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Prior Knowledge

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Affirmative Action at TPM

The Philosophers' Magazine has an interesting and well-argued article up on the topic of affirmative action, written by our very own Simon Clarke. Go read it!

After rejecting three common justifications for affirmative action, Simon offers a variant of the 'role-model' argument:
Racial minorities should be given some advantages, even if the beneficiaries of those policies come from the wealthy middle class and even if they are not the ones who can specifically be said to have suffered racial discrimination in the past. They should receive such advantages in order to achieve the conditions for real equality of opportunity. People need to know that they can achieve goals in society. Sending that message helps encourage the belief that opportunities really are open to them, that the rooms that may have once held them captive have been unlocked. It helps bring about real equality of opportunity.

I very much agree with Simon about the importance of people recognizing that opportunities are available to them. When a teacher at Aranui high school asked a student where he thought he'd be in five years time, the student answered, straightforwardly, "Prison." That's where all his older male relatives were, so he didn't see any other options as being genuinely open to him. These social circumstances are tragic, and it would certainly be desirable to change them.

But would Simon's idea really help? It assumes that impoverished Maori will identify with wealthy and successful people of the same race. But is this assumption true? Will seeing the success of upper-class Maori really make the Maori in Aranui think such options are open to them, so long as the real circumstances of the people they know are unchanged? It strikes me as pretty implausible to think that seeing a bunch of rich strangers - even Maori rich strangers - is going to have that sort of impact. We need more widespread, low-level, local reforms to the social structure. Of course, I haven't a clue how to achieve that, or whether it's even possible to achieve through outside intervention. If affirmative action could be shown to have this sort of impact, then that could provide a solid justification for it. But until then, I'm skeptical.

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  • I strongly support richard's suggestion of 'widespread, low-level, local reforms to the social structure'.
    I expect that one part of such local reform would be protection of and assistance to local businesses and industries in poor communities composed mostly of ethnic minorities. These local businesses would be protected against, say, large retail chains.

    Let me suggest a distinction between empowering jobs and those that are not empowering. Unempowering jobs are generally low-skilled and often involve performing repetitive or strictly circumscribed tasks with little room for creativity and initiative. Such jobs can include factory work and work in retail and generally involve working in a position of subordination to a supervisor or manager. Empowering jobs have more room for initiative and creativity and may involve organising the work of subordinate workers. Managers, teachers and artisans would be included in this second category. I assume that it is good for a community composed mostly of people of a minority ethnic group to strive to increase the ratio of empowering jobs to unempowering jobs for reasons that include the 'role-model' argument.

    I assume that when large retail stores, like the Warehouse, or factories enter
    a poor community composed mostly of a minority ethnic group, most of the empowering jobs (managers, executives) are held by people outside the community or by people with no ties to the community who are simply reassigned to the community from a previous post. In any case, the bulk of the new jobs the company creates in the community will be unempowering and low-skill ones. Further, given that the new company is probably fairly large, it is likely to undercut and bankrupt the existing local industry through its economies of scale. In doing so, it takes away many empowering jobs of small business owners, artisans, farmers and horticulturalists. Note that those at risk of losing empowering jobs may include some who are not employed in the same industry as the new company. If a supermarket replaces a local grocer, it is not simply the grocer who loses her job, as the horticulturalist who used to supply the grocer may be too small and expensive for the supermarket, given that the latter has pre-existing low cost contracts with large scale farmers' coops. Further likely effects of the entry of the large company include the possibility that much of the profit will leave the host community and, most probably, reach the pockets of members of more affluent ethnic groups.

    So we see pro tanto reasons for thinking that the entry of the new company serves to perpetuate, if not exacerbate, a distribution of empowering and unempowering jobs and a distribution of incomes that favours the dominant ethnic group over the minority group.

    The role of the government, or perhaps of local councils, would be to set up lending organisations who lend on preferential terms to local entrepreneurs and make business advice available at low cost and to facilitate the passing of laws that allow a community to keep out large chain stores and corporations if they fear that these chains might undercut and bankrupt local businesses and introduce only low-pay and low-skill jobs in exchange. In other words, the government role is protection of and asistance to local community industries (for communities of ethnic minorities).

    Note that there would be some economic inefficiency associated with my proposal as the consumers in the community would have to forgo the lower prices that chains would likely have brought to their area. The classic pro-market move would instead be to maximise the net product and minimise the cost and then redistribute - that is, allow the large business to take over the local market and then redistribute from the biggest winners (the class of managers and executives of the large business) to the relative losers - the poor of the local community. In our case, however, the concern is not merely for the amount of money that the members of this community have. Increasing this amount through welfare payments does nothing to empower the community. The protectionist option provides youth with examples in their neighbourhood of people with empowering jobs - say owning or managing a small business, rather than simply examples of people who are forced to work less empowering jobs in retail or as factory workers, in positions of subordination to managers and executives who have no ties to the community and who are probably not of the same ethnic group.

    9/16/2005 05:32:00 PM  

  • That's a great comment. You might want to check out community-wealth.org, which has a lot of information and resources about this stuff.

    9/16/2005 07:06:00 PM  

  • I agree role models are not sufficient for real equality of opportunity but I maintain that they are necessary. this rests on two claims:
    - to have real opportunties one must know that one has them.
    - roles models are necessary to give such knowledge.
    The original article defended the first claim; that's the point of the secretly-unlocking-a-cell example.
    The second claim is not true in all circumstances but I think true enough given the way things are.

    What other things are needed? I'm not sure that "widespread, low-level, local reforms to the social structure" would help, or what they are. Removal of legal obstacles of course. Public provision of education seems the most important thing. Also govt support of families to support their children. A license to parent has always seemed to me a good idea.

    10/13/2005 01:19:00 PM  

  • I think it is a bad sign if people are looking only to their own race for role models. It is also very dangerous. Something that, in principle, should be discouraged as opposed to encouraged.

    10/14/2005 09:24:00 PM  

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