Atanu Dey On India's Development

Job Discrimination

There is no easy way for me to go about discussing a subject that I think requires some degree of hard thinking. It is always so when what one is dealing with matters that lie at the foundation of one’s entire mental edifice. Replacing the entire foundation, or even parts of it, is not a task which can be undertaken over the course of an afternoon. In most cases, I don’t think foundations can be reworked; it is best to tear down the whole structure and build upon a new foundation. Keeping that caution in mind, what I want to consider here is one of my foundational principles which is that coercion is wrong.

I think it would be appropriate to quote John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) here:

An active and energetic mind, if denied liberty, will seek for power: refused the command of itself it will assert its personality by attempting to control others… Where liberty cannot be hoped for, and power can, power becomes the grand object of human desire; those to whom others will not leave the undisturbed management of their own affairs, will compensate themselves, if they can, by meddling for their own purposes with the affairs of others…Where there is least liberty, the passion for power is the most ardent and unscrupulous…

…among all the lessons which men require for carrying on the struggle against the inevitable imperfections of their lot on earth, there is no lesson which they more need, than not to add to the evils which nature inflicts, by their jealous and prejudiced restrictions on one another. Their vain fears only substitute other and worse evils for those which they are idly apprehensive of: while every restraint on the freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow-creatures (otherwise than by making them responsible for any evil actually caused by it) dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being.

That quote is from Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869). Those lines are a distillation of what I consider lies at the core of much distress in the world. I think that if sufficient people realize that coercion is wrong, and that individual freedom is an unqualified good, the world would be a better place.

For years I have tried to find an example of a situation which would justify coercion and the denial of individual freedom. I have not found a single one. So I use that principle – coercion is wrong and individual freedom is good – as the touchstone when faced with deciding whether some policy is good or not, or when trying to figure out what my position should be on a specific matter.

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Tanweer Alam pointed me to a news item which reports a study that finds that caste discrimination exists in the Indian private sector.

Two Princeton University researchers, who are studying discrimination in the new market economy, and Indian scholars like University Grants Chairperson Sukhdeo Thorat have found that even in the private sector merit is not always the guiding factor.

Studies that confirm what is common knowledge are useful, I suppose, if for nothing else but to provoke debate about what is right and what isn’t. At the very least, we should think about discrimination a little more systematically. Is it right for the private sector to discriminate? How about the public sector? Is it right for the public sector to discriminate based on a person’s caste or any other attribute not related to the job at hand? What exactly does one mean by ‘discrimination’? And is there a distinction between the discrimination practiced by the state as opposed to that by an individual? Does the state have a compelling interest in discrimination which the individual does not have, and vice versa? Answers will surely differ depending on who is questioned. My answers to them are of the unpopular variety.

The state should not discriminate against a person because each citizen matters as an individual, and the individual’s membership (often involuntary) in any specific group must not either privilege or disadvantage him or her in any way in dealings with the state. Discriminating for or against a person because the person happens to belong to a group is wrong in principle and leads to significant harm in practice. This principle implies that while an individual’s (voluntary or involuntary) membership in any group may be of concern to that individual, that fact should be immaterial to the state.

Thus while I may belong to the minority group of Pastafarians and enjoy the rights, responsibilities, duties and privileges that accompany being a Pastafarian, the state should not take cognizance of that fact. It should treat me just as if there is no such thing as a Pastafarian. To the state, Pastafarianism is something that does not exist and the group called Pastafrians doesn’t concern the state at all.

Policies must not be made that seek to elevate (or reduce) the status of Pastafarians in society. When considering whether a particular person was unfairly treated in the marketplace or wherever, the state should consider that person’s membership (or non-membership) in the Pastafarian group a matter of supreme indifference.

Individuals exist as a fact; groups are an abstraction and do not exist in fact. This is analogous to the existence of the heights specific individuals, whereas the existence of an average height of a group of individuals is an abstraction and there is no such thing as the average height.

To underline my position: The state must stop viewing its citizens as members of various groups; it must only consider individuals and value them equally irrespective of race, sex, or other group memberships. The state must not label anyone as a member of a minority group and then proceed to discriminate for or against them.

There is much more I have to say to the matter of state sponsored discrimination based on group membership. I will not go into it for the sake of keeping this somewhat manageable.

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What about an individual’s right to discriminate against another? I consider it a fundamental right that arises from the foundational principle of individual freedom. Individual freedom arises from the axiomatic position that each individual owns himself and his property. You cannot take away his property through coercion, threat or any physical or mental harm. The individual is sovereign and even the state must not have the power to coerce the individual and take away his or her freedom to own himself or herself and to dispose of his property any which way he or she likes.

(This “his or her,” “he or she” constructs are really annoying. So I will eschew it and stick to the masculine gender with the maintained assumption that I mean both sexes.)

