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Redistribution of wealth and other benefits is a common function of government. Controversies over the extent of redistribution are the principal basis of politics in many countries. When this redistribution is based on characteristics acquired at birth, such as race, ethnicity, caste, or gender, controversy often increases because the redistribution may exacerbate group rivalries and be inconsistent with other values, such as equal protection of the law. Such redistribution is often called affirmative action. Economist Thomas Sowell, the principal scholar comparing such policies, has identified them in such diverse counties as India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and the United States. Additionally, more limited versions exist in Britain, Canada, France, New Zealand, and Pakistan.
The origins of affirmative action vary by country. In the United States, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and almost all civil rights laws prohibit discrimination and require governments and many private entities to treat all persons equally. As the civil rights movement changed from advocacy of race-blind equal opportunity programs to race-conscious programs, which some saw as necessary to achieve proportional representation, affirmative action became the preferred tool in the areas of employment, higher education, public education, and voting rights. Such policies are now deeply embedded in both the public and private sector of American life as a device to overcome the legacies of past discrimination, create diversity, and attract political support from under-represented groups. In India and Malaysia, affirmative action programs began under British colonial rule and have survived independence and expanded their coverage. In India, during the 1950s and 1960s free secondary school opportunities and, in some states, free books, supplies, and meals were offered to members of select castes and tribes. Later, university slots were preserved for them. Such actions helped to unite various Hindu castes behind Hindu political parties. In Malaysia, nationalist parties sought to reduce the influence of Chinese and Indians in that country by providing education and employment benefits to the native Malay and bumipateras or “sons of the soil” populations.
The controversy over affirmative action programs stems from several factors. First, most legal systems, including the United Nations (UN) Charter, proclaim the principle of equal treatment for all individuals. When affirmative action programs promote equal treatment or when they promote preferences, sometimes called reverse discrimination, has received careful study. Such studies are complex and often not welcomed by some stakeholders who often have strong association with group identities and politics.
Second, disagreements exist over which groups should benefit from affirmative action programs. In many countries, such as Britain and New Zealand, the policies benefit demographic minorities, but in some cases the number of beneficiaries has spread to encompass populations not envisioned at the programs’ inception. In the United States, for example, the moral driver for affirmative action has been the more than three-hundred-year history of mistreatment of African Americans and Native Americans. The principal beneficiaries, however, often have been white women, as well as Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans, some of whom faced discrimination based on national origin or ancestry while others are more recent immigrants. In India and Malaysia, the majority of the population is entitled to preferences.
Third, affirmative action programs may be justified as temporary remedies, but in fact the inequalities that the programs are designed to address are difficult to eliminate. In the United States, judicial rulings require that governments (but not private organizations) must have a compelling interest to use racial classifications by making findings that they are remedying discrimination for which they are responsible. Affirmative action programs also must be narrowly tailored to remedy that discrimination, which may restrict the scope of beneficiary groups and benefits, but litigation to enforce those judicial principles is often lengthy and costly to undertake.
For all of these reasons, affirmative action programs remain controversial in the countries that have adopted them. Elites sometimes see affirmative action as a moral undertaking, but the preferences rarely threaten their status. Further, they see these programs as useful symbolic policies adding to social stability or as marketing tools to obtain votes or to sell products. Beneficiary groups seek to expand the reach of affirmative action programs. As these programs become bureaucratically institutionalized, they develop infrastructures supported by government, corporate, foundation, and educational funds. Opponents are rarely so well organized or funded. They often have majority public opinion support, however, and can invoke with some sympathy in legal forums defending the principle of equal protection.
The global economy and the growing migration of peoples are likely to leave most countries increasingly multiethnic and multireligious. This will add to the difficulty of reconciling the political value of eliminating inequalities with the legal value of treating individuals equally. Whatever it may be called in the future and whatever form it takes, something like affirmative action programs will continue to be controversial in a number of countries worldwide.
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