No issue better illustrates the gap between elite and mass opinion than that of affirmitive action -- the requirement that, in the selection of persons for valued positions, some rule other than equal opportuinity for persons of equal merit be applied. Whether called targets, goals, quotas or compensation, the priciple is opposed by the great majority of Americans: Indeed, they deny it is a principle. The spokesman for civil rights and feminist and liberal organizations defend the practice and lament the threat to it posed by President Reagan.

Jimmy Carter's Justice Department, in one of many eleventh-hour regulations adopted by the outgoing administration, signed a consent degree that, in effect, required that any examination used to select persons for the civil service would result in the hiring of minorities in the same proportion as those who took the test. The panel on social justice of Carter's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties calls for affirmative action plans "that take race into consideration" because a "colorblind remedy" would not remedy past abuses. The object is not equality of opportunity, the panel states in all candor, but an increase in the number of blacks, Hispanics, women and minorities in a particular labor force.

The faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard University has recently debated a proposal to accomplish the same thing in faculty appointments -- that is, to find ways of ensuring not simply that all suitable candidates are vigourously recruited and fairly judged but that the numbers of women and blacks in the faculty will increase.

The political cost of such measures -- the rage they induce in citizens who see in such measures little more than political patronage -- will, in the long run, be less than their moral cost. What is at stake, I think, is the motive force, the emotional wellsprings, of the long and still-unended struggle for human decency. The abused and oppressed descendants of American slaves did not enlist the attention or arouse compassion of America by force of arms or superiority of numbers but by dramatizing, in ways that most Americans could no longer ignore, the elementary justice of their claims for the right to vote, to enter public accomodations, to find jobs and to buy houses. When Se. Everett Dirksen said that civil rights was an idea whose time had come, he meant, I think, that it was an idea whose moral claim could no longer be denied.

I was taught, in school and in college, that there were no grounds for excluding a person from the enjoyment of a fundamental right because of race or religion. The Constitution was, or ought to be, colorblind. I never heard or read a plausible argument against that view; I think there is none. It has that clarity and power that, when evoked by a suitable issue or test case, will sweep all else before it. What can one say in response? Only that some race or religion is inferior, and that argument is not only wrong, it is unintelligible.

Race, religion or sex may still be taken into account in human affairs, but only with respect to those matters where men and women do not have presumptively equal claims. Where no claim of fundamental right is at stake, then the degree to which the accidents of group identity are properly considered should be decided by the purposes of the offices or resources being distributed.

In one sense, affirmitive action is as old -- and as unobjectionable -- as the fist ethinically balanced ticket for municipal office got up by the sachems of Tammany Hall. We do not object ot an Irishman, an Italian, a Jew and a black being nominated for office because we know that a government does not govern simply, or even chiefly, by virtue of the competence of its governors, but rules as much by the confience it can inspire in the diverse community over which it claims authority, and that confidence will depend in no small part on how represenative of the community its chief officeholders appear to be.

Similarily, a college may decide that its purpose is not simply to find the brightest students and make them still brighter but also to have a competitive athletic program, retain the support of generous alumni and offer to students an opportunity to mingle among young persons of different background, talents and interests. Accordingly, it may admit students by a variety of criteria, including strength, speed, familial connections, race and sex.

But where the institution to which access is sought is to be judged solely, or principally, by the merit of its members and the excellence of its practices, then to admit any standard other than merit, fairly determined, is to deny the reason for the institution's existence. We do not wish to be served by a "representative" collection of brain surgeons, or naval aviators, or physicists, but by the very best such persons we can obtain, provided we are condident that no one has been unfairly excluded from consideration. Our objection to unfair exclusion is not so much that anyone has a right to be a brain surgeon or whatever, but that excluding any group from fair consideration reduces our chances of finding all of the very best surgeons.

It is possible, in short, to distinguish between circumstances where representativeness is more or less desirable as a consideration in appointment. But other difficulties remain. One involves the cost: Who is to be denied a position in order to favor another? Those who bear the action are rarely those members of the elite who most vigourously defend it; it is rather the (typically) less advantaged white male who does not recieve the appointment or office, even though he may be personally blameless for whatever discrimination once prevented blacks or women from receiving it. Affirmative action is often thought of as a form of restitution, but those who pay the restitution are not those responsible for the earlier evil, or even the most able to pay. Allan Bakke did not, so far as we know, oppress blacks, but Justices Brennan and Marshall were prepared to act as if he had.

The other difficulty is graver: the implied racism and sexism of the view that without special privileges women, blacks and other minorities would lose out in any fair competition. What is "fair competition" is, of course, not easily decided; clearly, a person deprived of educational and economic advantages will be less able to compete than one who has had every such advantage. But a black or a woman of middle-class parents who graduates from a prestigious college with a good record is not disadvantqaged in any subsequent competition for position or office; indeed, he or she is greatly advantaged compared to a poor white with a high school diploma and little else. To suggest that these blacks and women will be "underrepresented" compared with the latter unless they are given privleged access to subsequent careers is to libel the former and enrage the latter.

That presidential comissions, Supreme Court justices and members of an otherwise distinguished faculty are so eager to embrace an unexamined and undifferentiated slogan without offering, or thinking it necessary to offer, reasoned arguments and useful distinctions is a sad measure of the intellectual discussion of what was once -- not so long ago -- a shining crusdae on behalf of great principle: equal opportunity for all persons of equal merit.