in which the role of government in the lives of its citizens is minimized. Crucial to the justification of this hypothesis are the vital differences between two opposite modes of social allocation and decision making—the political, as contrasted with the voluntary exchange, or market, process. Most social activities might be directed by either kind of mechanism, so the question is, How are race relations affected by these different sets of public decision rules? Rabushka concludes, after a careful analysis, that to prefer a political mode of provision and allocation of those social undertakings that also could be provided and allocated through the market vastly raises the probability of ethnic and racial confrontation.

This primary insight, derived from purely theoretical considerations, turns out to be capable of unifying a number of what would otherwise seem to be diverse and unrelated phenomena in world politics. It can account for the generally peaceful association within the comparatively libertarian, early United States of diverse ethnic and religious groups that in their home countries fought bitterly; it can explain the growing communal antagonisms in old pluralist nations, like Great Britain and Canada, that have recently had an explosion of governmental intrusion; it can account as well for the growth in racial and ethnic contention that has followed the displacement of a (comparatively) lightly governing colonial power with state socialist regimes in Nigeria, Uganda, Burma, Sri Lanka, India (pre-partition), Pakistan (pre- its partition) and elsewhere; and it can explain, too, the relative absence of such conflicts in the freer economies of Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore.

Given, then, the continued dominance of statism in the sorts of political solutions bandied about for these situations—such as forcefully incorporating Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic (without specified guarantees for the Protestant minority); or joining Israelis and Arabs into a secular, socialist Palestine; or forcing white and black South Africans into a common state under unlimited "majority rule"—one may rest secure in the certainty that violent racial and ethnic flare-ups will endure far into the future. For the simple fact is that these problems are insoluble, short of outright repression or total partition, in terms of prevailing political models. Instead, they can be peacefully resolved only by amplifying the profound insight supplied by classical liberalism/libertarianism, that a problem of surpassing importance in structuring any well-ordered polity is setting appropriate and strong limits on the sorts of public questions that will be resolved through the political process. Which leads to the electrifying thought that the grandest opportunity for the practical demonstration of libertarian reforms may well turn out to be, not on a South Pacific atoll, but in a South African archy!

In contrast to the lucidity of argumentation one finds in Rabushka's book, one can extract only a murky image from Barry Gross' anthology, Reverse Discrimination, which is a collection of essays, both pro and con, about preferential hiring and admissions for "disadvantaged" minorities in the United States. This opacity is in no way the fault of Mr. Gross, but lies rather in the fact that this debate is in a state of great chaos, so much so that the central issues are usually obscured. There are, to be sure, numerous worthwhile observations spangled through many of the essays, especially those by Messrs. Todorovich, Nisbet, Hook, Seabury, Sowell, Glazer, Black, Douglas, Greenawalt, and Gross. But as illuminating as they are, these writers simply do not succeed in countering in other than anecdotal, pragmatic terms the fundamental philosophical thrust of the arguments also advanced here by J. Stanley Pottinger, Archibald Cox, John Hart Ely, and others; unfortunately, the writers who oppose quotas seem to have a deadly eye for the capillary rather than the jugular! One is left thinking that the verdict of moral idealism and compassion comes down wholly on the side of quotas and that all that can be tinkered together in the way of a defense against them is a grubby collection of mechanistic, ad hoc, and rudely practical considerations.

This fecklessness is perhaps most clearly evident in the last third of the book, which concerns itself solely with abstract theoretical essays by social philosophers. These essays cluster in the range from fair to awful, with only two of the sixteen (by Robert Hoffman and Lisa Newton) sufficiently fine that I happily except them from the general comments below, and with two of them (by Paul Taylor and Hardy Jones) so teeth-gritting that one is put forcefully in mind of J.S. Mill's remark on encountering the intellect of Hegel: "Conversancy with him tends to deprave one's intellect"! Without exploring the cavities in each writer's contribution, let it suffice here to identify certain themes that suffuse the articles in support of quotas and whose failure to be effectively refuted is the cause of the overall weakness of most of the arguments in opposition.

1. Perhaps the most important intellectual thread, recurring in numerous pernicious manifestations, is what F.A. Hayek terms methodological collectivism. One of the contributors writes, for example: "Obligations can be created between groups [qua groups] when one group injures another group" (my emphasis). Such a statement is, of course, purest crap. The fact is that there is no generalized obligation that transfers willy-nilly from guilty persons to innocent ones simply because they might be categorized together on the basis of a morally irrelevant trait.

Another writer emits the anesthetizing puff that quotas that favor minorities are quite okay, since the majority is here choosing to disadvantage, not a minority, but itself. How ingenious! Except that it is not a "majority" that does the choosing at all but a few high-handed school administrators, judges, and government officials who would not dream of resolving this question by referring it to a vote. Nor does giving "preference" operate on groups as a whole but only on a few members of either group; no more than a small number of the previously "disadvantaged" group will directly enjoy the benefit that is "owed" to that group in its entirety, and only a small number of persons from the "guilty" group will carry the full burden of paying the "reparations," in the form of forgoing earned career opportunities, that supposedly are "owed" by that group as a whole.

Yet another fallacy-ridden incarnation of methodological collectivism is the whole notion in se of drawing inferences about the degree of a society's "social justice" from the arrangements of group parameters—specifically, of presuming that the distance a society has yet to travel on the road to the condition of perfect justice is measured by the departure from equality between groups in such parameters as average income, education, representation in the highest professional positions, and so forth. It is easy to show, however, that there are many factors having nothing to do with "justice" that can generate mean differences between groups and that even small mean differences can show up as large "disproportions" in highly selected positions. Hence, one can infer nothing about justice from such data (see W.R. Havender, "Meting out Injustice, REASON, Sept. 1976, p. 14).

2. The philosophical supporters of quotas are brothers, too, in their unrelieved ignorance of economics. There is nowhere a symptom of comprehension that private actions under market conditions have, in the fluctuations of the price system and in the potential for instituting boycotts, a built-in corrective for discriminatory practices. Nor that giving a positive incentive to certain groups in the form of special privileges will encourage all other groups that can cobble together a plausible claim to emerge and press them. Nor that the supply of "qualifications" that a candidate chooses to acquire and offer in the competition for desirable positions is itself an "economic" quantity, which will inevitably decrease as the anticipated return for it—the "profit" it can bring—decreases.

3. They embrace as well what to some of us must appear as the howlingly naive opinion that government can in fact be trusted and worse that only government action can be effective in counteracting the effects of past and present discrimination. The truth is not only that governments are not the only game in town for successfully fighting prejudice but that they are terribly fearsome and whimsical creatures. After all, the true lesson coming out of the government's change from its disgraceful past treatment of the blacks and Japanese is, not that it has sincerely repented to the depths of its dear little heart and irreversibly reformed itself since the bad old days, but rather that it is mercurial. So wouldn't it be a wise precaution to set in granite an absolute proscription against the government's making an official determination of a person's race and treating him differentially on this basis? Why build a bridge when it is the chasm that protects you?

These observations give only the most fleeting glimpse of the rancid intellectual broth steeping this debate as it currently transpires among philosophical theorists. On balance, Gross' book must be rated a grand success at faithfully reflecting the current state of the public argument. But the reader who seeks a definitive resolution of the issues herein thrashed about will have to await a book that is yet to be written.

William Havender writes frequently on the issue of affirmative action.