NEPOTISM….My biggest problem with the critics of affirmative action is their unspoken assumption that America is just one vast meritocracy with the single exception of those insidious race preference programs that liberals keep yammering about.

A moment’s thought ought to convince you that this isn’t the case. Stipulating for the moment that affirmative action programs can indeed have the effect of promoting moderately less qualified blacks over some whites, it’s also true that our society already has enormous preferences built in for white folks ? and conservatives rarely even acknowledge this, let alone accept it as a problem.

When you read a story about a decline in circulation at the New York Times, for example, does Mickey Kaus immediately speculate that it’s because Arthur Sulzberger was appointed publisher instead of other more qualified non-Sulzbergers? If he reports that Ford Motor Company is perilously close to bankruptcy, is his first thought that this is a result of promoting Bill Ford to CEO instead of a better qualified non-Ford? If conservatives truly believe in a meritocracy, why aren’t they busy denouncing this kind of thing, using their bully pulpit to shame rich whites into stopping this practice? Why indeed?

There are persistent preferences in all walks of life that have nothing to do with native talent. Nepotism, for example ? which disproportionately favors whites ? has surely caused a thousand times more scandals and failures than every affirmative action program in history combined. The only difference between nepotism and affirmative action is that affirmative action is (a) far less widespread than nepotism and (b) is a corrective to deliberate government actions in the past, which provides a compelling reason for the government to promote it today.

I’d be happy to sit down with critics of affirmative action and discuss alternative ways of fighting racism that were perhaps less divisive and longer lasting, but they mostly seem uninterested in this. The typical response seems be either “yes, racism still exists in remote outposts of America, but it’s not really a serious problem,” or else a laundry list of conservative nostrums that they’d be promoting anyway. “Tax cuts will help blacks, so liberals ought to support them!”

Bah. If you want to help, acknowledge that the problem is real and then discuss real things that can be done to help fight it. Trickle down economics and vouchers for religious schools just doesn’t cut it.