I was invited to speak about ``diversity'' to an audience of about 40 black students, mostly on the left side of the room, and 40 white students, mostly on the right---as good an indication as any that nobody really cares very much about diversity. These were my remarks:

The assigned topic is ``What kind of diversity should we seek?'' I'm a bit baffled by the question, because the whole point of diversity is that we should each get to seek something different. Some people like to have diverse friends, diverse interests, diverse diets, or diverse reading habits, and others like to specialize. We ought to be able to celebrate diversity in people's attitudes toward diversity.

But sometimes communities have to make collective decisions, so I'll assume those are the decisions the topic refers to. We belong to the University of Rochester and we belong to a larger polity. What kinds of diversity should those communities seek?

Let's start with the university. Etymologically, a university is the very opposite of a diversity. Universities assimilate knowledge; their goal is to weed out wrong and unproductive ways of thinking. If we had diverse opinions about astrology, for example, it would mean that some of us were poor scholars. At a successful university, the ideas that come out are far less diverse ---and far more refined---than the ideas that go in. Ideally, we're trying to discover ideas that are so clearly correct that no reasonable person could doubt them; in that sense the only reason to seek diversity is to identify the enemy.

But even when the goal is to eliminate diversity, it can still make sense to pursue diverse paths toward that goal. That's why we have an English Department, a History Department, an Economics Department, and a Physics Department, and a great deal of diversity in research strategies within those departments. With too little diversity, we'd become insular; with too much, we'd lose our focus. The most successful institutions are those that find the right balance, and the fact that most institutions don't succeed suggests that finding the right balance isn't easy.

It's possible, of course, that we might value diversity for its own sake, regardless of whether it contributes to our scholarly pursuits. But one of my colleagues pointed out that if we really valued, say, racial diversity, we'd see white students arguing for fewer white students and black students arguing for fewer black students. A taste for diversity means a taste for being with people who are actually different from you. And we don't see a lot of that, which suggests to me that diversity per se is not high on anyone's agenda.

Moving beyond the university to the larger society we inhabit, diversity becomes a far more critical issue. That's because, unlike the University of Rochester, the United States of America has no clearly defined mission. If the U.S.~has a purpose, it's not to pursue some collective goal, but to let individuals pursue their own goals in an atmosphere where conflicts can be resolved by something short of shooting wars. In other words, the purpose is to foster diversity.

Fortunately, we have an institution that is almost miraculously effective at fostering diversity, namely the free marketplace. If you want to work hard, take a lot of risks and try to get rich, you can do that. If you'd rather work 40 hours a week in a secure job and earn a bare living, you can do that too. You can choose your occupation, you can choose your savings rate, you can choose the way you spend your earnings.

The greatest threat to diversity is that governments sometimes try to take that kind of choice away from you and from your neighbors. If you choose to earn more income, you are punished through the tax system. If you choose to save more rather than less, the tax system punishes you again. If you want to make yourself more attractive to employers by starting at $4 an hour or agreeing to forgo your rights to ``family leave'', the law requires you to conform to someone else's idea of a minimum wage or an acceptable employment contract.

I turned on the radio the other day and heard Al Gore making an eloquent plea for tolerance. Whenever there is a multiplicity of deeply held beliefs, he said, it is wrong to impose a uniform standard. Instead, he said, we should learn to respect and live with our differences.

It turned out that he was talking about abortion. I should have guessed. Gore belongs to an administration that believes in tolerance for abortionists and only for abortionists. In every other arena--- from the workplace to the schoolroom to the doctor's office---he is a staunch advocate of the same stifling uniformity that he is the first to denounce whenever the subject of abortion comes up.

These people can't tolerate diversity in employment contracts; that's why we have the minimum wage and the family leave act. They can't tolerate diversity in health insurance contracts; that's why they want to micromanage the health care system down to the level where you can no longer buy any insurance at all unless it includes a provision for 48 hours of post-childbirth hospital care. They can't tolerate diversity in investment strategies; that's why they're obsessed with saving Social Security so they can choose your investment strategy for you. Lord knows, they can't tolerate diversity in smoking habits.

Nor can they tolerate diversity in income. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the very rich are different from you and me. In a world that valued diversity, we would celebrate that difference. Instead, we have a government that's trying to eliminate it.

We also have governments that are trying to eliminate diversity in family size. Some people prefer small families and some people prefer large ones. In a large family, you have to spread the resources more thinly, but you get the joy of having lots of grandchildren. Some people think that tradeoff's worthwhile; others don't. But we have a worldwide population control movement that wants to eliminate your right to make those choices.

In fact, population control is an attack on diversity both in the small and in the large. It's an attack in the small because it tries to make all families look more alike. It's an attack in the large, because diversity is made out of people, and with fewer people there will be less diversity. The reason we have chamber music, parasailing, and Ethiopian restaurants is because we have a population large enough to support them.

Celebrating diversity means celebrating people, including people whose choices and values are very different from your own. That's the diversity we should seek and nurture.