How Libertarians Should View Harvard’s Racial Discrimination in Admissions

With the Supreme Court’s hearing of the Students for Fair Admission case against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, racial discrimination is now in the news. Like two contending (intellectual) armies, Liberals and Conservatives have staked out very different positions.

In the view of those on the right side of the political economic spectrum, matters are very simple. Not simplistic; just simple and straightforward, as in Occam’s Razor: Discrimination is wrong. Period.

“The way to end racial discrimination is to end racial discrimination,” as Supreme Court Justice Roberts has stated.

The perspective of the left side of the aisle is a bit more complex. Discrimination is justified, but only if it helps the downtrodden: women, blacks, the “differently abled,” gays, etc. (LGBTQIA+). One gets the impression, reading in between the lines (although none of them, yet, have come out and exactly said this) that if the freshman intake of Harvard and UNC entirely consisted of these groups, and thus entirely excluded white males, Asians of both genders (unless they were handicapped, of course), that would be just fine and dandy.

What, in sharp contrast to both of these viewpoints, is the libertarian position on all of this? It, too, as in the case of the socialist egalitarians, is very simple: discrimination, of whatever type or variety, should be legal.

Libertarianism is a theory of just law. There are three foundational principles of this philosophy which must be mentioned in the present context.

One, the non-aggression principle: no one has the right to threaten or use violence against anyone else; thus murder, rape, theft, kidnapping should be illegal. Two, property rights are based on initial homesteading of virgin territory, ala John Locke, and any subsequent voluntary interaction, “legitimate title transfer” in the words of Robert Nozick, such as buying, selling, lending, gift-giving. Three, free association: no one should be compelled to associate with anyone else against his will. This latter explains libertarian opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act: Woolworth’s was obligated to serve customers it wished to exclude.

What are the economics of this issue?

Gary Becker, Thomas Sowell, and Walter E. Williams have done important work contending that such discrimination is all but impotent to hurt its targets, contrary to the widely received opinion on this matter. Given that Woolworth’s, at the time, refused to serve certain ethnic groups, profits would have arisen for other vendors to serve them. Blacks had to ride in the “back of the bus?” Other bus companies would have arisen to serve them (in the absence of Jim Crow laws—which prohibited such competition—which are anathema to libertarianism). When the Ivy League schools imposed a hard upper bound on Jewish admits, the City College of New York and Yeshiva University were happy to take in those thereby excluded.

Not only is the case against discrimination economically unsound, this applies to its philosophy as well. Heterosexual men discriminate against half the human race in terms of bed partners, romantic love interests; no other men need apply. Heterosexual women discriminate against half the human race in terms of bed partners, romantic love interests; no other women need apply. Homosexual men discriminate against half the human race in terms of bed partners, romantic love interests; no women need apply. Homosexual women discriminate against half the human race in terms of bed partners, romantic love interests; no men need apply.

If the law against discrimination were to be fully implemented, it would compel bi-sexuality for everyone. This, to say the least, is a conclusion unwelcome to all and sundry, but this follows logically, and ineluctably, from the principles of non-discrimination.

The argument against this philosophical knock-out blow is that anti-discrimination laws are meant to apply, only, to commercial endeavors, buying, selling, renting, lending, etc., not to personal ones such as choice of spouse. But there is no rationale in any such contention. Murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, etc., are illegal whether they occur in the home or in the office or factory. If there is a right not to be discriminated against, it should apply, too, to all realms of human interaction, not just the commercial.

Harvard and UNC should be free to discriminate to their heart’s content on the basis of race or sex or whatever other criteria they choose. But they should not see a red penny of any tax money or other statist privileges, since, under the libertarian legal code, there should be a full and complete separation of government and education.

If they want to discriminate, let them do so on their own dime. Private people and fully private institutions should be free to discriminate all they wish. That is what free association is all about. But government is constitutionally forbidden to do any such thing.

Walter Block

Walter Block

Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

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How Libertarians Should View Harvard’s Racial Discrimination in Admissions