By Richard Vedder
I have always been skeptical of the moral legitimacy of affirmative action programs as practiced in modern American higher education. While that position puts me at odds with most of the academy, I derive comfort knowing that vast numbers of Americans -- probably a solid majority --agree with my position, as the voters of Michigan showed last week (following on earlier actions in California and Washington). We are a nation that believes that advancement should be on the basis of merit, not on the basis of name or privilege. Our nation eschews an aristocracy, and high income mobility historically has suggested that advancement is possible for everyone, rich and poor alike.
Yet there is disturbing evidence that income mobility may be declining in America, just as it is rising in some other industrialized nations. Public support for higher education, rather than promoting meritocracy and equal opportunities for all, may be having the opposite impact: helping to establish an American aristocracy, where money, name and connections trump merit and hard work in terms of occupational and economic success.
Daniel Golden, in his wonderful but disturbing book, The Price of Admission, demonstrates beyond a shadow of doubt that the children of rich alums get preferences in college admissions over others, that rich people in general can, more or less, buy spots in prestigious colleges for their kids, that certain groups are discriminated against (e.g., Asians), while others are favored (e.g. faculty children). The powerful trump the weak, the less deserving rich take admission slots from the more deserving not-so-rich, etc. Essentially, we run an affirmative action program for the rich.
Philosophically, I believe private individuals or businesses should have the legal right to discriminate against persons on virtually any ground, however morally revolting that may be. Why? Because I believe in private property rights, and am skeptical of coercive actions of the state that interfere in the behavior of private individuals, unless there is clear harm to the community caused by that behavior. However, so-called "private" universities are not truly private in any real sense, as they take federal (and often state) government monies to aid their students financially, to pay for research, etc. Moreover, most so-called private donations are stimulated by the tax exempt nature of the gifts --tax liabilities fall with rising donations.
Is it morally or economically right for government subsidies to be used to create a club-like atmosphere where the rich are admitted but the poor are excluded? Is it right to allow legacy admissions where the institution is partially publicly funded? Should universities dependent on public funds be allowed to sell admission slots to big donors? Tony Blair's son was rejected by Oxford strictly on the grounds of merit, while American political leaders get their kids into schools often on the basis of their names rather than their academic credentials. Maybe it is time for this to stop, or for schools to be given a choice: you can continue to discriminate in favor of alumni, rich persons, or others, in which case you lose any public support, or you can receive public support, in which case admissions must be made without regard to certain group characteristics, such as alumni status, family wealth, etc. If I am going to oppose affirmative action based on skin color, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc., consistency would say I should oppose it on other criteria as well.