Thursday, July 16, 2009

Buchanan's Error on Affirmative Action

I just watched Pat Buchanan on Rachel Maddow’s show railing against discrimination against white males. In Pat’s mind, there is no difference whatsoever between the discrimination that Black’s and Hispanic’s suffered in the past and the discrimination that a white man suffers when a promotion that he feels he deserved goes to a minority. Pat’s sees them as equally unjust.

There is another concept of justice that doesn’t seem to figure in Buchanan’s analysis, i.e., corrective justice. Corrective justice is the concept that when a wrong has been done, there must be a remedy that puts the wronged party in the position he would have been in had the wrong not been done. It is the basic concept underlying the computation of damages in tort and contract law. The idea is simple. It is not enough to simply cease doing the wrong. If I have been stealing eggs from my neighbor’s henhouse for the last year, I don’t do justice simply by stopping. I must compensate him for the eggs that I stole.

As nice as it would be if we could simply decide that all decisions in the future will be made on a color blind basis, that does not constitute justice because it does not put the wronged parties in the position that they would have been had the wrong not been done. It is unfortunately the case that any remedy for past racial discrimination must necessarily take race into account. So while I am sure we all appreciate Pat’s generosity in allowing Blacks and Hispanics to be considered on an equal basis in the future, it doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

None of this is intended to suggest that affirmative action is in fact the proper way or even a reasonable way to address the injustices that have been done in the past. The people who benefit are not necessarily the ones who suffered as a result of the injustice and the people who are penalized are not necessarily the ones who are responsible for the injustice and may not even have benefited from it. Nevertheless, Buchanan’s notion that we just wipe the slate clean doesn’t work either.


  1. You miss an important point. What Buchanan is saying is that that system is asking one person to repay the eggs someone else stole.

  2. I don't think I missed that point at all Chris. I noted "that the people who are penalized are not necessarily the ones who are responsible for the injustice and may not even have benefited from it."

    That is absolutely a problem and there is no perfect solution. It is impossible to determine how much any white male today is better off due to opportunities that were denied to the victims of discrimination in the past. By the same token, it is impossible to determine how much worse off any person is today. That does not justify rejecting any attempt to remedy the wrongs that were done.

  3. Sorry, read too fast, missed that line.

    Now that I know you're ok with punishing the innocent, how about this:

    Those, like you, who are willing to pay for sins you didn't commit can be discriminated against. Those, like Buchanan, who aren't should be treated in a color blind manner. That way we can reasonably hope that any over-correction against the willing will be averaged out.

    So where should we put the signup sheet? DNC headquarters?

  4. I am afraid that as long as you and Pat are American citizens, some share of the burden of providing a remedy for the country's past wrongdoing is going to fall on you.

  5. Your assessment of the attempt to remove the white male from his favored position in every aspect of American society as "punishing the innocent" seems to imply that he deserves these advantages in the first place. He doesn't. He just got lucky that his ancestors built a society that is imbalanced in his favor. It is absurd to suggest that one has a moral imperative to the wealth of his father and not his debts.

    And I'm not talking about wealth as capital here, I mean everyday societal advantages. You don't have to be born with money to cash in on being white.

  6. ChrisB:

    Suppose your girlfriend gives you a nice piece of jewelry as a gift. Now suppose that piece of jewelry was stolen. You didn't personally do anything wrong. Do you get to keep the piece of jewelry? Is it "punishing the innocent" to take the piece of jewelry away from you?