Should We Affirm Affirmative Action?

Equal rights for all citizens are fundamental to a liberal order. Such rights offer opportunities for political participation, to form associations, and to speak one's mind. But they also open doors to economic participation, and doors to participation in social institutions like education. Constitutional guarantees of these rights are the great achievement of the long battle for citizenship that marked the last two centuries.

However, such legal guarantees of rights are often insufficient. Even the right to vote means little for someone who is totally dependent on other people or institutions. Equality before the law remains an empty promise for those who cannot afford to make use of it or simply do not know how to do so.

The civil right to an education according to talent requires encouragement of many kinds. Thus, one great theme of social progress in the last century was to imbue the abstract concept of equal rights with social substance. This meant active encouragement by information, by political education, for example. As far as education was concerned, it often meant committing resources to financial assistance for students, such as subsidized loans or scholarships.

Yet when all this was done, certain stubborn obstacles to equal participation remained. Major groups remained underrepresented among societies' most successful citizens. This was notably the case for women and for some cultural minorities, especially if these were defined by unchosen "ascriptive" characteristics, such as skin color.