Let me spell out my position here. You, as an individual, are free to not hire me based on whatever attribute you consider relevant. You could say that you don’t like my looks (because you only hire with movie star looks), or that you don’t like Pastafarians (as the only group of people you like are those who have not been touched by His Noodly Appendage), or that you detest me because of my libertarian leanings, or whatever. Whom you hire, whom you marry, whom you sit down to share a meal with, whom you raise a toast with, whom you allow into your house or your business premises, . . ., ad nauseum, is entirely up to you. You, the individual, are the boss; not the state or any other group or individual.

The individual can discriminate against anyone or any group to his heart’s content. That’s his right and I will defend that right because I want that right for myself. I don’t want others to tell me who I should marry or hire or work for, or what work I should do or at what rate I should sell my labor or my property, and so on. This position is what I call “universalizable”: no individual would be unhappy if he were the one enjoying this position, irrespective of how others are situated. So by induction, all individuals would be happy to have the position.

In the world that I would like to live in, the individual must possess the absolute right to discriminate.

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Do I discriminate? You bet I do. Have I been discriminated against? You bet. Is that good? Yes, I think it is good because arranging society where individuals have the right to discriminate is consistent with a free society. It is a better society than one where some have the power to force some others to do things against their will.

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But what about the Pastafarians! I hear the cry go out. Won’t someone think of the Pastafarians? What if everyone discriminates against Pastafarians and don’t hire them?

I suppose we do have to think about the Pastafarians. After all, prejudice against groups is nothing new and lamentable as it may be, it cannot be legislated away. I can force you to hire Pastafarians but then it would be coercion. Assuming that Pastafarians are equally good – if not better than others for having been touched by His Noodly Appendage – and make excellent workers, it is still a violation of your right as an individual to force you to hire them.

So what should the state do, seeing the lamentable widespread discrimination against Pastafarians by individuals? The state should do nothing that forces people to drop their prejudice against Pastafarians. If you refuse to hire them even though they are the best in getting the job you want done, it is your decision and if you suffer commercially, it is your choice. You can decide to hire blind non-Pastafarians to fly your planes, for instance, over perfect-visioned Pastafarians, for all that anyone (other than your passengers) could care about. If your planes crash, its your funeral — you are out of business.

Seriously, though, attempting to legislate against discrimination is a silly idea. If there are more job seekers relative to jobs available, firms will have the luxury of turning down those whom they find undesirable. Workplace discrimination is a symptom of the excess supply of labor relative to demand. Because if demand were sufficiently high, firms that discriminate in hiring would lose out.

The study I quoted above about private sector firms hiring higher caste applicants should make us pause to consider why they do that. First, I think it is because demand for jobs outstrips supply, thus affording firms the luxury of discriminating on non-job related attributes. Second, firms are not facing sufficient competition in the marketplace. This means that even by hiring a less competent workforce, they are able to survive.

This brings us to what I think the role of the state is in general. It should create conditions which are conducive to and consistent with vigorous market competition and high productivity. Those conditions at a minimal include economic freedom for people to engage in voluntary trade. With high productivity and market competition, the balance between supply and demand of labor will be better and those employers who discriminate arbitrarily will go the way of the dodo in the Darwinian game of survival. You don’t need legislation to end discrimination; you need economic freedom.

Now what if Pastafarians are being discriminated against because they don’t have the right qualifications? Well then as a group they have not been putting enough effort at gaining the qualifications, perhaps. So should the state figure out ways to help the group gain the qualifications? The answer is no because the state should not privilege any group. What the state should do is to help individuals if needed, irrespective of the individual’s group affiliations. Absent other reasons, economic barriers are the most significant that prevent individuals from realizing their full potential. The answer to that is to assist those who need financial assistance.

To reiterate my position: The state should forget groups and just focus on the individual. Individuals must be free to engage in voluntary trade and discriminate to their heart’s content.

I have said my piece and now I leave it up to you.

  • http://www.ranjanblog.com ranjanvarma

    I normally have an attention deficit disorder when reading long passages. This post was an exception.

    All we need is economic freedom to be facilitated by the State. But isn’t the State infested with individuals who have their own discriminations? (You don’t have anything against individual discrimination!) Where do we draw the line between State discrimination and discriminations by individuals representing the State?

  • Amit

    You are right Atanu. Look what the state interference with the slavery issue in the US has done to the people in the South – thousands dead in a civil war, and many of them as of today still foster a resentment and long for the good old days when they ruled like kings. Now we can’t really have all that resentment in an individual, because it does him and his “freedom” no good. Poor Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott – done in by the grave injustices by the state and coerced into letting go of slavery.
    /sarcasm off

    As for your example of blind pilots – here’s where it differs from real-life. Before you buy a ticket or board a plane, do you send in a questionnaire to the company asking them whether the pilot on the plane is not blind/has good eyesight, and the company has taken measures to ensure passenger safety? Will the company be transparent and make this information of a blind pilot available to passengers before they decide to buy a ticket? How about those passengers who die as a result of the company hiring a blind pilot? Sure, I’m all for freedom as long as the company is transparent and provides full disclosure to customers. How often does that happen in real life? I mean state regulations are not really stopping a company from telling the truth, are they?

