How Government Gets Flipped for Lack of First Principles


Writing about how the good intention of integration wound up destroying a top-notch Washington, D.C., black school — a source of opportunity for black Americans for 80 years after the Civil War — and thus did harm to the goal of real advancement and thorough integration, Thomas Sowell provides a position from which we can make broader conclusions:

The M Street School had neither of two so-called “prerequisites” for quality education. There was no “diversity.” It was an all-black school from its beginning, and on through its life as a high-quality institution under the name Dunbar High School.

But its days as a high-quality institution ended abruptly in the middle of the 1950s. After that, it became just another failing ghetto school.

The other so-called “prerequisite” that the M Street School lacked was an adequate building. Its student body was 50 percent larger than the building’s capacity, a fact that led eventually to the new Dunbar High School building. But its students excelled even in their overcrowded building.

The killer, according to Sowell, was the 1954 Supreme Court declaration, in Brown v. Board of Education, that racially segregated schools are “inherently unequal.”  Thus did high flying language change the first principle for action from freedom, equality, and personal advancement to racial integration.  I suspect that sentence might make no sense to some, who see racial integration as a necessary step in order to reach the three stated principles.

Those who believe that all of us should be equal before the law and have, without fail, inherent rights and talents, would suggest that, if we are are equally free under the law to pursue our own advancement according to whatever criteria we prioritize, then we will inevitably integrate.  After all, that’s the fundamental reason most of us support a federalist representative democracy coinciding with a free market economy.  Such a system allows us to work together to the greatest degree possible given our inherent individual differences.  That’s called “integration.”

However, if racial integration, of itself, is declared to be a necessarily prior step, then it becomes the first principle, despite the fact that it can obviously be a step toward other end points.  Mixing us together in a dictatorship’s slums or in mass graves does not bring us to freedom or personal advancement, although we’d certainly be equal, in a sense.

One of the trickier aspects of left-right debates around race is precisely the desirability of applying principles evenly in unequal circumstances.  Progressives argue, with justification, that a fight isn’t equal when one contestant enters the ring thoroughly trained, well nourished, and harboring a friendly relationship with the referee.

Conservatives, for our part, are wary of empowering government to impose rules that cannot be applied in completely objective ways.  Once we allow such power, it tends to expand and to become corrupted until the powerful need only rephrase their goals in the terms of the new power in order to do whatever they want.  Integrating the Dunbar school, for example, turned equality into a means of destroying opportunities for the disadvantaged.  Next, the idea of one-sided “diversity,” promoted in part to address such distortions, becomes a tool for imposing a radical social agenda on the country.

Similarly, the idea of government authority over businesses to prevent monopolies and unfair behavior in the economy becomes a pretext for regulating industries in such a way as to prevent competition, thus fostering effective monopolies, until the imbalance leads the government to declare itself a legitimate monopoly over all.

Because circumstances change, ultimate resolution of these balances are not possible, but we can give the positive attributes of our society greater longevity and a better chance by being able to articulate first principles and then keeping them on their pedestal.  In that case, we can keep sight of why we’re doing what we’re doing and make better case-by-case decisions.

If we agree that freedom, equality, and personal advancement (pursuit of happiness) are our first principles, then we can articulate an objective rule at a higher level than, for example, “no group can ever discriminate.”  Instead, we can say that no group can discriminate under specific circumstances and then define a high bar for those circumstances.  When the unique social sin of slavery came to an end in the United States — having existed throughout human history — those under its needle were of a particular race, creating circumstances by which those of another race were able to coordinate in oppressing them.  Thus, the government had justification to break up those circumstances.  Similarly, a company that finds itself, by accident of history, in a position to abuse customers and competitors can justifiably be saddled with artificial barriers that allow for competition.

If we can rise above petty politics and the ideological tug-of-war, we can avoid destroying opportunities like Dunbar while restricting discrimination in the opposite direction.  We can also maintain a standard by which we can step back and acknowledge that the circumstances that justified restrictions of freedom in the name of equality no longer exist, and remove the restrictions rather than expanding the restrictions on freedom.

Moreover, we can judge new claims for similar special treatment against the original standard.  For instance, homosexual men and women appear throughout society, as opposed to being a hereditary group, and they are, on average, better off than society overall.  Their circumstances are scarcely like those of black Americans in the early Twentieth Century.  For another instance, girls are doing better than boys in school, indicating that we should reevaluate special treatment and the need to maintain gender as a protected class.

Unfortunately, the momentum is in the other direction, with groups fighting to be included on lists for protection and special treatment.  It isn’t difficult to see where this is going.