Sunday, May 15, 2005

Illusory Progress

Ed Brayton, who writes Dispatches from the Culture Wars, opined recently:
I am a passionate advocate for the principles of natural rights as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But I am also firmly convinced that our nation is far closer to living out those ideals today than at any time in the almost 230 years since that document was written. It has taken the extraordinary sacrifice of many great men and women, an enormous amount of social upheaval and even a civil war to put those principles into action, but it has brought us closer to making the promise of those self-evident truths a reality for a far higher proportion of our people.
What Brayton overlooks is the vast amount of damage government has done to the social and economic fabric of this nation. It's easy to see the "good" that government action has wrought (or the "good" that its proponents claim for it), but hard to see the evil it has done, unless you know where to look. (See my series on "Practical Libertarianism for Americans," especially Part V and its addendum.) On the whole, government's intrusiveness in our social and economic affairs has made us much worse off than we could have been.

But what about the end of segregation and the social and economic progress made by blacks and women? To the extent that progress on those fronts came about through government action, it came about because of the inevitable evolution of social attitudes. Government's ability to force social change is limited by the a people's ability to circumvent social engineering -- as we have seen in the case of campaign finance "reform."

In fact, programs such as affirmative action -- which impose unequal treatment under the law -- have backfired, to the extent that they have fomented resentment of and doubts about the qualifications of their intended beneficiaries. It is easier for an employer to reject a black or female applicant than it is for that same employer to fire a black or female employee. The employer may be making a mistake in rejecting a black or female applicant, but the operation of the law encourages such mistakes.

So, my contention is that we would be much better off, socially and economically, if government intervention were limited to the equal protection of everyone's life, liberty, and property. Such a regime would enable persons of ability -- regardless of race or gender -- to prove their worth and earn the trust of others. That is true progress.