Arguments about affirmative action, and its offshoots, diversity and quotas, bring out almost as much passion as arguments over abortion. Passion usually replaces reasoned analysis, so I will try to discuss as objectively as I can why I oppose practically all the major forms of affirmative action in place now at universities, the political sector, and businesses in the United States, Western Europe, and many other countries in all regions of the world.
Let me say at the outset that I view affirmative action programs as mainly catering to special interest groups, in the same way as quotas on imports of agricultural goods cater to domestic farming interests. To be sure, affirmative action programs are defended with attractive language, such as that they are designed to offset the harm of past discrimination, or that they are simply trying to level the playing field for persons of different races, genders, or ethnicities. But all special interests programs are typically defended with nice-sounding language, such as that agricultural support is necessary to preserve the rural way of life, or that American ownership of energy resources is necessary for national security reasons, or that subsidies to small businesses is necessary to prevent predatory actions by large companies. I also want to stress that though I oppose affirmative actions, I believe that many other special interest programs, such as various aspects of the social security system, subsidies to agriculture, restrictions on immigration of skilled workers, and the presently developed tort system, do far more economic and social damage than does affirmative action.
Most affirmative action programs, disguised or openly, use lower standards for African Americans and members of various other minority groups than for white males in determining whether they are promoted to higher level jobs in private business or government, admitted to better universities, and in other situations. Universities have openly used affirmative action by lowering substantially the acceptable SAT score for African Americans (and certain other groups) seeking admission compared to the scores required for whites or Asians. A disguised way, adopted by some states, is to admit applicants to state universities and colleges if they rank in the top 10 per cent of their high school class. This is disguised affirmative action because schools with favored minority groups typically have much worse students than other schools, so it is considerably easier to rank in the top 10 per cent of the lower quality mainly minority schools.
It is obvious why affirmative action may hurt members of the majority group who are denied promotions or admission to various colleges, even though their records are better than many minorities accepted. But why is it bad for a country like the United States to do this, and often also for the minority groups gaining these privileges? My belief is that affirmative action is bad for any country that aspires to be a meritocracy, as the United States does, despite past slavery and discrimination that are terrible violations of this aspiration. The case for a meritocracy is that achievements based on merit produces the most dynamic, innovative, and flexible economy and social structure. Encouraging promotion or admission of less qualified applicants because of their race, gender, or other characteristics, clearly violates this principle, and produces a less progressive economy, and a distorted social structure.
The appeal of a meritocracy explains why one can, as I do, strongly oppose both affirmative action, and discrimination against African Americans, women, and various other groups that have suffered discrimination in employment and in admissions to schools and colleges. While affirmative action programs give advantages to various minorities that are not justified by qualifications, discrimination does the opposite, and gives advantages to the majority that exceed their skills and qualifications. (See my The Economics of Discrimination, University of Chicago Press, for a systematic discussion of discrimination theory and measurement.) Unfortunately, laws opposing discrimination against various minorities often evolve into affirmative action laws, where the test of discrimination is not whether better-qualified minorities are passed over for jobs and promotions, but whether firms and universities have a sufficient number of members of designated minorities. Political pressure also has extended discrimination laws to groups that have suffered little in the past from discrimination, such as older workers. It is hard to sympathize from a discrimination viewpoint with older workers since they typically earn much more and have much lower unemployment rates than young workers, they easily qualify for decent disability income, and they can retire relatively early to receive taxpayer-supported retirement and medical benefits.
Affirmative action is often justified as making up to African Americans, American Indians, and some other groups for the terrible discrimination and treatment they received in the past. Some affirmative action advocates argue that giving preference to minority applicants at colleges is no different from legacies-that is, giving preferences to children of alumni. Perhaps legacies have been overused, and their use is declining at the top universities, but the objective case for them is that this makes for more loyal and generous alumni. In addition, a good school record of a relative may be a useful predictor of an applicant‚Äôs school record.
I am not trying to minimize the terrible treatment especially of African-Americans in the past. I am questioning whether affirmative action programs make up for past injustices. Clearly, some members of favored groups benefit from affirmative action, but others are hurt in direct and not so direct ways. To consider a direct way, many companies try to avoid hiring minorities favored by affirmative action because they realize they may face lawsuits in the future if they do not promote them, even when the promotions are not justified. Their refusal to hire because of affirmative action pressures later on makes them subject to anti-discrimination legislation, which is one way that laws against discrimination evolves into affirmative action.
A more subtle way that affirmative action harms many members of the very groups they are trying to promote is illustrated by admissions to college. If lower admission standards are used to admit African Americans or other groups, then good colleges would accept average minority students, good minority students would be accepted by very good colleges, and quite good students would be accepted by the most outstanding universities, like Harvard or Stanford. This means that at all these types of schools, the qualifications of minority students would on average be below those of other students. As a result, they tend to rank at the lower end of their classes, even when they are good students, because affirmative action makes them compete against even better students. Studies have shown that this simple implication of affirmative action applies to students at good law schools, where the average African American student ranks toward the lower end of their law school cohort. My observation of many colleges and universities is that this conclusion has general applicability well beyond law schools.
It hardly helps self ‚Äìesteem if one is a member of a group that typically ranks toward the bottom in performance at a university or on a job. When discrimination dominated affirmative action, an African American or female medical doctor would be better than average since they had to overcome artificial hurdles to get where they were. That was not a desirable situation because discrimination made it harder for these groups to get ahead, so fewer of them than was warranted by their abilities and skills managed to make it to medical school. However, now, minority doctors and other professionals are greeted suspiciously by many patients and customers who fear they got where they are only because they were subject to lower standards. That can hardly make someone feel good, and helps explain some of the segregation and defensiveness of minorities receiving affirmative action help at schools or on jobs.
While opposing affirmative action, I do not advocate just letting the status quo operate without attempting to help groups that have suffered greatly in the past from discrimination. Employers, universities, and other organizations should make special efforts to find qualified members of minority groups, persons who might have been overlooked because of their poor family backgrounds or the bad schools they attended. By using this approach, one can spot some diamonds in the rough that would get overlooked. I know that the economics department at Chicago in recent years has been able to discover and help train some excellent economists from disadvantaged backgrounds by searching harder for them.
Another attractive policy is to help disadvantaged children at early ages rather than using affirmative action when they apply for jobs or colleges. There is still controversy over how much and how durable is the gain from head start programs, although I believe that extra effort spent on these children at very young ages tends to yield a decent return in terms of later achievements. But it has been conclusively shown that efforts to educate and help in other ways when children are in their teens generally fail since by that time the children have fallen too far behind others of their age to be able to catch up. Put more technically, current human capital investments builds on past investments, so if past investments are inadequate, the current investments have low returns.
My concluding comment is that affirmative action is too often confused with anti-discrimination action. I believe there should be vigorous prosecution of discrimination toward groups like African Americans that have suffered from substantial discrimination. I also support positive efforts to bring children from minority groups closer to the achievement levels of others. However, affirmative action, whether under the name of quotas or diversity, does more harm than good, even though it is not the worst form of interest group politics.