The classical liberal strand in Western political philosophy has historically opposed special government privileges for groups and prized equality before the law. Classical liberals favored eliminating the benefit of clergy and the privileges of the nobility. They fought against slavery. And, unlike some progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they opposed Jim Crow.
Whether classical liberalism should embrace laws that prevent private actors from treating people unequally on the basis of characteristics, like race and sex, is a more complicated question. But in my view, given the long history of Jim Crow in the United States, laws against discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity were justified to break ingrained habits encouraged by government discrimination against African-Americans. But here again the classical liberal view molded these laws into general prohibitions against discrimination, not special privileges for certain groups.
In the 1960s and 1970s progressives began to transform these laws into mechanisms of social engineering that took account of race in their planning. But for a brief period in Reagan administration, the classical liberal strand of universalism reasserted itself as part of the core ideology of the Republican party. The result was an effort to treat laws on discrimination as general prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, no matter which race and ethnicity was at issue. Colorblindness was banner under which the movement marched.
Sadly, this movement has dissipated. Periodically, there is litigation against racial preferences at colleges, and a few states have passed laws, not rigorously enforced, against such preferences. But as multiculturalism has gained steam, conservative politicians have mostly given up opposing reverse discrimination. The George W. Bush administration was far less aggressive than that of Ronald Reagan in pursuing the colorblind ideal.
It is now time for a renewed effort. The last campaign saw how divided society becomes when colorblindness is not the norm. One candidate consciously decided to ignore white working class voters. Even more worryingly, a small but distinctive white supremacist movement threw its support to the other candidate.
Conservatives and classical liberals should begin, of course, by denouncing white supremacists. But they also should try to eliminate laws and misinterpretations of law that permit race and ethnic based privileges, because in the long run such preferences will contribute to even more dangerous balkanization.
For instance, Congress should eliminate set asides for minority contractors. All too often Republicans have acquiesced in such programs defined by race for much the same reason they acquiesce in ethanol subsidies: A more concentrated group is placated and the costs are diffused over a larger group. The Trump administration should also reverse race conscious regulations that grew up in the Obama administration, particularly in housing.
But beyond making laws colorblind, it is important for conservative intellectuals to reject the preferential hiring in higher education that goes under the name of diversity. Of course, outreach to minority groups should be welcomed as method of avoiding subtle forms of discrimination. But conservatives recently have begun to accept (or at least not actively oppose) harder edged diversity–perhaps in the hope that the concept can be turned against left liberals to demand the hiring of more conservatives onto monolithically left-wing faculties. But the effort to get liberal academics to abide by such neutral principles is likely unavailing. It also risks further entrenching race consciousness at the university, a development particularly damaging because universities should be the transmission belt of universalism. Better to campaign against discrimination against conservatives and liberalism rather than ask for affirmative action.
The struggle against special privileges and for universal rights has been one of the most essential of Western Civilization. Classical liberals and conservatives must take up the cause again.