Folks on the progressive left have much to say against the idea of “privilege” these days, particularly what they see as unfair privilege that entrenches unequal socio-economic outcomes and perpetuates the influence and social standing of culturally powerful groups. Thus, along with the street activism, protests, shout-downs and such, we see screeds against white-/ male-/ hetero-/ etc.-/ privilege.
Indeed, the application of “privilege theory” seemingly knows no bounds: there’s even a “thin privilege” corresponding with “fat discrimination.” Whatever your perceived oppression, “there’s a privilege theory for that.”
Privilege is important in understanding and improving society, and there’s plenty of room to criticize certain privileges as being unfair and unworthy of a free society. But lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we need also to appreciate the positive roles that other forms of privilege can play.
To be sure, privileges that arise strictly from “accidental” factors beyond one’s control are usually lamentable and often evil. They are also often deeply entrenched in a society, such as the privileged status of higher versus lower castes in India’s ancient religious hierarchy, which still leads to much greater job and marriage opportunities for the privileged groups.
The prime American example is, of course, the racial privileges associated with African slavery and perpetuated into the twentieth century via Jim Crow laws. Even societies without the baggage of evil, institutionalized privileges in the form of caste or slave systems will see microcosms of bad privilege in the nepotism and favoritism practiced by governmental bureaucracies and businesses.
Exclusive Versus Inclusive Privilege
Yes, privilege is all around us, but despite the Left’s association of privilege with evil, not all privileges are bad. Rather than merely identify privilege and rant against it, we must distinguish between the source and nature of different forms of privilege. An essential distinction involves what I like to call exclusive and inclusive privilege.
Exclusive privileges help the in-group by forcibly, legally denying members of the outgroup access to rungs on the ladder of social and economic advancement. A college not admitting blacks who meet the same academic qualifications as their white students exemplifies this kind of exclusive privilege, as do laws prohibiting interracial marriage or disallowing women from owning property.
If anti-privilege crusaders are strictly about breaking down these kinds of privilege, they are generally commendable, although to root out fully all forms of exclusivity would destroy freedom of association. While we may oppose a law that enforces racial segregation or bars women from land ownership, the idea of “free association” indicates that we would nevertheless tolerate a voluntary club that limits membership along sex or religious grounds, even if we find its criteria odious.
Inclusive privilege, on the other hand, can help anybody by bestowing on an individual the characteristics required for success and advancement. Inclusive privilege is “learned and earned,” meaning it encompasses a difference in outcomes based on behavioral traits, rather than exclusions enforced on the basis of arbitrary or nominal traits. In a free society, the kind of behavioral traits that generate inclusive privilege are open for adoption by any and all comers.
Inclusive privilege is, indeed what makes America great and what has traditionally defined the American dream. Marginalized as you might be in your home country due to your poverty, ethnicity, religion, or any other disfavored attributes, America allows you equal footing to attain education, own land, build a business, and generally take your life as far as your ambitions and discipline allow.
Indeed, we might say that we’re privileged to live in a free society, and this privilege has clear benefits in the form of greater prosperity and greater access to all manner of opportunities. Moreover, this privilege is not exclusive to us: other nations and peoples can access it by simply adapting the political values and structure that have proven successful for us. Many countries have, with varying degrees of success.
A Key Form of Earned Privilege: Work Ethic
At the risk of appearing egotistical, allow me to offer myself as an exemplar of inclusive privilege. I am a very privileged (I often say “blessed”) person, but my privileges have nothing to do with my race (white), sex (male), or sexual orientation (monogamous heterosexual). Rather, my privileges in life have everything to do with my parents’ values and the corresponding way they raised me.
Put simply, my parents exemplified and explicitly taught us kids the kind of historic, bourgeois values that have been the traditional path toward economic success and a stable, healthy family environment. My parents positively modeled traditional “family values” and proactively instilled in us the physical, mental, and emotional discipline we needed to succeed in school and jobs, even when it was painful (on both sides) to do so.
Finally, a special advantage I enjoyed was the opportunity to do meaningful work from a very early age, ranging from chores around the house to difficult and demanding labor within the family business (I have written in more depth about this “work privilege”). These values of hard work, discipline, sexual restraint, respect for authority, etc., are no more “white” than they are “Jewish” or “Asian.” Rather, they simply describe the values and habits of successful Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life.
As sociologist Charles Murray noted in his acclaimed book “Coming Apart,” these are the values that the current upper class lives by, but is too timid—indeed, too cowed by privilege theory and their own sense of guilt—to celebrate and promote among the broader culture as the surest path to success. Yet, unspoken as they may be, these values are the common denominator of success in real-world America.
Opening the Privilege of Good Family to All
To be sure, access to the inclusive privileges of traditional bourgeois values doesn’t always work. We can all point to dysfunctional people who emerged from apparently stable home environments, and of course there are heroic stories of people who emerge as strong, productive citizens out of tragic home backgrounds. But the cause and effect relationship is nonetheless present: in general and on average, kids who are privileged to be raised in a stable, mom-dad household that instills morals and discipline do better in school, in jobs, in taking care of their own families, and so on.
If we want to improve the lives of the downtrodden, it is crucial to understand that this kind of privilege is not limited to the elite few who hold on to it by keeping others out. This privilege is open to anyone—as many as may seek it—who may enjoy it simply by adopting the values and striving to live by them. This is an inclusive privilege, in that it can be expanded indefinitely by self-selection, by education, indeed by the very idea of moral legitimacy, that is, by civilization actively praising and promoting those values we find to work well (albeit painfully) towards achieving the societal ends we desire.
When discussing privilege, we must realize that it comes in both nefarious and benign forms. While much of the anti-privilege mentality is well founded, we must be cautious against rooting out all privilege from society. Exclusive privileges, whether apartheid-style preferences for the racial in-group or tax and regulatory privileges for crony capitalists, are worthy targets for elimination.
Inclusive privileges are worth knowing about and, as far as possible, extending to the under-privileged, by promoting and inculcating “old fashioned” values and social incentives that would ensure more children have access to the proven model for successful, productive lives. In homage to mom and dad and as a way of “paying it forward,” I, for one, strive to preserve and extend this kind of privilege to my children and any young people under my influence.