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December 01, 2004

Affirmative Action: A Modest Proposal

Recent posts by Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution discuss a study that reveals the effects of nature and nurture on income. (Tabarrok's original post is here. He has posted some clarifying remarks here.) The study shows that the income of a Korean orphan who was adopted in the U.S. between 1970 and 1980, through a process of random selection, is about the same regardless of the income of the adoptive parents. On the other hand, the income of the biological children of the same parents is highly correlated with the parents' income; that is, low -income parents tend to produce low-income children, whereas high-income parents tend to produce high-income children. The obvious implication of these findings is that intelligence (and hence income) is a heritable trait, one that remains differentiated along racial lines (a consistent but controversial finding discussed here, for example). Thus the findings give further evidence, if any were needed, that affirmative action policies -- whether government-prescribed or voluntarily adopted -- tend to undermine the quality of workplaces and educational institutions. (I am speaking here of the quality of effort and thought, not the value of workers and students as human beings.)

The premise of affirmative action finds expression in a 1986 speech to the Second Circuit Judicial Conference by Justice Thurgood Marshall, where he

urged Americans to “face the simple fact that there are groups in every community which are daily paying the cost of the history of American injustice. The argument against affirmative action is… an argument in favor of leaving that cost to lie where it falls. Our fundamental sense of fairness, particularly as it is embodied in the guarantee of equal protection under the laws, requires us,” Marshall said, “to make an effort to see that those costs are shared equitably while we continue to work for the eradication of the consequences of discrimination. Otherwise,” Marshall concluded, “we must admit to ourselves that so long as the lingering effects of inequality are with us, the burden will [unfairly] be borne by those who are least able to pay.” [From "Looking Ahead: The Future of Affirmative Acton after Grutter and Gratz," by Professor Susan Low Bloch, Georgetown University Law Center.]

In sum, affirmative action is a way of exacting reparations from white Americans for the sins of their slave-owning, discriminating forbears -- even though most of those forbears didn't own slaves and many of them didn't practice discrimination. Those reparations come at a cost, aside from the resentment toward the beneficiaries of affirmative action and doubt about their qualifications for a particular job or place in a student body. As I wrote here:

Because of affirmative action -- and legal actions brought and threatened under its rubric -- employers do not always fill every job with the person best qualified for the job. The result is that the economy produces less than it would in the absence of affirmative action....

[A]ffirmative action reduces GDP by about 2 percent. That's not a trivial amount. In fact, it's just about what the federal government spends on all civilian agencies and their activities -- including affirmative action....

Moreover, that effect is compounded to the extent that affirmative action reduces the quality of education at universities, which it surely must do. But let us work with 2 percent of GDP, which comes to about $240 billion a year, or more than $6,000 a year for every black American.

Thus my modest proposal to improve the quality of education and the productivity of the workforce: End affirmative action and give every black American an annual voucher for, say, $5,000 (adjusted annually for inflation). The vouchers could be redeemed for educational expenses (tuition, materials, books, room and board, and mandatory fees). Recipients who didn't need or want their vouchers could sell them to others (presumably at a discount), give them away, or bequeath them for use by later generations. The vouchers would be issued for a limited time (perhaps the 25 years envisioned by Justice O'Connor in Grutter), but they would never expire.

That settles affirmative action, reparations, and school vouchers (for blacks), at a stroke. If only I could solve the Social Security mess as easily.

Posted by Thomas Anger on December 01, 2004 | Permalink

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