Thursday, May 6, 2004


- by Thomas Sowell - A Book Review

Some years ago, Thomas Sowell, an economist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, published a book entitled “The Vision of the Anointed,” in which he examined various social movements and government programs which are never evaluated on their merits, even though there may be years of data indicating abject failure in achieving a program’s stated goals. The policy argument that takes place regarding such programs, to the extent there is such an argument, concerns only the original rationale. The actual evidence of the program’s performance, even decades later, is not relevant. It’s impolite, politically, to present such evidence, so no one does.

Affirmative action, in its various guises, is one such program. Is it a good thing, we ask, to give the disadvantaged a leg up? Yes, of course. And that is the extent of the discussion.

It is surprising, in this vacuum, that there is enough evidence to fill a book, but there is, partly because affirmative action programs have a much longer history in countries other than the United States. Most of the book is a detailed history of these programs in India, Malaysia, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, and what is startling is the extent to which affirmative action programs around the world foster the same politics, experience the same problems, and progress along the same evolutionary path. If you happen to think that Indians or Nigerians are different from us in some fundamental way, this book will disabuse you of that notion.

In fact, the “uniqueness” of the American situation, with our history of slavery, is the first myth to fall by the wayside. Everybody, it turns out, is “unique,” and this uniqueness is invariably the centerpiece of the initial push for affirmative action programs, whether it involves the Maoris in New Zealand, the untouchables in India, or blacks in the U.S.

(Discrimination against untouchables, which has existed for millennia, is among the worst against any group in any society. Although they achieved legal equality in 1947, violence against untouchables [including lynching] persists to this day. And there are rural areas in India where the wearing of shoes by untouchables remains a sensitive issue.)

These programs are also touted as “temporary” and “limited,” though there is no affirmative action program in any country that has ever come to an end, or failed to expand beyond its original parameters. In India, for example, affirmative action for untouchables applied only to university admissions (at the insistence of the untouchables themselves!), but quickly led to “affirmative grading,” which has also appeared in the United States. Invariably, once group identity is politicized, political leaders emerge, and these leaders cannot rest on past achievements. They must continually seek new concessions from the majority. In India and Sri Lanka, these escalating demands have led to riots, murder, and atrocities. Sri Lanka, a peaceful multicultural society in the 1940’s and 1950’s, has been in a state of civil war for two decades because of ethnic wars that began with affirmative action and the politicizing of ethnicity. Though the United States has escaped the horrific ethnic violence that has plagued other countries, the goals here have continually progressed, from equality to preferences to quotas to demands for reparations. And it is difficult to argue that racial harmony has been achieved in the process.

Every country in which affirmative action programs are started also experiences a “redesignation” phenomenon. In Australia, for example, there was a 42% increase in aboriginals between 1981 and 1986, a demographic impossibility. In the U.S., there were 50,000 American Indians in the 15-19 age cohort in 1960. In 1980, when these same individuals would be in the 35-39 group, there were 80,000 of them. While it is not surprising that fraud occurs in procuring of government benefits, the increase in people who benefit from these programs adds to the difficulty in reforming or ending them, or even in assessing their results, since the constituency for affirmative action is always growing.

As the constituencies expand, and as new groups are designated as worthy of preferences, programs grow in ways that could never have been anticipated at the outset, and sometimes make little sense when considering the original purpose of the programs. There is no obvious social benefit in granting preferences to black millionaires in the awarding of cable TV monopolies, for example. Similarly, there is nothing in the “the legacy of slavery” that can explain why white children should receive preferences over Chinese-American children in San Francisco’s public schools. This morphing of affirmative action into entitlement programs for the politically-active occurs everywhere.

Historically, affirmative action programs emerge a century or more after the worst subjugation, peonage or slavery has ended. The subjugated group then endures a long period of second-class citizenship and poverty. When a sufficient number of the subjugated group manage to pull themselves up into the mainstream, the group becomes worthy of political notice, and civil rights legislation of one sort or another is passed.

Once legal equality is achieved, if affirmative action programs follow, the beneficiaries are those members of the subjugated group that have already joined the mainstream. In Malaysia, for example, the richest 10% of ethnic Malays have seen their incomes increase significantly, though the mass of Malays have made no progress at all. Since the awarding of preferences under affirmative action programs is a zero-sum game, there are also victims, and these tend to be the poorest members of the “dominant” group. In India, those who have benefited are the most politically-savvy (and educated) untouchables, at the expense of the lowest echelons of the Brahman caste. In the U.S., upper-middle-class black families are the primary beneficiaries, while the poorest and least-educated whites fall further behind. The evidence suggests that affirmative action does very little to help the poorest Malays, the poorest untouchables in India, or the poorest blacks in America.

Copyright 2004 Michael Kubacki