Thomas Sowell on Affirmative Action Around the World

Twenty years ago, Thomas Sowell published an extraordinary comparative study of affirmative action. Titled Affirmative Action Around the World, this book puts America’s racial preference policies in the context of similar quota schemes worldwide.

An important theme Sowell documents is the harm these policies have not just on the group being discriminated against but also on the group being favored.

Both preferred and non-preferred groups have modified their own behavior and attitudes in response to preferential policies and the rationales for such policies. While members of the officially preferred groups who already have the complementary factors needed to take the fullest advantage of preferences can do so, those who lack these factors often feel less incentive to acquire them, now that entitlements are available as substitutes for achievements. The development of job skills, for example, may be de-emphasized. As a leader in a campaign for preferential policies in India’s state of Hyderabad put it: “Are we not entitled to jobs just because we are not as qualified?” A Nigerian likewise wrote of “the tyranny of skills.” In Malaysia, where group preferences exist for the majority population, “Malay students, who sense that their future is assured, feel less pressure to perform. In the United States, a study of black colleges found that even those of their students who were planning to continue on to postgraduate study showed little concern about needing to be prepared “because they believe that certain rules would simply be set aside for them.”

Both preferred and non-preferred groups can slacken their efforts – the former because working to their fullest capacity is unnecessary and the latter because working to their fullest capacity can prove to be futile. After Jamaica gained its independence from British rule, many whites living there no longer bothered to compete for public office because they “felt that the day of the black man had come and questioned why they had to make the effort if the coveted job or the national honor would go to the blacks, despite their qualifications. While affirmative action policies are often thought of, by advocates and critics alike, as a transfer of benefits from one group to another, there can also be net losses of benefits when both groups do less than their best. What might otherwise be a zero-sum sum game can thus become a negative-sum game.

That overall reduction in productivity may cause an affirmative action policy to present a deadweight loss to society. The social science behind this impact is well-cited in this book. Indeed, Sowell’s books are also valuable just for the citations. The passage above had four footnotes to the studies he relied on and quoted from, making this my kind of book.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there