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Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study (Yale Nota Bene S) Paperback – March 11, 2005
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Preferring members of specified groups in higher education, employment, receipt of government services, getting business contracts, and so on is a worldwide phenomenon whose effects are demonstrable. Black economist Sowell focuses on affirmative action in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and the U.S. In those nations, preferences for minorities metamorphosed into preferences for majorities (e.g., women, when made affirmative-action candidates in the U.S., tipped the numbers of the preferred to more than half the populace), intergroup friction increased (Sri Lanka, once a model of ethnic cooperation, descended into civil war, as did Nigeria), "brain drain" occurred (in Malaysia, preferences for less-educated Malays led to massive Chinese emigration and the ouster of Chinese-dominated Singapore from the Malay federation), and/or something else bad happened. Most damning is that in all five countries, the upper crust of preferred groups reaped the lion's share of benefits. Affirmative action is never rejected, however, because it is evaluated "in terms of its rationales and goals rather than its actual consequences." Invaluable argumentation, more accessible than usual for Sowell. Ray Olson
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In Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study (Yale University Press, 2004), Thomas Sowell takes a global view in examining group preference polices in the U.S., India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria. Whether called affirmative action in America, "positive discrimination" in India, preferences "reflecting the federal character of the country" in Nigeria, or "sons of the soil" preferences in Malaysia, Dr. Sowell looks at the similarities in the rationale behind the policies of these aforementioned countries, as well as their actual consequences.
One of the most damaging results of affirmative action in American higher education is the abysmal graduation rate of minority students admitted to elite colleges and universities under lower admissions standards. What makes this phenomenon even more disheartening is that many of these students would be perfectly suited to succeed at academically less rigorous schools, yet are "pervasively mismatched" into schools for which they are not adequately prepared, thus almost guaranteeing their chances of failure.
Dr. Sowell shows how the notions, rationales and assertions supporting affirmative action are widely accepted without being tested empirically. When they are put to the test, they usually do not pass muster, and the mounting evidence of their negative consequences is either suppressed or altogether ignored.
Any citizen desiring an objective, unvarnished understanding of affirmative action would be served well by reading this book. Whereas much has been written and said about the idealistic goals of preferential policies, Dr. Sowell sheds much-needed light on their actual consequences, in the United States and around the world.
As Sowell states many times throughout the book, his main objective here is to examine the actual effects of affirmative action programs, not the goals or rationales behind them. To put it another way, he sets out to answer the questions that most people don't even ask. The chief problem, in Sowell's view, is that the assumption underlying affirmative action programs is fundamentally flawed. It's just assumed by those advocating such measures that any intergroup disparities in performance must be caused by some sort of systematic discrimination, and a little government intervention is needed to even things out. However, as Sowell notes, such differences have been found all over the world all through history. In virtually any country, a statistically significant group of Chinese, Japanese, or Jewish people will out-earn the majority population, even though they typically have little to no political power. It's been the same with other groups in other countries, regardless of whether they were in any position to discriminate against anybody. It's gotten so ridiculous that in Canada, citizens of Japanese descent have been referred to as a "privileged" group, even though they're a tiny percentage of the population and have suffered horrendous treatment there.
Another major flaw Sowell points out is that proponents of group-preference policies see the whole matter as a zero-sum game, where some of the benefits that one group has "unfairly" gained can simply be taken and given to another group. However, these people, whose mindset you can read all about in "The Vision of the Anointed," fail to account for all the unintended consequences that such policies can produce. Race relations can become frayed as coercion replaces cooperation (as they have in America), members of newly disadvantaged groups can leave the country and take their money and skills with them (Malaysia), and ethnic violence and even civil war can break out (India and Sri Lanka). Even worse, if governments were to stay out of the way, everyone could benefit, as in the 1940's and '50's in this country when white income rose and black income rose even faster with no affirmative action. Instead, government meddling often turns what could be a positive-sum game into a negative-sum one.
Perhaps most disastrously of all, once set in motion group-preference policies tend to take on a life of their own. In all five of the countries Sowell discusses, affirmative action programs are supposed to be in effect for a limited time and cover a limited group of people, but they eventually take on a life of their own as the demands of the privileged groups become ever more radical. In many countries these policies have come to cover more and more groups, often being expanded to more than half the population and always being extended past any timetable set for their expiration. And in all cases, the more privileged members of the preferred groups have reaped almost all of the benefits. This is another theme Sowell covers in "The Vision of the Anointed": the people who set these policies in motion may mean well, but in believing they can control the course of the events they've set in motion they assume more knowledge than anyone has ever had anywhere.
I think the main lesson to be taken from this book is that multi-ethnic societies *can* work, but not with a powerful central government distributing benefits in what essentially amounts to a racial spoils system. In the kind of free-market society advocated by libertarians, where people are free to associate with whomever they see fit, racial tensions could be defused or at least minimized even if there are large disparities in achievement between different groups. As Sowell notes, there have always been achievement gaps in various countries the world over, but these gaps typically don't lead to major tensions or violence until they're politicized by demagogues who stand to gain from encouraging strife (think Jesse Jackson). It's just too bad more people, regardless of race, don't listen to voices of reason like Sowell.
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