    All these Ayn Randian ideas are well and good in theory, but as long as we have dishonest sellers, we’ll have buyer’s beware (in the form of state restrictions). Once there are honest sellers, there won’t be a need for buyer’s beware.

    And one thing I don’t understand is how does an idea of individual freedom mutate into full freedom for a corporation – an abstraction & a collective that has done more to limit individual freedom in modern history than any other entity. Very twisted.

  • Amit

    One more thing. Where does this bogeyman of the “state” come from? Please correct me here, but in a democracy, I’m assuming you mean government when you use the term state. The elected officials (individuals) who make up the government do get input from rest of the individuals on a regular basis (that is, if those individuals choose to do so), and make decisions keeping those views in mind. So, why set up this “us” vs. “them” dichotomy between individual and government? I don’t really see it that way – and yes, I don’t agree with all the decisions that my elected officials may make, but I have the means to give them feedback. A healthy democracy requires constant and continuous participation by its citizens.

  • Sameer

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

    I was watching a documentary about Thomas Jefferson’s life and then went and read the full declaration of independence again. One thing I realized that the phrase above in inherently not “true” in some sense. Men (and women) are NOT created equal, the “random draw” (a phrase you use so often) of conditions they are born in (caste, country etc.) and handicaps imposed by genetic and other natural causes inherently makes everyone unequal and unique. What then did Jefferson mean by all men are created equal?

    I think what he mean was neither the “state” nor individuals should be allowed to treat other individuals as unequal based on qualities that were in some sense beyond the individual’s choosing. These include things such as gender, race, caste, religion etc. Particular qualifications required for a job are to a large extent under the individual’s control. Hence one can discriminate against people on the basis of particular qualifications.

    Also I agree with Amit above in that this distinction between “state” and the individual is kind of false in this matter.

    If an individual owns a restaurant and refuses to serve people of certain race or caste… are you saying that this would be OK? Further if I am getting what you are saying, existence of such restaurants which discriminate against people of certain race or caste indicates a shortage of restaurants because otherwise market economy will weed out those restaurants which discriminate. Why does this somehow seem counterintuitive? I mean on the one hand I can see your point… but on the other I still feel that what the restaurant owner in my example is doing should be unlawful! Could you explain more?

  • Amit

    Individuals must be free to engage in voluntary trade and discriminate to their heart’s content.

    Where in today’s world do you see examples of two individuals engaging in trade (one example is when I get my hair cut by a barber)? Almost always, at one end is a powerful corporation, and not-so powerful individuals at the other end. Or governments engaging in trade agreements. And a corporation is not an individual.

    Some more questions.

    If the owner of a pharmaceutical company holding patents for a life-saving drug (no one else has come up with it) decides to discriminate based on some arbitrary criteria that has nothing whatsoever to do with its profits/revenues, and limits the sale only to certain individuals that he sees fit, how do you account for the loss of human lives because of this decision? And by the time free market corrects the situation, if it does, how about the people who lost their lives because of non-availability of drugs through a decision that had nothing to do with economics?

    There’s talk of privatizing fire-stations in the US. What if tomorrow the only fire-station in my town refuses to come to my house when it catches fire because I’m brown (and they decide to discriminate against browns)? You could say that I have recourse to courts, to sue them or start a new fire-station that will serve browns (or a fire-station that won’t discriminate), but what about my family that was burnt alive because of the fire-station not responding?

    I think you are being disingenuous by using the word “coercion” because it always has a negative and restrictive meaning associated with it (no one likes to be coerced) and then cleverly use it to justify free trade and discrimination.

    Which is not to say that the society doesn’t place some restrictions, or that governments are perfect, but you’re not taking into account all the benefits that an individual gets from living in a society. I mean if I live on my private island all by myself, I have full freedom and zero coercion as compared to another individual living in a current democratic society.

    Is it a coercion that I’m forced to drive on the right side of the road when I want to drive on the left? Is my “freedom” to drive on the left side being curtailed by the “state” or the tyranny of the majority (damn those right-side drivers)?

    You haven’t addressed another v. important point – “concentration of power in the hands of a few is never good for the individual or the society.” This has been proven time and again. What happens to corporations and individuals under your theory?

    Maybe you should spend a few months on the freedom ship, test out the pragmatism of your theory and then write about it. ;) :)