The Ranting Kraut

19.3.2006 – 27.9.2010

There is no such thing as positive discrimination

Posted by rantingkraut on April 19, 2007

The BBC reports that senior police officers are to consider calling for racist quotas to assure ethnic diversity targets in the police force. These quotas are –as is customary–proposed under the euphemism of “positive discrimination”.

What is ‘positive discrimination’? If to discriminate is simply used in its original meaning of “to make or constitute a difference in or between; to distinguish, differentiate” (Oxford English Dictionary) then there should be nothing wrong with discrimination. Making distinctions between things seems to be one of the human brain’s main tasks, there is nothing inherently evil about it, so there shouldn’t be a law against it.

If the term discrimination is used in its more recent, politicised form it could mean something like making distinctions based on criteria which are irrelevant to the problem under consideration. One example of this would be that of making employment decisions based on skin colour, when skin colour is of no importance. Such a decision is simply inefficient –there is nothing good about that. It may also benefit people in one group (e.g. those preferred for employment) at the expense of another (e.g. those discriminated against).

By Pareto’s criterion, a welfare change is unambiguously good, iff it leaves at least one person better off and no person worse off. Redistribution between collectives is therefore not unambiguously good. In fact, in order to claim that racist discrimination is objectively welfare improving, and therefore positive, one needs to argue that the ethnically defined beneficiary group is racially superior to the group that is being discriminated against.

If discrimination is inefficient, its use will also incur an efficiency loss. So for there to be a general welfare improvement, the welfare gain to one group would have to compensate for the efficiency loss to society at large as well as for the welfare loss of their competitor group. The favoured ethnic group would accordingly have to be judged sufficiently superior to their disadvantaged counterpart for the redistributive change to be seen as a net welfare gain.

If discrimination is defined politically with respect to unfair and inefficient decision criteria, then -by definition- there can be no such thing as positive discrimination. If discrimination is implemented along racial lines then this is simply racist –there is nothing positive about it!


2 Responses to “There is no such thing as positive discrimination”

  1. Ranting

    The word ‘positive’ is vastly misleading. I agree with you that there is little positive about any form of racial discrimination. A better phrase might be ‘reverse’ implying against the prior norm.

    As an aside – it was not long ago that the word ‘discriminating’ was considered a compliment!

  2. […] new about this arrangement. The currently fashionable euphemism is positive action rather than positive discrimination but, other than that, the proposed arrangement is exactly what has been practiced in Germany and […]

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