This article is part of a three-part series on privilege, society, and public policy.  Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, as well!

Critical theorists who talk about privilege do not wanting to create a color-blind, class-blind, gender-blind, sexuality-blind society: anyone who has been to a civil rights rally understands the classical color-blind society is viewed by critical sociologists as a nightmare. The ultimate goal is to reveal to privileged individuals their privilege and to create a legislative framework that prohibits that privilege from taking effect. Essentially, privilege legislation hopes to handicap one group of people in order to ensure another group of people can have equal opportunity.

Herein lies the problem with the Marxists’ and Critical Sociologists’ policy suggestion for dealing with privilege: it ignores the fact that individuals are not necessarily granted equal privilege due to the characteristics being emphasized. Social science is plagued by the curse of aggregation. This curse deals more with understanding changes in data, not the ideas in and of themselves. Critical Sociology tends to ignore this curse, making the field’s conclusions (which largely address the “cause” of the so-called privilege gap) largely mute.

In order to find a viable solution to privilege issues in society, we have to start out using a different approach.

Equality and Ends: A Privilege Policy Framework

Privilege will exist until difference no longer exists. Policy suggestions must take that into account. Public policy can two general forms: (1) It can attempt to equalize privilege by creating handicaps or creating so-called artificial privilege to counter-balance so-called natural privilege; or (2) It can attempt to maximize each individual’s ability to use their privilege to their greatest advantage. Conservatives and libertarians generally define their position as equality under the law, which may be called negative equality. The left consider their perspective equality of opportunity, or positive equality. (The positive and negative equality debate plays into the Marx passage I discussed in the first part of this series.)

This is one way of looking at the policy, but I prefer a different perspective. This alternate perspective comes from two conservative viewpoints: (1) rights are inherited from preceding generations (as opposed to being innate human qualities), and (2) the ultimate responsibility of government is to ensure an economically stable society. The question is not between the types of equality, but the organizational structures used by society to reach the policy goals.

The first structural possibility is a form of hierarchy. It coerces and manipulates some people so it is more difficult to utilize their resources to benefit society, while counter balancing it by giving people with different experiences better opportunity to benefit society. It is a policy of social engineering. If everything works according to plan, then all of society is benefited. But if one thing assumed turns out to be wrong, the consequences can be devastating to the entire society.

The second structural option is based in local and regional customs. It allows communities to work out resource allocation and job placement themselves based on the social norms within that local community. Individuals are free to pursue the area of expertise, and those with resources can use them to better themselves or society. It is a liberal policy of classical freedom, but it can sometimes result in a segregated society and sharply divided classism.

This latter approach to understanding privilege and policy is a more fruitful division. Governments cannot reach their ends perfectly, but they can use particular means to attempt to reach those ends. Public policy should be as much as or more concerned with the means to reach an end as the end itself. The question is who and what method is better for organizing society: hierarchical coercion or customary local governance. In the end, one purified form is never used. The American civil rights movement, for example, was a worthwhile use of hierarchy to end destructive local customs. Still, it would be foolish to say that the hierarchical approach actually achieved all of its goals–this is why people to this day say that race equality has not occurred.

Conservatives and the Balancing Test

Reagan and O'ConnorConservatives should not fear this balancing act. Consider the opinions of conservative jurists Sandra Day O’Conner in Grutter v. Bollinger and Chief Justice William Rehnquist in Gratz v. Bollinger, cases which together held that affirmative action policies can only take into account race if the requirement was linked to a pedagogical interest (i.e., if increasing the racial diversity of the University would increase every student’s exposure to different racial cultures within the United States and the rest of the world). O’Conner and Rehnquist recognized in these decisions that racial diversity at Universities is an important and unique feature of American education. The same level of cultural complexity does not exist in European, African, or Asian Universities. Students from these countries come to America to live in a way that they simply cannot abroad. Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 corporation filed amici briefs to the United States Supreme Court to explain the great benefit all students receive from this experience and its importance to a strong economy. It is one of the things that makes America great.

This solution does not frame the question in terms of one privileged group against another group, but in the interest of benefiting society as a whole. Custom can solve racial problems, but it may be prudent to fortify it with limited hierarchical intrusion where it is absolutely necessary. The goal is a stable society, but one where privilege is not a dominant or convincing argument. Those conditions do not lend to a stable society.

So long as the question of privilege is draped in an emotionalism on both sides, a fruitful discussion and resolution that benefits all of society (each and every individual) will not and cannot occur. It is time for conservatives to take the higher ground.