[Paleopsych] Economist: Affirmative action: Advantages for the advantaged

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Affirmative action: Advantages for the advantaged

    Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study.
    By Thomas Sowell.
    Yale University Press; 256 pages; $28
    Affirmative Action is Dead; Long Live Affirmative Action.
    By Faye J. Crosby.
    Yale University Press; 352 pages; $30

    HERE are two books on "affirmative action" from the same publisher.
    One is by a black man, the other by a white woman. Thomas Sowell's
    "Affirmative Action Around the World" is a delight: terse, well argued
    and utterly convincing. The best one can say about Faye Crosby's
    "Affirmative Action is Dead; Long Live Affirmative Action" is that it
    is less badly written than the average academic tome.

    Mr Sowell takes the reader on a fascinating tour of the ways in which
    the preferential treatment of chosen groups has been applied in India,
    Malaysia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and the United States. Some groups
    singled out for a leg-up are minorities whose members have suffered
    discrimination in the past, such as American blacks or India's
    untouchables. To atone for the injustices inflicted on their
    forefathers, these groups have been granted favours, such as
    preferential access to universities or jobs. Other groups favoured in
    similar ways have never been discriminated against, but nonetheless do
    worse at school and in business than their neighbours. Examples
    include Malays in Malaysia, who earn less and learn less than their
    Chinese compatriots, and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, who have long
    lagged behind the Tamils.

    Mr Sowell's insight is that regardless of the supposed moral basis for
    preferential policies, the results are often remarkably similar.
    Though such policies are supposed to help the poor, their
    beneficiaries tend to be quite well-off. The truly poor rarely apply
    to enter university or bid for public-works contracts, and so cannot
    take advantage of quotas. The better-off quickly learn how to play the

    Once affirmative-action policies are instituted, their proponents tend
    to credit them with all subsequent advances by the intended
    beneficiaries. Mr Sowell shows that this is bunk. Malays, for example,
    have done better in Singapore, where they do not receive preferences,
    than in Malaysia, where they do. And in America, blacks were working
    their way out of poverty at a faster rate before affirmative action
    was introduced than after. Supposedly pro-black policies have in some
    ways made it harder for blacks to find jobs. "The ease with which
    discrimination charges can be made," writes Mr Sowell, provides an
    incentive "for businesses to locate away from concentrations of

    Mr Sowell's book is brief, but crammed with striking anecdotes and
    statistics. He tells of the family of recent Cuban immigrants with a
    $500m fortune who won American government contracts set aside for
    disadvantaged minorities, and of how preferential policies in Nigeria
    and Sri Lanka caused ethnic polarisation and, eventually, civil war.
    He shows how lowering the bar for certain groups dulls their
    incentives to excel. He quotes, for example, the architect of
    Malaysia's preferential policies, the former prime minister, Mahathir
    Mohamed, who laments that his fellow Malays now regard university
    places as a right, and so neglect their studies.

    Ms Crosby's book is longer but covers less ground. She writes as if
    America were the only country in the world, and the Californian campus
    consensus the only set of opinions a reasonable person could hold.
    "Thoughtful scholars", she tells us, "wonder why affirmative action
    has not elicited unwavering support" among Americans. They should read
    Mr Sowell's book and find out why.

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