Front Page Titles (by Subject) Discrimination and Affirmative Action - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1981, vol. 4, No. 4
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Discrimination and Affirmative Action - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1981, vol. 4, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Discrimination and Affirmative Action
“Weber and Bakke, and the Presuppositions of ‘Affirmative Action’.” In Discrimination, Affirmative Action, and Equal Opportunity. Edited by W.E. Block and M.A. Walker. Vancouver: The Fraser Institute, 1982, pp. 37–63.
Paradoxically, the Supreme Court upheld racial quotas in the Weber case (1979), only one year after striking down quotas in the Bakke case. The court in each case stressed the narrowness of the issues they resolved. But how consistent are these cases and how reasonable the underlying reasoning of judicial attempts to reverse discrimination through “affirmative action”? Professor Sowell's discussion seeks to clarify: (1) the evolution of “affirmative action” as a concept, (2) its presuppositions about social processes, and (3) the implications of the Bakke and Weber cases specifically.
Through evolution the original meaning of “affirmative action” (a general attempt to inform and recruit applicants from groups long excluded from employment) gave way to its current meaning—choosing among applicants on the basis of numerical quotas. This shift replaced the prospective concept of opportunity with the retrospective concept of results. This shift implies that nothing but discrimination can explain large intergroup differences in such areas as pay and hiring. Thus, the four dissenting justices in the Bakke case created a hypothetical ideal world in which sufficient numbers of qualified minority applicants would have outperformed Bakke if past discrimination had been corrected by affirmative action quotas.
This hypothetical retrospective conjecturing presupposes that discrimination alone must be the decisive explanation of intergroup differences. We may however, concede the moral evil of discrimination, but still insist that that is no measure of its causal impact. Nor is it a reason to ignore the causal role of such non-moral variables as age, location, and cultural values. Empirical evidence shows the weakness of the causal primacy of discrimination. For example, among the highest income groups in the United States are non-white groups with a history of severe discrimination (e.g., the Japanese Americans who suffered mass internment in World War II). The uniqueness of the historic disabilities of blacks undermines their causal and legal arguments. There are non-enslaved, non-Jim Crowed, non-black groups worse off in respect to median family income, occupational level, years of schooling, I.Q., and unemployment rates. The economic performance of West Indian blacks in the United States suggests that color discrimination is not the weightiest causal factor.
Ironically, the historic discrimination against one racial minority is now being invoked as the basis for discrimination against the residual minority of persons not designated as special by arbitrary government experts. Thus, Chinese Americans (though they have high incomes and more education) are designated as an official minority over Irish Americans. More ironically, blacks and women (for whom reverse discrimination is claimed) largely reject preferential treatment. Finally, the lack of popular support for affirmative action raises grave questions of anti-democratic judicial usurpations of power.