The Case Against Affirmative Action

Why has so much political debate in South Africa, at least on social media, become about first principles and their application rather than, say, competing strategies or broad visions of a better society? Following South African Twitter is like being trapped in a first year philosophy tutorial run by a nervous substitute. There may be occasional good points, but it’s hard to discern them amid the confused tumult of know-it-alls who haven’t done the reading.

It’s not that people say dumb shit on the internet, that would hardly need to be explained, so much as the regular default to questions of theory rather than practice that is curious. Probably most of us want to live in a free, open, prosperous society, but we seem to spend all our energy debating what freedom, openness and prosperity mean.

Political orientation now invariably determines how one believes a value — free speech, say — should manifest. Perhaps we hold irreconcilable values and it only looks like we share the same set of universal principles. After all, each new kerfuffle quickly reduces to rhetorical deadlock that can’t be broken by any simple application of disinterested logic.

I suggest an alternative explanation. The strictures of South Africa’s negotiated transition circumscribe the limits of our discourse, enforcing a partisan politics consisting of ad hoc defences of a jerry-rigged compromise. This becomes more obvious in the case of apparently egalitarian policies designed to be self-limiting.

Let’s consider affirmative action. I suspect many (most?) South Africans are sympathetic to affirmative action’s goals, even if they take issue with some of the practical effects. Emily worked so hard in matric, why should she lose out on a place in medical school? She was born after apartheid ended for goodness sake! Piet bust his ass at the firm for decades, it’s not fair that some guy with half his experience got the promotion!

In addition to qualms about the exclusionary consequences of affirmative action, some claim that black participation at all levels of the workforce would be as great or even greater if we’d just let the free market do its thing uninhibited. Let’s put those arguments aside and focus on claims about the essential fairness of the policy. I suggest that the neutral observer would be hard-pressed to avoid the conclusion that affirmative action’s critics have a point.

Why do we still expect government to classify people by race? Why is there no differentiation according to the degree to which one benefited from historical advantage? Why should people bear liability for advantage they didn’t seek? On what basis should an individual be excluded because of group liability, especially when that group identity is an entirely contingent artifact that we ideally should be looking to dismantle. Furthermore, the policy is a woefully imprecise mechanism for addressing disadvantage, favouring those who already possess the resources to take advantage. Et cetera.

What would Milton do?

Sometimes these objections are wilfully obtuse. ‘Government is now practising reverse racism’. But often they’re presented with formal seriousness. Now, each objection is answerable, but the answers demand some work, particularly if the respondent is seeking to demonstrate that the given policy is compatible with a broadly liberal framework. Furthermore, these responses depend on recourse to nebulous concepts such as power relations, which in turn are supported by complex empirical and theoretical work.

Politics is always an ongoing series of contestations, but why have we made things so hard for ourselves? Because our reparative programme is at the same time a mechanism to preserve the basic conditions of the initial inequality. That inherent tension means that the practical application of the programme involves tradeoffs that cannot simply be adjudicated by recourse to abstract principles of justice. And those tradeoffs cannot be defended except on the basis of a complex account of the relative benefits of given compromises, including apparent semi-arbitrary curtailments on individual autonomy. That the beneficiaries of the duality are the most vociferous critics of the programme is odd but suggestive.

What would a more properly liberal programme look like? Put another way, what kind of programme would be more straightforward to defend in terms of liberal demands for individual rights? That partly depends on our priorities.

If we prioritise respect for the just acquisition of property, then we need a comprehensive programme of redistribution designed to redress historical breaches of property rights. Rather than an egalitarian initiative, this would be a reorganising of our inherited property regime according to proper libertarian concerns for property, something which we ought properly to have done if we didn’t instead opt — as an alternative to, and cover for, reparations — for a programme BEE, affirmative action and a welfare state.

Instituting reparations would answer many of the objections to identity-based egalitarian projects, but it would also be enormously challenging to implement. Plus there is more room for ambiguity than is optimal, given the country’s murky history of acquisition and dispossession. Reparations may thus be most commended by liberal principles, but the logistical challenge, and the inevitability of ongoing contestation about just acquisition, should give us pause on practical grounds.

Alternatively, we could institute a programme that that did not discriminate according historical conditions and sought to give all people equal access to opportunity under an equitable configuration of property relations. Socialism may fall short of reparations in other contexts, but in South Africa socialism would, plausibly, be tantamount to reparations. Of course, individuals disadvantaged under previous unjust property regimes may complain, with justification, that they deserve compensation that extends beyond equality of access to goods and opportunities. But at least we would no longer be subject to an imprecise and inconsistent policy of symbolic egalitarianism under an unjust property regime. From a liberal perspective, we currently inhabit the worst of all worlds. Let’s organise and build an equal opportunity society for all South Africans.