The Limits of Policies Based on Identity Rather Than Universal Rights, Needs, and Opportunities

Written by: Eugene Steuerle

So much of today’s public conversations revolve around identity, particularly of groups. Because no group member is precisely like any other, it is usually challenging to design policy options fairly and efficiently based on group identity alone. The most essential group-based policies—Constitutional and legal provisions forbidding discrimination against individuals based on race, creed, or other identification—are not exceptions. Those provisions apply universal, not group-based, rights (equal protection, fair trial, voting, marriage) to groups that otherwise might be excluded.

The issue gets messy in those policy arenas where discrimination is legal. Tariff policies favor sugar growers over other farmers; tax policies favor self-employed over employed workers; appropriations favor citizens who live in congressional districts of members of Appropriations Committees. Even majoritarian rule allows an assemblage of interest groups—such as those who unite behind one political party—to discriminate against a minority. Such efforts almost always tend to be unfair and inefficient relative to laws based on some more universal measure of need, ability, or opportunity.

I am not naïve about the power of interest groups in a democracy, but even worthy interest groups often achieve less by looking to get their own piece of the pie rather than first applying universal standards to how the pie should be allocated. That is a bit abstract, so let me give two concrete examples from K-12 education and Social Security policy.

Our K-12 educational system fails many people. Its universal purpose must be to help all students attain their maximum potential. A system doesn’t succeed if it fails either the most advanced or least advanced class member, the white or Black student, the EAL (English as an Additional Language), or the native English speaker. Even parity can hardly be deemed a success if achieved through an equally high failure rate for all groups. 

I’ve watched with chagrin as school systems move around resources every few years from one “deserving” group to another, claiming minor gains in the group temporarily receiving attention but making no advance for all of them at the end of the day. Even as a matter of simple politics, all parents want their children to succeed as much as possible. Schools receive better public support when that goal is stressed for each student. A friend of mine, a former principal, tells me stories about pressures to do otherwise. For instance, because his school’s success was often measured by the percentage of students obtaining some minimum standard, he would be encouraged to ignore both those unlikely to move up to that standard and those already above it.

As a second example, Social Security, like many other broad policy areas, has provisions that violate more universal principles. For instance, it favors widows and widowers in unfair ways over single people. It does this by requiring everyone, including single workers, to pay extra to support an add-on widow and widower benefit available only to married couples. (In the private pension system, workers with spouses pay for their own family’s spousal benefits through a lower annual annuity.) As a result, many single people get fewer Social Security benefits than those who contribute less to the system. The failure derives from a historical effort to subsidize poor widows based upon a group stereotype of each family consisting of a male worker with children and a wife who earned no money for her household work. A superior approach would apply a universal standard of subsidizing impoverished older people, regardless of family type.

Among the losers have been Black women. For years, they often worked more, paid more taxes, raised as many children, and got fewer benefits than white women. The issue arises: is this a racial or more universal issue? It’s the latter, since that poorly designed benefit rule creates many unfair losers among all races and family types. Defining the issue simply as a Black person issue can make it appear more a matter of group interest than a universal issue of providing equal justice among all beneficiaries.

The extraordinary focus on groups and their identity has become so prevalent in today’s political discussions that I fear it turns attention away from what can be achieved by applying universal principles more consistently to policy. When I, however worthy, merely seek to get the government to give me something you must pay for, it comes across at best as a zero-sum game, where my gains are your losses. When I ask you to work with me on a universal goal, such as maximizing the opportunity for all in education or reducing poverty in old age, I’m more likely to get your support, regardless of your group identities. The reform we achieve would also likely provide the most significant gains for those groups suffering most from the lack of a universal standard.

Related: The Emerging Opportunity in Direct Lending