ONE OF THE CURIOUS THINGS about the bitter battle over preferences and quotas that came to a head in the California Civil Rights Initiative is how many critics of affirmative action were missing in action when the issue faced its first test at the ballot box. After the fight was won without them, we could say to them what Henri IV said, after a great victory in battle, to one of his followers: "Hang yourself, brave Crillon; we fought at Arques and you were not there."

Among those who were not there were Nathan Glazer, John H. Bunzel, and Glenn Loury, all critics of preferences and quotas for many years. Their reasons for not supporting the principle of equal treatment for all when high noon rolled around were curious, at best.

Bunzel, for example, argues that we should determine "the relevance of race that falls between 'none at all' and 'too much.'" Isn't that a lovely thought? And a lovely principle for a law? Imagine taking down highway signs that say "65 mph" and replacing them with signs warning against "too much" speed.

Apparently it was because of its "moral simplicity" that Bunzel, writing in the Los Angeles Times, "found the ballot initiative so troublesome." He preferred a "nuanced response" rather than a "blunt instrument."

Unfortunately, nuanced nonsense is still nonsense. Government itself is a blunt instrument. That is one of many reasons for opposing expansions of its power. Expecting nuanced government is like expecting a dry ocean.

Then there is the old familiar moral equivalence argument, which some might have thought -- or hoped -- had vanished with the Cold War: "I would even suggest that CCRI is as blunt an instrument in trying to confront these excesses as affirmative action itself has often been in trying to use race to overcome racism."

And for those who are true nostalgia buffs, Bunzel has this: "What do we put in its place?" Is there any greater confession of bankruptcy than this rhetorical question? When firemen put out a fire, what do they put in its place? When a surgeon removes a cancer, what does he put in its place? Perhaps the people who backed out of joining Gary Cooper when he confronted the bad guys in High Noon should have asked: After you have shot these gunmen, what will you put in their place? But perhaps they were not nuanced enough for that.

Nathan Glazer at least tries to defend some form of affirmative action in substance in a recent piece in the New Republic. How well he does it is another question. To Glazer, the bottom line is that "the end of affirmative action means facing the prospect that the number of African American students accepted into selective colleges would drop from 6 to 7 percent to around 2 percent." This in turn means that "the predominant pathway to wellpaying and influential jobs for blacks would all but disappear."

Does this mean that blacks -- or anyone else for that matter -- cannot make it without having been to the Ivy League and the like? It would be fascinating to see the empirical evidence behind this breathtaking conclusion. Surely a scholar of Glazer's stature knows about the staggering attrition rates of black students in institutions with which they are mismatched. This is not a formula for success, but a way to create artificial failures out of people who already have the ingredients of success in some other setting.

In addition to all the explicit failures, there are the hidden failures, like the students who could have carried out their original intentions to major in a field that offered them some real prospects after graduation, but ended up having to take ethnic studies or some other driver in order to get enough easy grades to survive at a college where they are in over their heads.

Moreover, even those black students who meet the same standards as their white classmates and earn good, legitimate grades in serious subjects end up graduating under a cloud of suspicion because of all the double standards that have corrupted academia. None of this sounds like the royal road to money and power Glazer talks about.

Perhaps the most amazing conclusion Glazer reaches is that getting rid of preferences and quotas would have "damaging consequences for race relations." Where has he been all these decades while affirmative action has been creating enormous ill-will among whites in general and serving as a golden recruiting issue for hate groups in particular?

Indeed, wherever Glazer may have been -- in India, Australia, Malaysia, or Sri Lanka -- preferential policies have a proven track record of creating polarization. Why would anyone think that it is not going to be the same here, when there is evidence all around that Americans are sick and tired of this stuff?.

Also in the New Republic, Glenn Loury says that, if he were a California voter, "I would probably vote 'yes' on CCRI -- but with reservations." Alas, I have never seen a voting machine that offered a choice of "Yes -- but with reservations." Even Congress and the Supreme Court must ultimately vote up or down.

The fact that government is a blunt instrument is an excellent reason for getting it out of the race business. That is precisely what the California initiative was about -- getting the state government out of the business of preferences and quotas. Private individuals, private institutions, and the federal government could do whatever they wanted to -- nuance to their heart's content.

Loury's objections are somewhat diffuse, but in the end he proclaims himself someone "more interested in seeing social justice done than in hewing to an ideological line." We all know what an ideological line is, but none of the innumerable individuals who passionately proclaim "social justice" seems to consider it necessary to define what that means. All justice is inherently social. Can anyone be just or unjust on a desert island?

Loury comes closer than most by saying: "The disparities in life chances of a black versus a white or Asian youngster born today into households of similarly modest means in South-Central Los Angeles constitute a social justice problem with a racial dimension."

Does this mean that differences in life-chances at birth must be due to factors external to the individual, or to the culture in which he grows up, and hence constitute discrimination -- however subtle, covert, or difficult to trace? Or does it not matter whether the differences are internal or external? Loury's examples are all examples of externally caused differences in prospects.

History, however, shows enormous differences in performance between people with different cultural heritages even when they are physically indistinguishable. Scottish lowlanders have differed from Scottish highlanders, not only in Scotland but in the United States and Australia as well. Sinhalese lowlanders and Sinhalese highlanders have differed greatly in Sri Lanka. I could exhaust the reader's patience before exhausting all the other examples. What Bunzel, Glazer, Loury, and many other intellectuals seem unwilling to face, on this and other issues, is that we can make our choices only among alternatives actually available. Of course it would be wonderful to have a sweeping spectrum of innumerable possibilities, smoothly blending into one another, so that we could pinpoint just where we would like to be in that great firmament across the sky.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we have to make our choices among the options actually available through the blunt instrument of government. And we have to be able to stand up to the kind of moral intimidation that reached fever pitch in the battle over preferences and quotas in California. Strangely, none of these writers mentioned that as a factor.

Thomas Sowell is the author, most recently, of The Vision of the Anointed (BasicBooks).

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