ABOVE the entrance to America’s Supreme Court four words are carved: “Equal justice under law”. The court is pondering whether affirmative action breaks that promise. The justices recently accepted a case concerning a vote in Michigan that banned it, and will soon rule on whether the University of Texas’s race-conscious admissions policies are lawful. The question in both cases is as simple as it is divisive: should government be colour-blind?
America is one of many countries where the state gives a leg-up to members of certain racial, ethnic, or other groups by holding them to different standards. The details vary. In some countries, the policy applies only to areas under direct state control, such as public-works contracts or admission to public universities. In others, private firms are also obliged to take account of the race of their employees, contractors and even owners. But the effects are strikingly similar around the world (see article).
The burden of history
Many of these policies were put in place with the best of intentions: to atone for past injustices and ameliorate their legacy. No one can deny that, for example, blacks in America or dalits in India (members of the caste once branded “untouchable”) have suffered grievous wrongs, and continue to suffer discrimination. Favouring members of these groups seems like a quick and effective way of making society fairer.
Most of these groups have made great progress. But establishing how much credit affirmative action can take is hard, when growth also brings progress and some of the good–for example the confidence-boosting effect of creating prominent role models for a benighted group–is intangible. And it is impossible to know how a targeted group would have got on without this special treatment. Malays are three times richer in Singapore, where they do not get preferences, than in next-door Malaysia, where they do. At the same time, the downside of affirmative action has become all too apparent.