Padraic P. McGuinness, “Why ‘positive policy’ harmful,”
The Australian Financial Review, September 29, 1988, pp. 92-91.
Perhaps it says a great deal about the Australian university system that a talk at the Australian Graduate School of Management by one of the world’s leading experts on racial discrimination and the effects of anti-discrimination policies was attended by about 30 people.
The AGSM is, of course, within the University of NSW, and that university is chockablock with lawyers, sociologists, economists, welfare workers, media experts, anti-discrimination units etc who are all deeply interested in policies of affirmative action to overcome the wrongs done to women, Aborigines, ethnic minorities, and the disabled.
Yet, hardly any of them could find the time to listen to Thomas Sowell, who has spent much of his professional life as an economist and social analyst dealing with these problems.
Most of those who did turn up seemed to be pretty puzzled, anyway. For, the essence of Professor Sowell’s work has been that well-meaning anti-discrimination policies have not had a lot of success.
Indeed, he spoke about the success of preferential policies designed to change the employment outcomes which would result without government intervention, such as quotas for the employment of women or ethnic minorities.
Only one country had had a really successful policy along these lines, he suggested, and that was South Africa, which has operated a highly effective preferential policy in favour of an ethnic minority for some years.
Since this was the policy of apartheid, which embodies one of the worst forms of racial discrimination and oppression in the modern world, it did not seem a model worth following.
The thrust of Professor Sowell’s work, which has involved extensive analysis of the available data relating to the US, and comparisons with other countries, has established that schemes of “positive discrimination” in favour of allegedly disadvantaged minorities or social groups have been harmful to them.
It has, for example, produced a substantial backlash in the US universities. The practice of granting special access to blacks has led to increasing objections by students who have been given no such preferential access, and this has been worst in traditionally liberal areas like the State of Massachusetts.
Moreover, it has not been a favour to the blacks themselves. Those who have performed in academic terms well enough to gain admission, and pass creditably, at middle-ranking universities have often enough been thrust by the quota systems of “affirmative action” into universities of the top standard.
The result has, for political reasons, only too frequently been a selective lowering of standards — the political pressures operating to prevent objective and unbiased assessment are too strong to resist. Thus, if you encounter a black with a PhD from Harvard, it is impossible to tell whether this has been awarded on genuine merit or as a charity case.
This is, of course, deeply humiliating and unfair to those who have the ability to perform at the top level without the assistance of positive discrimination. All black PhDs are devalued by this practice.
The same, of course, applies to female graduates who have “benefited” from positive discrimination, or affirmative action.
You are, of course, beginning to see why Professor Sowell did not have a particularly large audience. Those who knew of him for the most part did not attend (this is at least an improvement on the neo-fascist intolerance of such unpopular views which characterised our universities not long since) and those who did […] had a great deal of difficulty in realising what he was saying.
Quite a few of his remarks have direct Australian application. He spoke, for example, of the effects of preferential treatment for American Indians. This has produced a large increase in the proportion of the US population purporting to be of Indian ancestry, a gain which was quite improbable in terms of available demographic evidence before such preferential treatment was introduced.
He pointed out that many people who had hitherto been considered white, had been treated as white, and had considered themselves white, had retrospectively discovered a small proportion of Indian blood and had thus gained access to preferential programmes.
He also pointed to the growing proportion of the US population which was coming to be covered by the various programmes for the disadvantaged — a proportion approaching 70 per cent. Why not make it 100 per cent?
The point of all this is that there are strong political and social forces operating in the US and in other countries which make objective treatment of the problems of ethnic and minority differences almost impossible.
Rather than policies being designed to benefit the people whom they were supposed to benefit, they were designed to satisfy the guilt feelings of the majority.
Professor Sowell has, in a couple of books, analysed the evidence on the educational and economic performance of ethnic minorities in the US. This tends to show that some of the most discriminated against minorities performed consistently better in educational and income terms than the majority, while some performed consistently worse.
This clearly indicates that prejudice, and racism, does not play a dominant role in the poor performance of the relatively unsuccessful minorities. Racism, of course, exists, but how it operates is by no means clear.
Therefore, policies based on a mistaken view of how racism and discrimination operate are likely to do positive harm, not good. If one is genuinely sincere about overcoming the ill-effects of discrimination, it is necessary to know quite a lot about the reasons for differing minority performance.
And, as Professor Sowell pointed out, it is too late to try to correct for past disadvantage at the university or post-university level. No programme of supplementary studies, no programme of extra work, extra tuition, extra expenditure, had been discovered which could overcome educational disadvantages suffered from the cradle.
Who knows what are the appropriate policies? Just about no one. But it is of no help to the disadvantaged to pretend that policies which are patently harmful to them should be continued.
This is, of course, not a message which many people, especially in the education industry and in the media in Australia, want to hear.
So, you can be sure that Professor Sowell will not receive much exposure, especially on television. He has a very embarrassing characteristic. He is what is now unfashionable to call an American Negro. He is a distinguished and internationally respected economist, a graduate of the best universities who got there the hard way, and he is black.
Padraic P. McGuinness, “Helping the Aborigines?,”
The Australian Financial Review, October 11, 1988, pp. 96-95.
