Discrimination against certain categories of individuals on the basis of bodily features seems so tribal, inefficient, and bigoted that I have caught myself thinking that laws against such discrimination might be acceptable after all. The case of Harvard University president Claudine Gay and the events she has been associated with, however, bring into focus the danger of this course of conduct: forgetting that discrimination in favor of some group is ipso facto discrimination against some other group.

A Wall Street Journal column by Jason Riley suggests that Ms. Gay owes her prestigious job in large part to her race, her DEI (“Diversity, equity, and inclusion)” activism, and her progressive ideology (“Why Harvard Can’t Fire Claudine Gay,” December 19; see also “As Pressure on Harvard President Increases, University Board Feels the Squeeze,” Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2024). Somebody more competent, more scholarly, and less activist would likely have got the job were it not for the discrimination practiced at Harvard. Even assuming that this is not true, the stain of affirmative action–discrimination to combat discrimination–would remain.

Under the excuse of fighting racial and “gender” discrimination, as well as discrimination against any “marginalized group” that gets on the victimization bandwagon,  a faction in our society has anointed itself (to use a synecdoche) with the mission of governing others, that is (in the sense of Anthony de Jasay), of harming others’ lifestyles and opportunities in the pursuit of their own contentment and interests. The complicity of governments over the last several decades has been crucial to this enterprise: without their direct and indirect support and subsidies (including to institutions of higher education), it is doubtful that the current tsunami of tribalism, ignorance, and bigotry could have spread so rapidly and so widely.

We now see how attempts at politically—that is, coercively—solving problems of bigoted discrimination are likely to result in a new sort of bien-pensant and quasi-official discrimination, including against those with the wrong opinions. The main problem with anti-discrimination laws is that they translate into discrimination mandates. In the jungle thus created, politicians on the other side react by proposing their own discrimination in favor of their own clienteles.

Despite many historical failures at protecting individual liberty in more rather than less free societies, diversity has always been crushed incomparably more harshly in unfree societies. The slogan “Queers for Palestine” would be rather funny were it not for its tragic naivety (see Billy Binion, “The Contradictions of ‘Queers for Palestine’,” Reason Magazine, October 27, 2023).  Activists who witchhunt “micro-aggressions,” even if non-violent, unintentional, and inconsequential, blamed a savage and bloody aggression against Israelis, including women and children, on the latter’s government. The outing of the DEI fraud inspired a Wall Street Journal editorial titled “The DEI Rollback of 2023” (December 26).

DEI appears to be a slogan for intimidation, uniformity, and submission in any dimension other than sex and (certain) skin colors.

A major contribution of political economy is to help analyze how the opinions and actions of politicians, bureaucrats, naïve ideologues, and benevolent authoritarians do not lead to nirvana. It is not by mere happenstance that economist John Stuart Mill could, more than half a century ago, write such powerful books as On Liberty (1859) and The Subjection of Women (1869)—the latter being a rational critique of real, government-supported discrimination.