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I’m following up on an earlier post with a few thoughts on two topics: the “unexpected” harms of affirmative action and the left’s unwitting promotion of inequality via restrictive housing policies in many American cities. I mentioned both policies last week without much elaboration in “American Homicide Rates: Which America?” Both are efforts by government to apply centralized decision-making to complex social issues. Both reflect misdiagnoses of the problems they seek to address. Both are coercive and dismissive of the power of free individuals to help themselves and the power of markets to solve social problems. And both kinds of policies are failures.

Whether government is prescribing the rental value of a property, regulating forms of new construction, or imposing land-use regulations, zoning, historic preservation, and environmental rules, the result is higher housing costs and often lower-quality housing for the low end of the income distribution. The effects of some of these policies are discussed by Randall O’Toole in “Bringing Soviet Planning To New York City“. Wendell Cox notes that progressive cities are home to the worst inequality of housing opportunities for blacks and hispanics. The Cox piece is a bit dry, but it is instructive. These are results that reinforce the alienation described in the “Which America?” post linked above.

Allowing government to prescribe the appropriate matching of individuals to roles based on racial or identity group status is divisive and counter-productive. This is so-called affirmative action. Decisions based not on merit, but on skin color or membership in favored identity groups are discriminatory by their very nature. Members of non-favored groups, including non-favored minorities such as asians, are penalized, despite their lack of any connection to the injustices of the past. Human capital is a scarce resource, which is why merit has value. So group preferences in hiring involve tradeoffs, subverting goals such as productivity, profit and expense control. This inflicts a cost on society as a whole. 

In college admissions, affirmative action often compromises learning. This article on affirmative action at universities emphasizes the “mismatch hypothesis”, which asserts that individuals with lesser academic credentials who are placed as a consequence of preference programs often “suffer academically as a result”. The damage includes higher dropout rates among minorities and generally less learning than if these individuals had studied with peers having more similar credentials. A further implication is that these individuals probably experience less career success. In fact, an under-qualified employee’s job performance might permanently damage his or her career prospects. There may be other consequences of group preferences such as stigmatization and alienation of individuals within the academic community or workplace. 

Whether the topic is better housing, improved educational and economic prospects, trade, drugs, technology, or any other human endeavor, the best solutions do not involve decisions imposed by government coercion. Instead, allowing individuals to interact freely, gaining valuable employment experience and access to the bounty of markets, fosters organic gains in opportunities. Individual liberties and equality before the law are the real keys to broader success. The visible, iron hand of the state tends to diminish the supply of affordable housing. Forced quotas in hiring and academic admissions often harm their intended beneficiaries and poison the social environment. When placement decisions are in the hands of public institutions like state universities, it is in the best interests of both schools and students to make those decisions based on academic credentials. Opportunities for higher education will improve only with advances at lower levels of education, which requires parental choice rather than a collection of unresponsive mini-monopolies. In addition, higher education should lose it’s cachet as an elixir for economic prospects. Many individuals, regardless of group identity, would optimize their careers through vocational skills and entering the workforce to gain experience at an earlier age than the typical university graduate.