Since the days when the Australian electorate made one of its most creditable decisions with respect to our Aboriginal minority, and voted to delete Section 127 of the Constitution, which said that Aborigines were not to be officially counted in reckoning the numbers of Australians, a lot of water has passed under the bridge.
Two very important facts need to be noted about this provision.
First of all, the referendum which deleted it was one of the few examples of a successful amendment to the Australian Constitution by referendum. This was because the proposition was clear, it was honestly put, and it was in accord with the beliefs of the Australian people. It was thus unlike the recent referendums in almost every respect.
Second, it has to be remembered that Section 127 was included not as an expression of contempt for the Aborigines, or of racism, but as a means of preventing the manipulation of nomadic tribes for electoral purposes. Thus it was one of the many misguided social welfare provisions of history, which began with good intentions and ended by doing the protected minority no good at all.
There is a popular line of argument that Section 127 was part of the pattern of anti-Aboriginal action that is supposed to characterise the past 200 years of Australian history. This is exactly the contrary of the truth. It may be that the inclusion of the section was ill-advised.
But it is probable that many of the policies currently espoused as being of benefit to Aborigines will also prove to have been ill-advised, and indeed positively harmful.
But evidence is beginning to accumulate, partly thanks to the deletion of Section 127. As a result, there have been enumerations of the Aboriginal population of Australia since the 1976 census. And, thanks to the questions on income, we are beginning to get some evidence on Aboriginal income distribution by comparison with the population as a whole.
This evidence has been carefully collated and analysed in the latest Australian Bulletin of Labour, published by the National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University, in an article by M.L. Treadgold of the University of New England.
This article shows that, despite the enormous expenditure of taxpayers’ money on Aborigines and related problems in Australian since 1967, and especially since 1972, and the also enormous amount which has been spent by way of land rights legislation through mining and similar royalties, virtually nothing has been achieved in terms of making Aborigines better off.
The census figures show that real median annual incomes for Aboriginal persons aged 15 years and over were $4,359 per head in 1976 and $4,179 in 1986, compared with $7,301 in 1976 and $6,451 in 1986 for the population as a whole of the same age range (all in constant 1980-81 dollars).
The median is that figure which divides the population exactly in halves, above and below. A rather more meaningful concept is the average real income, which is estimated by Treadgold to have been $5,327 for Aborigines in 1976 and $5,391 in 1986, compared with $8,171 in 1976 and $8,239 for the whole population.
There are, of course, a lot of traps in these figures. One is that there appears to have been a fall in the period of 1976-81 and a rise in 1981-86. But there are problems with the enumerations which seem to make it better to look at the 10-year period as a whole.
Then there is the fact that Aboriginal women seem to have done a lot better compared to all women than Aboriginal men compared to all men.
The population movements, in particular, are difficult to interpret. They show that in the inter-censal period 1976-1986 the total Aboriginal population aged 15 and over rose from 91,327 to 137,133 — a rise of over 50 per cent.
These results “imply an average annual (compound) rate of increase of the total Aboriginal population of 3.5 per cent (4 per cent for Aborigines aged 15 years and above). Even disregarding the evidence of over-enumeration in 1976 and allowing for the possibility that it occurred in 1986, it is difficult to envisage over-enumeration errors in the latter years on a scale sufficient to have pushed the observed rate of increase so far above that which might have been expected as a result of natural increase.
“It therefore appears that there was a significant rise in the proportion of persons of mixed race who identified themselves as Aborigines.”
This is, of course, totally in accord with the observation of Professor Thomas Sowell that in the US positive discrimination programmes in favour of ethnic minorities lead to large increases in the declared memberships of such minorities.
But this in itself would not matter much if the expenditures involved were having the desired effect of raising the economic status of Aborigines as a group.
However, as Treadgold writes, the evidence “points to a worrying conclusion: namely that over a 10-year period of seemingly serious political commitment to improve the economic lot of Aborigines through an array of government policies and programmes the totality of achievement was of negligible proportions.”
The study concludes that “the main sources of change in Aboriginal income per head were a fall in the dependency rate (which had a positive effect), changes in the mean incomes of Aboriginal females with specific labour force categories (which also had a positive effect) and a change in the pattern of Aboriginal male labour force status (which had a negative effect).”
These findings are indeed worrying. They indicate that most of the welfare programmes for Aborigines of the past 15 years or so have been an enormous waste of money, with much of the expenditure going to a burgeoning industry of white bureaucrats, white welfare workers, white academics, white schoolteachers, white propagandists and a tiny number of Aboriginal leaders and propagandists.
There have indeed been some improvements. Aboriginal women are doing relatively better, and this is surely desirable despite the fact that it represents the irrevocable breakdown of traditional tribal structures. There was a large increase in the proportion of full-time Aboriginal students, which is clearly desirable.
But a clearly major contributing factor to the rises in average incomes which have been recorded has been the greater penetration of social security payments — which has both its negative and its positive aspects. It has not necessarily increased the incentives to self-help of many Aborigines. But thanks to a multitude of factors, not least of which are award wage provisions, the opportunities for employment for Aborigines have not been great, either.
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