Affirmative Action (1 of 2)

Last year there was a controversy at Indiana University School of Law — Bloomington, my alma mater, over affirmative action. Basically, one professor raised a stink saying the Law School was admitting totally unqualified students, and everybody closed ranks against him. He may have been overblown in his claims, but I will remain neutral on any such factual details. I ended up having an email exchange with a friend who is associated with the Law School. The immediate impetus for our conversation was this article by the law school Dean, which talked about desegregation in the military. The Dean’s article more or less argued that there was a need for minorities to see people of their own group in positions of authority for the sake of legitimacy and public order. I thought the article was off point, and had the following response.

I have any number of objections to affirmative action. I am enough of an old-fashioned small “l” liberal to actually believe in an ideal of a democratic society composed of citizens who are judged on their merits and conduct as individuals without regard to race or any other non-relevant criterion. I am not talking about the old canard that everyone has the same right to beg for bread or sleep under bridges. If some person or group of persons is at a disadvantage, it is both practical and decent to assist them. So, if there is a neighborhood where most of the kids have fathers who take no responsibility for them, the community can (1) condemn the bad behavior, and (2) intervene to assist the children who are so afflicted. This type of thing could be applied without regard to skin color as a criterion. The fact that a disproportion of people so assisted might be black would not change the basic approach. That is how I’d like to play it. But that little squib on Lex’s views is all by way of background.

What we have currently is a system of interest-group politics with a moral fig leaf. Its ongoing viability requires that resentment and guilt be preserved rather than superseded, and it requires all participants to believe that blacks and other groups which may lobby successfully for “victim” status are perpetually going to need to be judged by different standards than the supposedly privileged majority. In Chicago we have the farcical situation of a gay alderman insisting on business set-asides for gay-owned businesses, where the gays in Chicago are already near the top of the economic ladder, just because they are supposedly an oppressed minority. The unspoken presumption is that the majority can be cowed into silence forever with accusations of racism and imputations of guilt, and because sophisticated opinion is uniform on the subject. The problem is that when a majority is told its genuine concerns about fairness are illegitimate you create a vacuum which can be filled by someone like George Wallace, or Jean-Marie Le Pen in France or Georg Haider in Austria. Sweeping majority grievances under the rug forever is not long-term viable.

In a democratic society, these forced diversity-seeking approaches present a serious problem of legitimacy. For example, the article talks about how IU looks at other things beside LSATs and grades. OK. Does everybody get looked at that way? If the LSATs and grades are not good predictors of success in law school, or otherwise valid criteria for admission, why are they used at all? In other words, what is the playing field, and who gets to play on it? Americans have made a bargain with themselves that most foreigners cannot understand. We tolerate lots of inequality because we also insist on lots of opportunity, widely and fairly diffused, and a system which rewards the winners of competitive struggles, and which allows failure. This system does not work ideally as advertised, but it works pretty well much of the time. This is the capitalisme sauvage the French cannot stand. It leads to a very productive, dynamic economy and great, if un-egalitarian, wealth — and contra F. Scott Fitzgerald countless opportunities for many, many second acts and third acts in people’s lives. Communal efforts to opt out of this basic system, but still seize its benefits, lead to widespread and angry resentment, usually of the sullen and quiet variety. And sullen, angry resentment has a way of exploding out of the blue and causing all kinds of problems. Every time an affirmative action hire is made, there is a retail benefit conferred on that person, and wholesale resentment on the part of the numerous persons rejected, in their view unfairly. This is a prescription for further balkanization of a country whose social peace rests on a strong, widely-shared vision of equal opportunity and competitive fairness on an individual basis.

The specific issue of the military does not cut a whole lot of ice with me. There was an excellent article in Business Week which explained that the business community hated the idea of any change in affirmative action. They have invested heavily in the current arrangement, and businesses hate uncertainty and change more than anything. They have diversity coordinators, and diversity policies, and they have their ducks in a row to oppose any discrimination suits, and they don’t want any changes made, which is rational. The military is similar. It is a large bureaucracy, with enough on its plate right now without having to reinvent the wheel on something they have been doing for a while now which is accepted, however grudgingly by some. They are way down a certain road and don’t want to change.

Now, the Vietnam example points up a moral problem underlying this. The idea seems to be that there must be black officers so that black troops will believe the army’s authority is legitimate, otherwise they will “frag,” i.e., murder, their officers if conditions get bad. Well, is this the model we apply to society at large? Minorities must see people of their own race/religion/sexual orientation in positions of authority or they will do … what exactly? Have a riot? So, minorities can use an implicit threat of violence, or some other extra-legal and extra-democratic threat, as a way to obtain what they want? The problem is, what if majorities start playing that game? For one thing, they’d win.

I don’t think the high proportion of minority personnel in the military is there because there was affirmative action to get more black officers. The poorest people in any society disproportionately go into the military — urban slums and rural backwaters are always good recruiting grounds, all the way back to the Roman legions. In the late 19th and early 20th C. the US Army had a huge disproportion of off-the-boat Irish Catholics. The officer corps was southern and midwestern Protestants, and the senior ranks were mostly Freemasons. There was utter social exclusion, every bit as severe as any race-based exclusion. The officers led, the men followed, and the Indians and the Spanish and Aguinaldo’s guerillas in the Phillipines were all beaten by that army. The Army is highly Hispanic these days, as well as black, for the same reason. And the “fragging” in Vietnam had more to do with the failure to properly train and lead the troops, and the increasingly obvious fact that the leadership (civilian and military) did not have any idea how to win the war and that dying in it was pointless. That pathological state of affairs had a lot to do with what happened over there, and even with more black officers the same basic dynamic would have been in place. Anyway, there are countless examples of successful armies led by a minority of officers whose troops are of some other group, racial, social, religious, what have you. In fact, that is the historical norm.

