An article in the current issue of The Economist (“A Lawsuit Reveals How Peculiar Harvard’s Definition of Merit Is”) raises again the problem of discrimination. A private organization has sued Harvard University for discrimination against Asian-American applicants. The discovery process forced Harvard to reveal much information about its admission process, which confirmed what everybody suspected–that Harvard does discriminate, directly and indirectly, on the basis or race.

It is difficult not to accept that a private entity, including a private university like Harvard, should be able to discriminate as it wishes. One might reject the morality of some forms of discrimination. For example, discrimination against Jews in the Progressive Era, including at Harvard, was certainly objectionable. But some of us will have different views on different forms of discrimination. That private discrimination should not be banned (as many forms are now banned by federal law, including on the basis of race) is supported by good moral and economic reasons.

The moral basis of value judgments in public policy evaluation can perhaps be summarized in the principle proposed by Robert Nozick: the law should not forbid “capitalist acts between consenting adults” (Anarchy, State, and Utopia).

There also exist good economic reasons to favor the private liberty to discriminate. Economic reasons have to do with consequences in terms of individual income, opportunities, and social coordination. Only a private entity can know all its circumstances. For example, only Harvard can determine whether its practice of discriminating in favor of alumni’s children is desirable.

Moreover, competition forces discriminators to pay the cost of their discrimination, as famously demonstrated by Gary Becker. Consequently, one has an incentive not to indulge in discrimination too much, if at all. If Harvard discriminates on the basis of race, it will (with some probability) lose out to MIT or Caltech, two other private universities. (Incidentally, Lauren Landsburg has a fascinating EconLog article on Becker as a teacher.)

A general habit of judging individuals on the basis of the groups they belong to could have dire consequences in the long term. Could this consideration provide a libertarian basis for some antidiscrimination laws? Probably not. At any rate, government cannot help by mandating discrimination to fight discrimination, that is, with affirmative action. The case under consideration supports these doubts.

What is sure is that discrimination by public institutions and bodies should not be allowed. It is contrary to the rule of law, which treats all individuals equally. Public discrimination is unjust to the individuals who are forced to pay taxes like others but do not benefit from an equal treatment by the state. From a narrower economic viewpoint, public discrimination or a legal obligation to discriminate privately (as was long the case against Blacks in America or South Africa) limits exchange with the individuals discriminated against and thus reduces the general benefits of exchange.

I would argue that the subsidies that Harvard gets, which are, I suppose, open to all other universities and represent only a small portion of Harvard’s budget, are not sufficient to justify regulating it like a public university. Such subsidies show the danger of government subsidies to private organizations.

The Economist article reminds us how affirmative action is just discrimination in reverse. The federal government has imposed affirmative action for several decades, even if numerical quotas are now deemed illegal. Forced antidiscrimination preferences are disguised quotas. By mandating discrimination in favor of certain races or ethnic backgrounds, the federal government fuels discrimination, for it implies discriminating against individuals from the non-protected races, that is, Asians and Whites. One more non-Asian or non-White admitted at university because of his race or ethnic background means closing the door to one Asian or White.

As Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty,

What is privilege to some is, of course, always discrimination to the rest.

It is ironic that Harvard University is being sued for discriminating the way the government—and probably most of its politically correct faculty—wanted, that is, in favor of Hispanics and Blacks. A compounding irony is that Harvard is also being investigated by the Department of Justice for the same affirmative action. (It would not be surprising if the DOJ had some political motivation.)

One cannot obey legislation that mandates to both discriminate and not discriminate. This is what affirmative action is. Shouldn’t Harvard now claim a private right to discriminate? Will this bring the Harvard crowd to discover the benefits of liberty?