What's Wrong with Quotas' Critics?


Out of Order: Affirmative Action and the Crisis of Doctrinaire Liberalism, by Nicholas Capaldi, Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 201 pages, $17.95

In judging philosophy professor Nicholas Capaldi's polemical assault on affirmative action, it is proper, following Capaldi's subtitle, to speak of a crisis of affirmative-action criticism.

Consider the views of the allegedly anti-affirmative action Reagan administration, which is a house divided on this policy. Some Republicans look upon affirmative action as a means of attracting votes from women (especially), "Hispanics," and blacks. In their view, it is simply another means of making an ethnic political appeal. The Justice Department has declared its opposition to affirmative action's goals and quotas, at least as prescribed in the employment practices of federal and local governments. Yet Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese has always proclaimed himself a strong supporter of it, even insisting on active recruitment of minority job applicants.

But can quotas be resisted if all the steps preceding quotas (timetables and preferential hiring) are taken? Where is the principled distinction between these positions, or indeed between those of affirmative-action originator Richard Nixon and Rainbow Coalition founder Jesse Jackson?

Avoiding such a muddle, Capaldi places his discussion of affirmative action within its political context, the development of contemporary liberalism. Out of Order's eight chapters offer a critique of the concept of affirmative action, its implementation, its practice, and its politics, with special emphasis (three chapters) on its effect on higher education and with constant reference to its place in the "doctrinaire liberal" program.

These chapters all contribute to the book's "central theme": (1) "that affirmative action was the inevitable consequence of the social philosophy known as doctrinaire liberalism, that doctrinaire liberalism is the entrenched philosophy of academic social science, and that affirmative action very nearly destroyed the university as a viable independent institution." (2) "The heart of doctrinaire liberalism is the belief that man is the victim of circumstances greater than himself." (3) Only an enlightened elite, using the concentrated power of the state, can free the mass of mankind from its chains. And (4) contemporary, or doctrinaire, liberalism is experiencing a crisis among the several varieties of liberals—meritocratic, elitist, and egalitarian—precipitated by obvious problems with affirmative action.

Although Capaldi's book does not adequately treat the political principles involved in affirmative action, it does alert us to the place of that policy in 20th-century political developments: "The politics of affirmative action bears a distinct analogy to the politics of fascism." After all, what would it take to establish quotas in employment and education? Would this not mean tyrannical power, first to classify people and then actually to enforce quotas? Would not the ascendancy of group recognition mean the extinction of individual rights?

Contemporary liberalism, as ex-Marxist, neoconservative political scientist Martin Diamond subtly argued long ago, has an ultimately Leninist view of politics. There is a lot of sense in Capaldi's maintaining that "fascism is not a reactionary or rightist movement but the fruit of liberalism itself," although I would say that the logic of liberalism reflects the drives, the mechanism, and above all the individualist and tyrannical elements in the thought of one of its founders, philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679).

That said, however, there are problems with Capaldi's book. His often-stilted prose and strained logic do not win his reader over. The polemic stumbles too often, employing too much jargon and erring in emphasis and interpretation. (The Bakke court opinion, for example, was not the sharp rebuke to affirmative action that a defense of individual rights would have been; instead, it made whites yet another eligible group.) He thus fails to stiffen the backbone of those inclined to oppose affirmative action. Moreover, he does not present any new insights, as have Thomas Sowell and a few other affirmative-action critics.

But Capaldi's primary error is more fundamental. He does not root his argument for individualism in political principle but in tradition. "Our tradition is epitomized in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence," he says. "It is a tradition of individualism, not collectivism." Well and good, but Capaldi suppresses a vital question: Slavery, too, was a tradition. "Ideological liberalism" is becoming a tradition. Which traditions do we keep, which do we eliminate? The purpose of political life is, as Aristotle noted, the securing of the good life—not the ancestral life or just any life.

The one judicial opinion that Capaldi should have paid more attention to is Justice John M. Harlan's famous "colorblind Constitution" dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). This can be a significant rallying point for intelligent civil-rights policies today, for Harlan made citizenship in a democratic republic, with its duties as well as its rights, the focus of civil rights. Contemporary American defenders of freedom should stress that civil rights deals appropriately with citizenship, with participation in a limited government of laws, and not at all with current pathologies such as proportional representation by ethnic group, expansion of the welfare state, or comparable-worth legislation.

Moreover, Capaldi does not ground his arguments in American political principles (hence he speaks of protecting "parliamentary democracy"). Since his "individualism" is not rooted in the natural-rights views of the Founding Fathers, it is susceptible to being trivialized into whatever one fancies. Such an individualism could not sustain itself as a tradition. To make matters worse, this "individualism" combines with his suspicion of "teleological reasoning" to deny the very notion of a national purpose. Though he properly stresses the tyrannical streak in modern liberalism, adopting his understanding of America would weaken its resolve against the imminent danger of Soviet tyranny.

Because Capaldi's spiritedness is not linked to American political principles (as best expressed in that revolutionary founding document, the Declaration of Independence), his critique of affirmative action is ultimately as un-American as that degrading notion itself. Affirmative-action critics have the difficult task of directing Americans away from regarding civil rights as minority rights and toward embracing civil rights as the participation by all in a limited government of laws.

Ken Masugi is editor of the quarterly Claremont Review of Books and director of the Bicentennial of the Constitution Project of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.