Equal Protection Nonsense: Women at West Point Edition

On NPR’s Morning Edition today you’ll find the story “West Point Women: A Natural Pattern or a Camouflage Ceiling?” Reporter Larry Abramson leaves us with the impression that, in the words of Col. Ellen Haring (class of ’84), “women are being excluded from a taxpayer-funded educational opportunity”—or, as Abramson puts it:

The Army says it wants more women in the officer corps. The question is whether more will join an organization where their [sic] are still perceived limits on their numbers.

Col. Haring has a point, or would have one if the aim of West Point were simply to afford young men and women an “educational opportunity.” But the American people, through their representatives, presumably had a more precise goal in mind when they created West Point in the first place. National defense is a quintessential public good, defined as economists do, so we don’t need to argue about whether the government should be in that business. To be sure, the purpose of an army officer corps, pursuant to that goal, may change as technology changes. But for the present and the foreseeable future, there are certain limits on the composition of the corps that are set by its very function. By virtue of that function, the Army, at least at the officer level, never has been and, one hopes, never will be a come-one-come-all equal opportunity employer. The American people would be ill-served were that to happen.

And so we come to the question of women at West Point. Let us stipulate that men and women are different, absent which we would not be having this discussion. Given that, our question reduces to whether that difference makes a difference. For nearly two centuries we thought it did, but times are changing, and so is technology, which means that for drone warfare, and much else, gender makes no or little difference. But it may make a difference over the vast range of army activities—and that is the debate we are currently having, concerning which others are better situated to judge.

In doing so, however, much of our modern equal protection nonsense—and “diversity,” in particular—should play no part, not if we are to have the best army we can have, as surely we should. Yet diversity is the thrust of this morning’s NPR piece. Early on Mr. Abramson tells us “that the overwhelming majority of the graduating class will be white, and 84 percent male,” adding that “some say those rates are due to natural patterns of matriculation.”

“Women will naturally matriculate – or, they have naturally matriculated – into the Academy at about the 16 to 17 percent rate,” says West Point admissions director Col. Deborah McDonald.

But that’s about to change, we’re told. With women now permitted in combat roles, “the new superintendent of West Point, Gen. Bob Caslen, says he’s been told to enroll a class that is more diverse.” And what is the right number of women? “We don’t know yet,” he says. “It could be 25 percent. Heck, it could be 50 percent.”

Really? How, if women “naturally” matriculate at a rate of 16 to 17 percent? Calling that rate into question, Mr. Abramson tells us that some faculty members claim there’s a “goal” for women at West Point “that actually functions as a ceiling.” But Col. McDonald answers that, since she’s been with the admissions department, “there hasn’t been a ceiling on any applicant member that’s coming, on any demographic.”

But if it is true that qualified women “naturally” matriculate at a rate far lower than men—and self-sorting by gender would hardly be unique to West Point—then making the academy “look like America” will be achieved only by dipping more deeply into the female applicant pool. As I have written elsewhere, because government belongs to all of us, it may rightly discriminate against any of us only on grounds narrowly tailored to serve the function of the institution at issue—which is to say that government may discriminate on grounds that are relevant. Diversity may be a laudable goal, but not when it requires discrimination on forbidden grounds like gender—to say nothing of compromising the mission at issue, about which, again, it is for others to decide.