Affirmative Action Around The World: An Empirical Study, by Thomas Sowell
In order to understand this book and the author’s approach, you have to know that Sowell is not addressing the subject of affirmative action and “racial” preference and identity politics from the point of view of political analysis but rather from the point of view of economics. Sowell, a man of color who has achieved great success in his professional life, might be expected on identity grounds to support affirmative action that would benefit his people, but as a rigorously minded economist he realizes, and demonstrates firmly in this book, that affirmative action politics politicizes identity problems and has not served to effectively address the need of societies for well-trained people, instead leading to corruption of a very particular sort and to a failure on the part of privileged minorities to develop the skills and approaches and success that are resented in other, more successful people. The author’s rigor allows him to make a point that is not well appreciated, and certainly can be considered as politically incorrect, but truthful in a larger sense that deserves to be recognized. Whether or not you will be able to appreciate this book will depend largely on whether you prefer to focus on empirical matters or on the “good intentions” of affirmative actions policies.
This particular book is a relatively short one at about 200 pages, and it is focused on affirmative action around the world and the results of that. The book begins with a preface and a chapter that gives the international perspective of affirmative action and introduces the approach of the book (1). After that the author explores affirmative action in India (2), where dalits and tribes and “other” groups have managed to have for decades privileges that have led to a high degree of resentment. The author then looks at Malaysia and the way that Malays have sought to enshrine privilege as opposed to the more successful (and harder working) Chinese and Indians (3). The author discusses the affirmative action in Sri Lanka that sought to favor the Sinhalese against the Tamil that led to an immense and deadly politicization about identity (4). After that the author explores the similar problems where the Fulani-Hausa were favored over Ibo and Yoruba in Nigeria, also with tragic and deadly effects (5). The author at least turns to the American experience and the way that intersectionality has led to a majority of people being viewed as oppressed minorities, but without the statistical rigor that other countries have had (6), finally ending with a look at the past and the future of affirmative action, as well as notes and an index.
What is it that makes affirmative action so harmful? For one, it politicizes identity and encourages those who are not at all disadvantaged classes from enshrining their sense of privilege with the protection of law. It also creates a widespread feeling in a given society that some people for reasons of identity are given undeserved blessings and taking places that should belong to those who deserve it more. Affirmative Action also creates a perverse set of incentives that inspires the Ali-Baba sort of corruption where a privileged person lends their name and identity to an effort that is actually run by a disadvantaged but more motivated and talented group, like a Chinese business manager in Malaysia or a white American who wants to use a token minority owner in order to obtain scarce government contracts. The desire to help those who have historically had less success than others often leads to perverse situations where people seek to claim identities they may not really deserve in order to gain from the politicized identity that receives privilege, and moreover a privilege that demeans the achievements of those who have received it, because there is the awareness that it is done with lower standards than others have demonstrated in achieving their own success.