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Book Review: Preferential Policies

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Preferential Policies: An International Perspective
by Thomas Sowell (New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1990) 221 pp.; $17.95.

America was founded upon the idea that it is the individual who possesses rights. This was counter to the political order that dominated in the rest of the world. Practically everywhere else, it was accident of birth that determined one’s “privileges.” Group membership was the criterion that specified what one deserved from others and owed to them. And these were debts and obligations that were set for life.

The individualist philosophy of America has been under attack — but from within. The old world philosophy of privilege and status has found new adherents in the advocates of affirmative-action programs in the United States. The individual’s place and relative income position in society are now to be determined by the ethnic group to which he belongs as well as that group’s politically determined “fair share” to jobs, education and monetary reward.

Thomas Sowell is one of the best and most prolific free market economists alive today. A good portion of his efforts have been devoted to debunking the myths surrounding racial relationships in economics and politics. His latest book, Preferential Policies: An International Perspective, is a frontal assault on the rationales for, and the evidence supporting, the ideology of affirmative action.

Crucial to the entire affirmative action argument is the assumption that in a nondiscriminatory world, individuals of different ethnic groups would be evenly distributed in each and every profession and occupation. Based on this starting assumption, the affirmative-action advocates then jump to the conclusion that any under-representation of an ethnic group in an occupation, relative to that group’s numbers in the surrounding community, is proof of racial discrimination.

Sowell demonstrates that this assumption has absolutely no basis in fact in any society. Indeed, the opposite is more the norm around the world. Because of culture, history and value systems transmitted between generations of different groups, in every society it is usually the case that there occurs group-clustering in various activities in an economy. This is an anthropological and sociological fact that has nothing to do, per se, with race or racism.

He argues that to claim that any numerical over- or under-representation of an ethnic group in an occupation is “proof” of discrimination is as absurd as to look at the same data and conclude that the disproportionalities are due to “genes.” Furthermore, many of the reasons for these occupational disproportionalities are only understandable in terms of various qualitative factors that are at work — historical and cultural factors that cannot be reduced to a quantitative and statistical massaging of the facts.

Affirmative-action policies, Sowell explains, have existed for centuries all over the world. They arise from resentment and envy, from beliefs of superiority and fears of inferiority. They sometimes have been meant to protect majorities from successful minorities; at other times to protect stagnant minorities from industrious majorities. But regardless of the reason or rationale, their social effect is to politicize social relationships. And the consequences from this have been everything from systems of privilege and corruption to mob violence and civil war.

Sowell asks us to remember that many roads to hell have been paved with good intentions. And that the questions we should ask about such policy proposals are: What kind of incentives do affirmative-action policies create in the society, and for whom? How do such policies modify the institutional processes within which people make decisions and choices?

When affirmative-action policies are looked at in terms of these questions, they have not only failed to attain the ends for which they were designed, but they have often been counter-productive, harming many of the very people the interventions were meant to assist.

Often proposed as a temporary measure to compensate for past wrongs done to a group, affirmative-action laws, once in place, take on a permanent life of their own. Those who receive benefits from these policies have incentives to maintain their privileges. And once one group is bestowed with such preferential treatment, there soon arise many other groups claiming that what one group deserves is their “right” as well.

Those who must answer to the affirmative-action police for hiring practices have incentives to choose employees, not on the basis of qualification, but on whether they belong to the “correct” group and in the appropriate numbers. This leads to resentment and anger on the part of those who might have been the ones getting the job or receiving the promotion — if it hadn’t been for “them” and their special political pull. And it creates psychological doubts among the recipients about whether they are holding their positions merely because they met a needed ethnic quota on the job. Sowell argues that these are costs too high to pay just so that some in the political and economic arenas can gain privileges for themselves at the expense of both freedom and real opportunity for the less fortunate. One can only hope his analysis and conclusions can help turn a very dangerous tide in our society — before it’s too late.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).