In an article published earlier this month on Quillette, Max Hyams, a student at the School of Law at University of California, Los Angeles, writes about the historical examples of forms of Affirmative Action (AA) policies generating conflict in multi-ethnic societies. While Mr Hyams writes in the context of the American experience with AA, the arguments themselves are relevant to the South African context since they are grounded in historical fact.
The examples range from Malaysia, which implemented a system to favour native Malays over primarily people of Chinese and Indian descent, to Brazil’s system where applicants of Afro-Brazilian heritage are favoured for government and University jobs, leading to inspection boards that conduct their work in a manner that sounds suspiciously like that of the Population Registration Act under apartheid. And there is also the case of Sri Lanka, where the civil war between the Tamil and Sinhalese in that country was partly sparked by their AA policy of ‘standardisation’.
Of course Mr Hyams is not the only one to have warned about precisely this. Economist Dr Thomas Sowell has made important contributions in researching some of the effects of these policies and theorizing other consequences. Dr Sowell’s contributions are particularly important because they highlight the negative cultural and social effects of AA on the intended beneficiaries.
In this interview with the Hoover Institute, Dr Sowell explains why the premise behind AA policies falls apart empirically. This argument is elaborated on in greater detail in his book, Disparities and Discrimination. Those who can get the book should get it. But the main thrust of his point is that we cannot simply assume, by the mere existence of economic disparities between groups, that the disparities are caused by discrimination only.
In some cases, causes other than group discrimination have a much bigger impact. And most importantly, there’s no known example of a society in which arbitrarily chosen groups, whether by race, gender or voluntary association, have had exactly the same economic outcomes. Sowell’s example of the Jews in America, and their relative under-representation in heavy industry while being over-represented in sectors such as retail, finance and garment production, yields an important lesson.
It would be ludicrous for Jews to demand AA policies in heavy manufacturing. Why do so when you have parts of the economy that you can be so successful in? And maybe this is the root of the South African problem. We have people living in poverty alongside those who are relatively wealthy, and this causes political demagogues to point to these wealthy people as the cause of the problems of those who are poor. It is an easy thing to do, it can be an appealing narrative, but it does nothing but harm poor people.
The causes of poverty are many and varied, the main one in developing countries being government policy. Economic growth creates conditions in which most people and all significant groups experience improvements in living conditions. The benefits are not evenly distributed but are reflective of voluntary choices being made by all individuals. Choosing product A over product B makes the person selling A richer than the person selling B.
The point is that some cultures shared by some groups are better at promoting the values that lead to prosperity. These values include self-discipline, integrity, hard work, self-responsibility, and a sense of obligation to others, in the sense that you respect the freedom of others in the same way that you expect others to respect your freedom. Some of these values can be linked to religion, some can be inculcated through education, but the most important thing to accept is that poverty is not a problem with one eternal cause: white racism.
Of course this is not to say that discrimination has played no role, especially in the South African context where black people were not only dispossessed of property and other assets, they also had their ability to acquire new assets severely limited. This alone does not explain, however, how the rate of increase of asset ownership among many black people has not grown significantly in 26 years.
The government refuses to accept that it has an incorrect mental model of the economy. Poverty is not defined by helpless black people at the whims of white industry, with no power to take charge of their own fate. The rise of the black workers’ unions proves that workers do have power and can exercise that power. More importantly, the rise of black-owned businesses (often at the margins and in the informal economy), is an indication that black people are well able to succeed in the economy.
Economic growth does not guarantee that all incomes of all groups will be equal or rise at the same pace. That is for the individual, seizing the opportunities brought about by liberty. It would benefit every family to reject the Afro-socialist low self-esteem agenda. This deprives black people of their agency, putting responsibility for their success or failure solely on white people, as if the whole population of black people cannot be responsible adults when it comes to their own affairs.
Low self-esteem may be telling young black people that they might as well not try, that the system will defeat them anyway. The reality is that factors such as family size and how much individual attention can be devoted to each child may impact the adult IQ of those children. We need to be telling black children that the world is theirs to find joy in. They can go on to have great adventures in it, and that it will be for their children to enjoy and those children’s children, and therefore there’s a duty to take care of the world and make it better for those who come after.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR