Everyone agrees that some kind of action is required to help the poor and the weak, and the disadvantaged generally. But what is the most effective way to help?
With the decline of classical liberalism the focus shifted from private charity and individual effort to various forms of intervention by the State, including the affirmative action programs of recent times. This means that the criteria of merit and objective need are trumped by the criteria of gender, race or ethnicity. In the US this means that white trash have to make their own way while the members of favoured groups get a leg up with race-based “set asides” or quotas for higher education.
One of the first principles of public policy, articulated by the Critical Rationalist Scholar No 5, Karl Popper, is that policies should be regarded as experiments and their outcome should be checked to find if they are producing the desired effects. Ludwig von Mises applied this “falsificationist” approach to State interventions of many kinds, notably socialism, and found that they usually produced bad outcomes, even by the criteria of the interventionists. That is why he persisted with classical liberalism for many decades and did more than most to bring it back to life.
The results of affirmative action
Thomas Sowell would probably be regarded as a “coconut” in some local circles. He is a black conservative based in the US at the Hoover Institute. He investigated the outcome of affirmative action programs around the world and reported the results in a book that was reviewed in Quadrant.
He looked at the various forms of preferences, for the dominant group like Apartheid and the US deep south, preferences for majorities where minorities dominated (Malaysia) and minority preferences where the majority dominate like the US at present. Before his work nobody paid much attention to the outcomes, and the depressing similarity of outcomes that he found. Writing 20 years later it seems that people have not taken much notice of his findings!
Generally the demand for preferential policies comes from well educated, ‘new class’ members of supposedly disadvantaged groups. The same people also become the main beneficiaries of preference policies which tend to further disadvantage the majority of their bretheren. This was clearly demonstrated in Malaysia where the gap between rich and poor Malays widened in the wake of preference policies for ethnic Malays. A leading advocate of preferenceconceded the evidence but claimed that the poor Malays preferred to be exploited by their own people.The most destructive result of preference policies is the polarization of whole societies, as in Sir Lanka, Nigeria (with the attempted Ibo breakaway movement to from Biafra) and some Indian states. The Sri Lankan experience is especially instructive because at the time of independence the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority lived side by side in harmony despite their different religions and languages and despite the greater educational and commercial advancement of a section of the Tamils. The elites of both groups tended to be English speaking, mixed freely with each other and were committed to non-sectarian policies. All this changed with one demagogue, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. English-speaking, Christian and Oxford-educated, he became a champion of the Sinhalese language, Budhism and preferential treatment for Sinhalese. This resulted in an upset electoral victory for his party in 1956, followed by legislation to make Sinhalese the official language, restriction of the leading teacher-training college to Sinhalese only, and the first of many bloody race riots directed against the Tamils. The downward spiral continued as radical Sinhalese elements demanded stronger forms of preference and groups of Tamils launched a violent secession movement.
Practically everyone deplores racism. And if racism means giving out unequal treatment, based on race, then affirmative action (racial preferences) is clearly racist.
So why do it? To help the disadvantaged of course (stupid).
But what about the disadvantaged who do not belong to the preference groups? What about applying the Pauline Hanson principle of welfare according to need rather than pigmentation?
In the light of the Bolt case and also the actual outcomes of affirmative action policies it is time to think again about using racist policies to combat racism.
On the evidence of experience, they are not going to work. They convert social problems into brutally divisive political conflicts with “winner take all” outcomes rather than win/win. They become a vehicle for the perversion of the justice system to support sectional interests (rather than the even-handed rule of law). Wake up Australia!
We may or may not be able to agree on what the ideal, or even a viable, policy must be. What we can agree on is far more fundamental: We can agree to talk sense. That will mean abandoning a whole vocabulary of political rhetoric which pre-empts factual questions…It will mean confronting issues instead of impugning motives…Perhaps more than anything else, talking sense will mean that policies must be examined in terms of the incentives they create, and the results to which these incentives lead, rather than the hopes they embody. It will mean that evidence must take precedence over assertion and reiteration.