Ron Unz’s blockbuster article has been generating a lot of talk on Twitter. He’s opened a subject that gets discussed informally in many an elite environment, but that hardly registers with a public that mistakenly believes affirmative action is the greatest deviation from merit-based admissions. At a dinner a little over a year ago, a right-leaning professor at an elite non-Ivy told me that he in fact supports affirmative action, out of a need to make sure the ruling class doesn’t become too monolithic. Blacks are hardly the only ones benefiting from admissions based on considerations other than strict academic merit; indeed, without some subjective selection, higher education would be overwhelmingly nonwhite.

More recently, a liberal Ivy League graduate who assists with admissions told me the same thing: if they didn’t use less formal criteria beyond test scores and grades, Ivies and elite prep schools would admit scarcely anyone who wasn’t Asian and female. Even without looking at the numbers, it’s easy to imagine the sex disparity that would emerge; already women are attending college in greater numbers than men, and while this might be seen as progress up to a point, a future in which, say, less than a third of undergraduates were male would raise difficult new questions about what’s meant by “equality” between the sexes.

“Merit” as the sole or overwhelmingly important criterion for admissions is indeed a myth, though certainly universities seek out the most talented individuals within whatever cultural blocs they deem worthy of representation. This has always been the case, from the days when universities discriminated against Jewish applicants to the present situation in which universities discriminate against Asian applicants and whites who don’t fit an East Coast cultural and political profile. The question to put before the public, as Unz has, is that of what criteria other than merit should be taken into account in composing the cadres that emerge from the country’s top schools. It’s a question that can’t be answered with too much specificity — social engineering, which is frankly what this is, can only be taken so far in a republic that professes to believe in freedom and equal opportunity — but ignorance of the subjective considerations already in play is also damaging, as the acrimony that accompanies debates on affirmative action shows.

Perhaps our present subjective criteria are the ones our society is most comfortable with and require only slight modification: certainly admitting more red-state whites in the spirit of tokenism that characterized formal preferences for blacks would only engender resentment. Almost everyone is getting affirmative action or other unearned advantages of one kind of another, but only some minorities have been marked out as, in effect, charity cases. That’s the wrong way to look at it: the entire system is about one privileged group, university administrators, consciously conferring privileges — above all the privilege of leadership — on a successor group selected subjectively from an American population whose distribution of talents does not, unfortunately, match anyone’s ideal of natural equality.