Unpacking Affirmative Action – its Origins and Mythology

2013-10-03 05:37

John F Kennedy started the affirmative action ball rolling when in March 1961 he announced that “discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin is contrary to the Constitutional principles and policies of the United States”, and “it is the plain and positive obligation of the United States Government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin”.

Shortly after, he wrote into law Executive Order 10925 in support of this philosophy, officially eliminating discrimination in the US and creating the prospect of a level playing field for all. It came to be known as Affirmative Action.

But it did not stop there.

Subsequently, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon amended the original affirmative action concept by instituting market distortions intended to favour minorities and justified their actions by arguing that there was some ground to be made up after decades of discrimination.

Thus they passed laws, set targets and established interventions intended to make it easier still for “non-white” citizens to engage in the economy. So where Kennedy’s intent was to free up and liberate markets, the new provisions made use of more coercive and prescriptive remedies.

Since then, affirmative action has been controversial and stimulated public debate in the US and internationally - hardly surprising, considering that the American people were sold two contradictory notions under the same branding. Kennedy’s vision promoted equality of opportunity by removing discrimination against (mainly) blacks whilst his successors introduced barriers to free choice by discriminating against (mainly) non-blacks. Thus Kennedy’s “equal opportunity” objective was thrown out and the notion created that coercion in pursuit of ethnic profiling and the distortion of economic forces was legitimate.

A number of countries then climbed on the affirmative action bandwagon – India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Nigeria, South Africa and more besides. Most preferencing has addressed issues of race, but others focused on “gender equality”.

Unacknowledged by most, there is a high cost to affirmative action. This fact has been exposed over the years by mainly American – and very interestingly Black American - academics and politicians, such as Dr. Thomas Sowell and the equal rights activist Ward Connerly.

Their grounds for opposing affirmative action included –

1. The already privileged within any target group typically draw unfair advantage for their own personal gain – sometimes at cost to others in their own ethnic grouping, and invariably at a cost to society at large. So much so that there are numerous examples of those who have sought to be reclassified as “disadvantaged” in order to qualify for the preferential benefits.

2. It sidelines legitimate talent in favour of those often  less capable, purely on the basis of race –and is therefore openly racist.

3. It distorts intellectual and economic resources on grounds of race and/or gender and pushes up costs to consumers and to society.

4. It ignores the economic imperative that efficient growth benefits all and that society at large in the end scores more from open competition than by favouring a given ethnicity or gender

Sowell undertook affirmative action case studies internationally and compared the effects of preferencing in half a dozen societies, concluding that the costs were considerable, the outcomes dubious – and in some instances promoted disastrous consequences.

In criticizing US affirmative action – and more particularly the lack of objective assessment of the policy once implemented - he concluded that “affirmative action (is) judged by its rationales rather than its results”. He dismissed, for example the starting argument that discrimination contributed significantly to income disparities in the first place by pointing out that the average white US citizen at the time earned less than other minorities such as Chinese, Japanese and Asian Indians, who had suffered similar discrimination to US blacks.

Although his writings preceded or took place early on in the South African affirmative action era, his observations and conclusions apply equally here. With a rudimentary awareness and knowledge of economics one readily senses how such policies have affected economic growth, service delivery and public service performance.

In fact South African affirmative action can be painted in considerably broader strokes, and with more debilitating outcomes. The “restitutional” intentions of government are enshrined in provisions that take from the affirmative action philosophy and formalize discrimination in a zero sum – and often even negative sum - way.

Examples include

* “BEE” Black Economic Empowerment is simply grand scale affirmative action, which forces changes in ownership (as distinct from staff selection) for political, as distinct from economic, reasons. “Empowerment”  is absent since the new proprietors of equity need have neither  management capability nor experience in the enterprise(s) in which they have been given a stake - resulting  inevitably in a decline in management capacity.It is arguably the worst form of affirmative action since it undermines competence at the very top – the most critical part of any business functioning in a competitive market environment

* A so-called “Progressive” Labour Rights regime: Because of the raft of business-hostile labour laws and direct trade union participation in government, those who remain employed in the workforce - of whom a growing number work for the civil service, the government and its proxies - are sheltered through political double-representation and disproportionate economic rewards. That aside, our labour regime disqualifies many potential participants from the market place and burdens the economy with dead wood and obscene levels of unemployment.

These provisions mirror classic affirmative action by diminishing competition and invoking political coercion in the market for skills and abilities. They erode merit as a contributor to achievement and thereby promote inefficiency and – in more extreme instances - corruption.

The US experience between 1967 and 1992 (the period of Sowell’s studies) showed that whilst the top 20% of black income earners had their income share rise at a rate similar to their white counterparts, the bottom 20% had their share of income fall at more than double the rate for white income earners. The South African experience is more dire than that – with adjusted true unemployment (in other words the most extreme fall in income possible), approaching forty percent of the workforce.

It might at the time have been advisable to find out why affirmative action was not working in the US - but it did not happen.

With the gift of hindsight, it is clear that it does not work in South Africa either.  With the nation’s service delivery failures, government inefficiency, corruption, notorious education, crumbling public health care and a hopelessly bloated civil service, South Africa’s affirmative and other "restitutional" remedies speak for themselves.

In a country blighted by poverty and need, it ranks as one of the blackest marks against the ruling establishment. It will also be one of the most difficult to expunge on account of the entitlement mindset so characteristic of and central to the national ethos.

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