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Affirmative Action: Institutionalized Inequality

Walter Block

Mr. Mulcahy is a student and Dr. Block a former professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Dr. Block is currently chairman of the department of economics at the University of Central Arkansas.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy established a program of “affirmative action” with the declaration of Executive Order 10925. He defined the initiative as “public and private programs designed to equalize hiring and admission opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups by taking into consideration those very characteristics which have been used to deny them equal treatment.”[1]

Upon first glance, this policy seems like a well-intentioned, well-deserved method of reparation. Affirmative action programs do indeed intend to set things right. However, implementation poses a clear and puzzling contradiction. In order to repay one group, the government proposes to take away the freedom of others. This includes, but is not limited to, infringing upon the right of employers to hire whomever they choose. It also discriminates against prospective applicants for jobs or to schools who are immediately put at a mandated disadvantage simply because of their race or gender.

Discrimination against minorities based solely on skin color or ethnic origin is an ignorant and unfortunate practice. However, it is our right as free individuals with personal liberty to hold whatever opinions or prejudices we choose. If we are to be logically consistent, this right must be carried over to the employer to hire people based on whichever characteristics he chooses. If an employer had a deep aversion to people with brown eyes and hired people accordingly, it would be a violation of his rights to force him to hire brown-eyed people. Then there is nepotism: a private bank owner who hires his cousin rather than another, more highly qualified applicant who is not a member of his family.[2] Should this man be punished by law? Clearly the answer is no. Certainly not if we value the right of free association. Laws prohibiting people from interacting with others, whomever they choose, for whatever reason, are a violation of their freedom to associate. We hold this right well-nigh sacred in some arenas: dating, friendship, marriage. No one has a legal obligation, say, to be colorblind (or gender blind) in his choice of a marriage partner. If affirmative action is such a moral, appropriate policy, why do not even its most fervent advocates counsel its use in such personal arenas?

The Price of Discrimination

As it happens, the market serves to eliminate discrimination, its legal, moral, and logical status notwithstanding. In a free market, employee compensation can only be truly successful if skill and productivity serve as the only basis for choice. According to economist Thomas Sowell, “The competitiveness of the market puts a price on discrimination, thereby reducing it but not necessarily eliminating it.”[3]

By this, Sowell means that in a competitive market the person being discriminated against is not the only one who is penalized. If an employer refuses to hire all blacks based solely on their skin color, and in the process hires less qualified whites, a competitor who chooses employees based on productivity will end up with the cheaper, more highly skilled work force and outperform the racist. Eventually enough other firms will realize they can outperform their racist counterpart by hiring based on productivity, and he will tend to be pushed out of the industry when his business fails. In this manner, the free market provides a clear incentive not to discriminate according to race.

A classic example of this is the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. By voluntarily excluding blacks from baseball, the owners had, in fact, neglected a large pool of talented athletes. When the Dodgers turned to this sector of the labor market, “. . . they acquired a competitive advantage which other teams could not allow to continue indefinitely.”[4] If the other teams had continued to discriminate against blacks, eventually they would have lost more and more games, and like a firm in any other industry, would have faced failure.

Consider how an affirmative action policy would affect the National Basketball Association.[5] Today, in a free market for basketball players, the majority of players in the NBA are black. Were we to apply affirmative action here, the law would require fair representation of whites, Hispanics, and Asians. That even the most radical advocates of this policy never so much as contemplate such a course of action constitutes further indication of its intellectual bankruptcy.

If the government mandated that white players be given preferential treatment because they are underrepresented in the NBA, the overall quality of the game would suffer, as lesser qualified whites took the place of more highly qualified blacks, simply because of their skin color. The fan would most likely not be pleased with the fact that he would be receiving less for his ticket dollar than in a free market, where the most productive, most qualified players were on the floor. This watered-down product would ultimately lead to reduced ticket sales and the turning to substitute goods, namely other forms of entertainment.

Affirmative action should be rejected by Americans of all races. It unfairly places whites at a disadvantage by limiting choice. For nonwhites, it is a slap in the face: there is an institutionalized implication that they need government aid. It tends to exacerbate existing stereotypes and deepen racial rifts. It breeds contempt in the workplace, placing doubt in the minds of some whether their co-workers received the job based upon merit. It is a direct assault on the pride of the minority worker who has worked hard to improve himself, and has earned his position honestly.[6] It is also a disincentive for others to invest time in education and self-improvement.

Affirmative action is an immoral policy that must be ended. Instead, we must legalize a situation where everyone is viewed without color. In this “colorblind” society the free market would ensure equality in the sense that people would be judged according to their ability and qualifications, rather than by irrelevant, artificially imposed qualities.[7] In this sense, while every member of society may not succeed equally in a market, they will sink or swim based on their personal merit and be ensured an equal opportunity in the purest sense. Of course, if private people, groups, or individuals wish to pursue affirmative action, reverse discrimination, or even the other variety against which our “civil rights” legislation was created to combat, the law of free association gives them the right to do just that.[8] In this paper we were mainly concerned to reduce government discrimination, surely a very different matter.

  1. Donald Altschiller, ed., Affirmative Action (New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1991), p. 5.
  2. Steven M. Cahn, ed., The Affirmative Action Debate (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 39.
  3. Thomas Sowell, Markets and Minorities (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p. 40.
  4. Ibid., p. 40.
  5. Following the same train of thought as in previously mentioned examples, if a team in a free market discriminated using something other than productivity, it would lose both games and money.
  6. Walter Block and Michael Walker, Discrimination, Affirmative Action, and Equal Opportunity (Vancouver, B.C.: The Fraser Institute, 1982).
  7. Terry Eastland, Ending Affirmative Action: The Case for Colorblind Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1996).
  8. Walter Block, “The Economics of Discrimination,” Business Ethics, vol. 11, 1992, pp. 241–54.

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