Classical liberals believe in setting fair initial conditions and letting events unfold through competition—by, say, eliminating corporate monopolies, opening up guilds, radically reforming taxation and making education accessible with vouchers. Progressives see laissez-faire as a pretence which powerful vested interests use to preserve the status quo. Instead, they believe in imposing “equity”—the outcomes that they deem just. For example, Ibram X. Kendi, a scholar-activist, asserts that any colour-blind policy, including the standardised testing of children, is racist if it ends up increasing average racial differentials, however enlightened the intentions behind it.
Mr Kendi is right to want an anti-racist policy that works. But his blunderbuss approach risks denying some disadvantaged children the help they need and others the chance to realise their talents. Individuals, not just groups, must be treated fairly for society to flourish. Besides, society has many goals. People worry about economic growth, welfare, crime, the environment and national security, and policies cannot be judged simply on whether they advance a particular group. Classical liberals use debate to hash out priorities and trade-offs in a pluralist society and then use elections to settle on a course. The illiberal left believe that the marketplace of ideas is rigged just like all the others. What masquerades as evidence and argument, they say, is really yet another assertion of raw power by the elite.