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As anyone who regularly reads Thomas Sowell's syndicated columns knows, he's long been one of America's most prominent dissident voices, black or white, approaching every subject he addresses with relentless reason and thorough research. With his latest book, "Affirmative Action Around the World," Sowell jumps right into the debate over one of the world's most controversial subjects: ethnic preference programs. Of course, we all know about Affirmative Action here in the U.S., but as Sowell demonstrates, similar programs can be found in countries all over the world. With his trademark honesty and meticulousness, Sowell explores the results of affirmative action policies in five countries: the United States, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka. This book echoes many of the themes found in Sowell's classic "The Vision of the Anointed," so you may want to check out that book before moving on to this one.
As Sowell states many times throughout the book, his main objective here is to examine the actual effects of affirmative action programs, not the goals or rationales behind them. To put it another way, he sets out to answer the questions that most people don't even ask. The chief problem, in Sowell's view, is that the assumption underlying affirmative action programs is fundamentally flawed. It's just assumed by those advocating such measures that any intergroup disparities in performance must be caused by some sort of systematic discrimination, and a little government intervention is needed to even things out. However, as Sowell notes, such differences have been found all over the world all through history. In virtually any country, a statistically significant group of Chinese, Japanese, or Jewish people will out-earn the majority population, even though they typically have little to no political power. It's been the same with other groups in other countries, regardless of whether they were in any position to discriminate against anybody. It's gotten so ridiculous that in Canada, citizens of Japanese descent have been referred to as a "privileged" group, even though they're a tiny percentage of the population and have suffered horrendous treatment there.
Another major flaw Sowell points out is that proponents of group-preference policies see the whole matter as a zero-sum game, where some of the benefits that one group has "unfairly" gained can simply be taken and given to another group. However, these people, whose mindset you can read all about in "The Vision of the Anointed," fail to account for all the unintended consequences that such policies can produce. Race relations can become frayed as coercion replaces cooperation (as they have in America), members of newly disadvantaged groups can leave the country and take their money and skills with them (Malaysia), and ethnic violence and even civil war can break out (India and Sri Lanka). Even worse, if governments were to stay out of the way, everyone could benefit, as in the 1940's and '50's in this country when white income rose and black income rose even faster with no affirmative action. Instead, government meddling often turns what could be a positive-sum game into a negative-sum one.
Perhaps most disastrously of all, once set in motion group-preference policies tend to take on a life of their own. In all five of the countries Sowell discusses, affirmative action programs are supposed to be in effect for a limited time and cover a limited group of people, but they eventually take on a life of their own as the demands of the privileged groups become ever more radical. In many countries these policies have come to cover more and more groups, often being expanded to more than half the population and always being extended past any timetable set for their expiration. And in all cases, the more privileged members of the preferred groups have reaped almost all of the benefits. This is another theme Sowell covers in "The Vision of the Anointed": the people who set these policies in motion may mean well, but in believing they can control the course of the events they've set in motion they assume more knowledge than anyone has ever had anywhere.
I think the main lesson to be taken from this book is that multi-ethnic societies *can* work, but not with a powerful central government distributing benefits in what essentially amounts to a racial spoils system. In the kind of free-market society advocated by libertarians, where people are free to associate with whomever they see fit, racial tensions could be defused or at least minimized even if there are large disparities in achievement between different groups. As Sowell notes, there have always been achievement gaps in various countries the world over, but these gaps typically don't lead to major tensions or violence until they're politicized by demagogues who stand to gain from encouraging strife (think Jesse Jackson). It's just too bad more people, regardless of race, don't listen to voices of reason like Sowell.