Even if the Army were better off for having made an effort to create more black officers, I don’t think there is a strong analogy between leading people into mortal danger and getting a job at Ice, Miller.

So, there should be criteria for admission, they should be as objective as possible, and everybody applying should have to satisfy them. What would happen is that the same minority student who now gets into an elite school where he lacks objective qualification, and then ends up in a self-imposed ghetto of similar students, would be a true competitor at a school one tier down. We’d all be better off.

I responded to a subsequent email with a further e-avalanche, which I will post in a few days.

5 thoughts on “Affirmative Action (1 of 2)”

  1. “If some person or group of persons is at a disadvantage, it is both practical and decent to assist them. So, if there is a neighborhood where most of the kids have fathers who take no responsibility for them, the community can (1) condemn the bad behavior, and (2) intervene to assist the children who are so afflicted. This type of thing could be applied without regard to skin color as a criterion. The fact that a disproportion of people so assisted might be black would not change the basic approach. That is how I’d like to play it. But that little squib on [Lex]’s views is all by way of background. ”

    That sounds reasonable. Remember there’s a big difference between helping a disadvantaged person become qualified for a job or a spot in a good school and requiring everyone to pretend that he’s already qualified when he’s not. The first option may help the least among us without throwing monkey wrenches in our overall system. The second has scads of undesirable side-effects.

  2. It’s hard to argue against assisting the disadvantaged based on objective criterea.

    But it’s also pretty hard to get it right. For you have to get a criterion that works, and you have to get a remedy that works. And this assumes a disinterested party making decisions.

    Now, most people can argue that they are disadvantaged in some way. I know folks who point to their age as a reason why it’s tough to get a job now rather than their skill mix getting stale or the MA system of regulations and support making job creation more expensive. Lexington’s note on the Chicago gay community is another. I might even agree that they are socially disadvantaged, but a business set-aside is clearly the wrong remedy for that.

    Then you get to remedies going to the wrong people (Thomas Sowell’s point on college admission policies mostly benefiting the better educated and more affluent families, social security as a transfer payment from relatively poor workers at the beginning of their career to much better off retirees). Or the remedies actually making the problem worse (Friedman on public housing, Charles Murray’s _Losing Ground_).

    Once you give a group a benefit, you can’t take it away. So even if you measure the effects and find the problem got worse, what can you do?

    So what do you do? No one *wants* to be heartless. So do we have “prizes for all”, so everyone can feel they got theirs? I think France and Germany are trying this…

    Or do you just let the folk in government choose which of the disadvantages get attention based on where they think they will get the votes?

    Sometimes, i just think social economic policy is a lose-lose negative sum game.

    Matya no baka!

  3. MatyaNoBaka — you know you are in a room full of libertarians when the only controversial point is whether there should any kind of welfare at all. I agree with you on all points. I take as simple reality however that the government is, to some extent, going to be in the business of giving out benefits and imposing burdens and that there will be both political criteria and codified criteria. The example I used was children who are in abusive situations, which is particularly difficult to be laissez faire about since the victims did not make any life decisions to get themselves there. I agree that it is hard to ascertain what objective conditions one should use. I just say that even where you recognize that the government will inevitably be in the business of handing out certain goodies, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. are not a good basis to dish out those benefits.

  4. Lexington, it seemed to me that you were looking for a way past the full Libertarian position and looking for a better way to get useful work done even though we are going to make mistakes.

    Agreed that race, religion and gender are worse than usual measures to balance the benefits and burdens, but then what?

    For example, is it possible to get a more disinterested group making the decisions? I would argue no, as you have at least the empire building of the group making the decisions to contend with.

    Is there a way to add more measurement to the process so policies can change? I think we have more of a shot here. Sunset laws get bandied about now and then, and certainly we don’t build the miserable huge public housing projects. I would argue that we would also want to try to measure relative need rather than having the current contest among anecdotes. Farm subsidies are an example of where we could argue from knowledge rather than anecdotes. Not something that is going to happen any time soon, but not so far fetched that maybe we can’t work toward it.

    It’s a really hard problem where everyone loses. The hardest part, right now, would seem to me to be finding a way to remove or reduce the benefit once the program achieves its objectives (or is shown to not achieve its objectives). Welfare and public housing have improved some, so it’s not utterly hopeless. Even though i often think it is.

    Matya no baka

  5. Actually, black enlisted men and women in the Army come from homes about 15% higher in income than the black average. The average income of the parents of black and white recruits is about the same. There’s a long tradition among African-Americans that respectable families send their kids into the Army.

    The high degree of equality within the Army stems in large part from the standardized tests that applicants must pass. The average black enlisted person scores at the 49th percentile nationally on the Army’s entrance exam, while the average black not in the Army scores at the 14th percentile. In effect, the average black in army’s enlisted ranks has an IQ of about 100 (with black officers being even higher), so the white-black IQ gap underlying so many of our racial problems largely doesn’t exist in the Army. (See Charles Moskos’ “All that We Can Be” for details.)

Comments are closed.