Thursday, November 17, 2005

French Affirmative Action?

The most recent topic at the Becker-Posner blog is the French Riots. The economic discussion is interesting. I think, though, that the comparison between what is happening in France and the American experience during the sixties is a little too facile. That said, Posner makes an interesting point on the absence of affirmative action in French society:
Another factor in the recent French riots may be the French refusal to engage in affirmative action. The French are reluctant even to collect statistics on the number of people in France of various ethnicities, their incomes, and their unemployment rates. No effort is made to encourage discrimination in favor of restive minorities (as distinct from women, who are beneficiaries of affirmative action in France) and as a result there are very few African-origin French in prominent positions in commerce, the media, or the government. Affirmative action in the United States took off at approximately the same time as the 1967 and 1968 race riots, and is interpretable (so far as affirmative action for blacks is concerned) as a device for reducing black unemployment, creating opportunities for the ablest blacks to rise, promoting at least the appearance of racial equality, and in all these ways reducing the economic and emotional precipitants of race riots. Of particular importance, affirmative action was used to greatly increase the fraction of police that are black, while the "community policing" movement improved relations between the police and the residents of black communities. French police, traditionally brutal, have by all accounts very bad relations with the inhabitants of the Muslim slums. The French riots are a reminder that affirmative action, although offensive to meritocratic principles, may have redeeming social value in particular historical circumstances.
I am loath to condone the concept of affimative action, but I think that reluctance stems more from current circumstances than an intellectual rejection of the premise. In other words, affirmative action makes no sense -- and is pernicious -- in a society that could otherwise function perfectly well as a true meritocracy. What Posner is suggesting is that France ain't there.

Accepting Posner's premise that affirmative action might be part of the solution, Mickey Kaus at bloggingheads had a different idea: bring back the French draft. It may not be a perfectly bad idea. The French military (smirk) used to function as France's melting pot, throwing all segments of French society into the same hopper and, in the process, generating some mutual respect along the way. Nothing in France's traditionally xenophobic society currently performs that service. Well, it's an idea, anyway, and one probably not quite so given to creating brand new ethnic/class tensions as implementation of affirmative action.