Well-intended Affirmative Insanity

Suppose you were working in a chemical lab, doing some experiment. You get careless and by accident you spill some acid into your eye. What do you do? The way I see it you have three options. Option 1: Do nothing, except blink a bit and rub your eye and hope it will get better. Option 2: Pour water into your eye to dilute the acid. Option 3: Pour a base into your eye, hoping to neutralize the acid.

Obviously, option 2 is the correct choice. Option 1 doesn’t actually solve the problem and you’ll experience unnecessary pain and damage to your eye. Option 3 is clearly insane. For this plan to work, you need to know exactly how much acid is in your eye and how potent it is and you need to be able to pour just the right amount of base into your eye. But even if you were able to do that, there’s still the problem that the acid and the base will not necessarily spread evenly on the surface of your eye so you will have parts that have more acid than base and vice versa. It’s clear that option 3 will do more harm than good.

Now consider a different scenario. You’re running some sort of big organization. It could be a firm, a charity, a social club, a school, a hospital, etc. This organization has many members. Suppose these members belonged to two disjoint and clearly distinguishable groups A and B. Further suppose that you have received information that the Bs are disadvantaged and are being unfairly discriminated against. Despite there not being any official rules favouring one group over the other, almost all the positions of leadership within the organization are filled up with As and the Bs have lower status on average. You are a fair-minded person and want everyone to have the same opportunities and rights within your organization. What do you do?

Option 1: Do nothing and hope the problem goes away on its own. Option 2: Try to reduce discrimination through measures such as awareness campaigns or analyzing enforcement of rules to see if there is discrimination. Option 3: Implement official rules that favour Bs over As, such as a minimum quota of Bs in all leadership positions or a programme specifically designed to help Bs.

As in the previous example, option 1 doesn’t solve the problem and option 2 is clearly reasonable. Option 3 in this case is what is commonly called affirmative action and it is just as insane and detrimental as option 3 in the first example.

First of all, there’s a question we have to consider here which we did not in the first example and that is whether there is actually any discrimination. What if your information about discrimination were false? In the first example it’s immediately obvious that you have acid in your eye because it burns, but with discrimination in a large organization things aren’t so easy. The social sciences are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable. What if there were no acid and you poured in base anyway? What if there were no discrimination and you just introduced discrimination through affirmative action?

Maybe the reason As are doing better is due to different characteristics between As and Bs that are not due to discrimination. Maybe As are more intelligent or better educated, maybe they care more about your organization, maybe they care more about status, maybe they are more willing to make sacrifices to attain high positions, maybe they have more assertive and dominant personalities, maybe As or Bs or both are more comfortable with A leadership.

But even if there is indeed discrimination, it’s not possible to accurately assess its precise nature and severity. If you introduce too little affirmative action, you’re not solving the problem, only ameliorating it slightly. If you introduce too much affirmative action, you create a new problem. If you don’t distribute the affirmative action properly, you will overshoot your goal in certain areas and not do enough in others.

Suppose for instance that we could subdivide the two demographics. Group A is actually made up of groups A1 and A2. A1 is actually the only group that’s privileged, while A2 is not. So even though when we regard group A as a whole, A is privileged, it is actually just because of the A1s pulling up the average. Then suppose we can do the same thing with B. B1 is not actually discriminated against, it’s only B2s who actually face discrimination.

So at the start we have one group that’s unfairly privileged, one group that’s unfairly discriminated against and two groups that are being treated fairly. Then we introduce affirmative action and let’s suppose that we magically know exactly what sorts of measures we need to take to make groups A and B even. But then we look at the subgroups and see that we now haven’t actually made anything more fair. A1 is now no longer privileged and B2 is now no longer discriminated against, but the two groups that were being treated fairly before have now merely switched places. A2 now faces unfair discrimination through the affirmative action measures while B1 now has unfair privilege. So even in this idealized world where we can precisely assess the exact right measures to bring about equality between the two groups, we haven’t actually gained any ground. As and Bs collectively are now even, but when we look at the actual individuals, we haven’t improved the situation. Groups have no existence of their own beyond the individuals who make them up. Only individuals think, act, and feel, so the only thing that matters is our treatment of individuals.

A further problem of affirmative action is that it is coercive and violates the principles of meritocracy. Because of that, people will try to resist it and you are likely to experience a good amount of conflict within your organization. You’ll need to constantly apply pressure to push through and sustain your reforms, which costs a great deal of money and angers people. You also create resentment against Bs. Bs in leadership positions are going to be taken less seriously and command less respect because people will suspect that they got their jobs through affirmative action instead of merit. It also creates a lot of divisiveness between As and Bs and separates them firmly into two different camps.

Things get even worse if the government gets involved. Even if the government officials have the best intentions, they do not know the details of the industries they’re regulating. They just impose some rule from up high that everyone must follow. Because the government does not have to pay for the costs of affirmative action legislation, it is more eager to pass such laws.

More troubling yet is that forcing private companies to comply with so called anti-discrimination legislation is a gross violation of property rights. One of the fundamental aspects of property is the right to include or exclude people from the use of your property. If I own a piece of land, I can forbid you from trespassing. But if I own a company, I no longer get to decide freely who to hire or fire. This erosion of property rights not only hurts the economy, but also infringes on basic economic freedoms.

But the worst thing of all is that the vast majority of politicians are not wise and benevolent leaders who only wish to serve their country. Rather, they act in their own self-interest, often at the detriment of everyone else. Modern democracy does not reward wise leadership and prudent management. After all, most of the voters have neither the inclination nor the knowledge to fully assess most of the decisions that a politician makes. Thus, politicians are more interested in signalling than in effective policies.

Advocating for affirmative action may be very detrimental to society as a whole, and a politician may even be aware of this, but the point is to be seen by the public as doing something against discrimination. It is about signalling opposition to sexism, racism, xenophobia, or other undesirable views. It then becomes difficult for political opponents to oppose proposals for affirmative action without signalling support for discrimination.

It’s impossible to legislate away bigotry through affirmative action. You cannot stop unfair discrimination through further unfair discrimination. Fighting fire with fire is highly dangerous, usually not successful, and people are likely to get burnt in the process. In the end, the only effective way of stopping discrimination is through awareness and through economic self-interest.

In a free market, bigotry doesn’t pay. If for instance an entrepreneur were a true misogynist and didn’t want to hire women, no matter how qualified they are, then he is passing up opportunities for making profit. His competitors who do hire women will do better than him, making it difficult for him to keep up. If he doesn’t relent, his market share will decrease and eventually he may go out of business.

This process may take a while, but in the end it’s the only way to achieve a just and meritocratic society.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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