I find this essay troublesome. I have almost no difficulty
with the argument when taken one line at a time. But its basic thrust
seems misguided. Sturm and Guinier lay out a new basis for an affirmative
action public policy in employment and education by setting up "merit"
as an independent policy objective. This seems to point toward a set
of government policies that would likely be even more cumbersome and
invasive than the policies already in place (although they never discuss
specific policy). Moreover, recasting equal opportunity in their terms
would obscure the original justification for affirmative action and
make the existing policy almost incomprehensible to a generation of
Americans who were born after the policies were in place and are increasingly
the sons and daughters of immigrants whose families were not even in
this country at that time.
Historically, equal employment opportunity policy arose
as part of an attempt to dismantle a social system that systematically
sought to stigmatize certain social groups and confine them to subordinate
and demeaning social roles. It began as an effort to dismantle the system
of white supremacy and discrimination against blacks, and was then extended
to the system of male supremacy and discrimination against women. Ultimately,
it has been usedor discussedin relation to other ethnic
and racial minorities, as well as the physically handicapped and gay
men and lesbians. Whether or not white supremacy or male dominance remains
a sufficient threat to justify the continuation of the policy, and whether
or not the other systems of dominance and subordination are sufficiently
invidious to warrant its extension, are debatable. But that, it seems
to me, is the debate we need to have. All of these systems of dominance
and subordination are of course non-meritocratic, but in exactly the
same sense that genocide is murder.
I also have trouble with the way the authors lay out the
issue of meritocracy. It is not clear what they mean by merit. It appears
to mean "economic performance," or relative economic performance.
They are careful to distinguish between test scores and economic performanceindeed
that is a major point of their article. But they seem to imply that
test scores are the primary criteria for judging economic performance
on the job, or for predicting it. I know of no precise figures on how
employment is allocated, but test scores are certainly not the dominant
allocative mechanism; in high-level jobs they are rarely used at all.
The authors also distinguish between actual economic performance and
the performance that would be possible if the job structure and technology
were to be reoriented to take greater advantage of "diversity,"
but here too it is unclear operationally what this might mean. I believe,
in fact, that the economy is being reorganized and reoriented in just
this waybut not toward the kind of diversity that is central to
the social problems with which the authors are concerned.
I do not see reward on the basis of relative economic
performance as an independent moral principle. Much, if not most, of
the difference in economic performance among individuals is due to traits
that have nothing to do with the basic "worth" of people,
such as intelligence, physical prowess, beauty, or social characteristics.
Parents pass these traits on directly, or through the education that
they enable their children to obtain.
Reward on the basis of relative economic performance is,
however, arguably instrumental in the pursuit of principles that
are moral. The argument that it is instrumental in this way is that
it creates a more efficient economic system, one that maximizes national
income and, hence, material well being. That income, once it has been
generated, can then be redistributed in accordance with whatever set
of principles do have moral validity.
The optimal institutional structure for achieving such
a system is a competitive market economy. In such an economy, the agents
have a strong incentive to allocate jobs on the basis of relative economic
performance because they are rewarded for doing so by higher returns
and, in the extreme, punished for failing to do so by bankruptcy. Those
agents, moreover, operate at a level where they have the maximum information
required to distinguish among individual workers. If they nonetheless
fail to allocate jobs on the basis of merit, it may be because the differences
in merit among people are small relative to the costs of making those
distinctions among them, or because the distinctions simply cannot be
made at all. In any case, if employers cannot make this distinction
when they are close to the job and under strong market pressure to do
so, I doubt very much that an external agent would be able to do so.
The kind of surveillance involved in trying to do so, is, moreover,
very costly and invasive, as we have learned in the pursuit of race
and sex discrimination. Exactly what the relationship is (or was) between
these social systems of domination and subordination and the competitive
marketplace has never been precisely clear. What is clear is that the
systems, and the mechanisms and belief structures through which they
were promulgated and maintained, completely overwhelmed whatever competitive
pressure might have countervailed them. There is no reason to believe
that they would have disappeared without the kinds of equal employment
policies we have pursued in the last three decades. It is not clear
that these polices, however costly and invasive, have been sufficient
to eliminate the problem. But the compromises the market made on race
and sexcompromises that virtually every institution in our society
also madedo not invalidate presumptions in favor of the market
Finally, I think there are special dangers in linking
the case for equal employment opportunity to the efficiency of diversity.
The success of the American economy in the 1990s is arguably
due to the increasing diversity of its workforce. Certainly, taken company
by company, the labor force in the high-tech industries, which have
fueled the expansion and restored the country to a preeminent position
in global markets, is probably the most ethnically diverse in the world.
The diversity has probably contributed to the success of these companies
in several ways: it has made it possible for them to draw upon a high-quality,
extremely flexible labor force; it has contributed to the creative tensions
that foster the development of new and innovative products; and it has
made the companies more attuned to the foreign markets in which these
products are sold. Many of these factors can be measured, and eventually
it will become possible to test the contribution of diversity to economic
performance of companies in a relatively precise way. There is already
a movement in this direction within the accounting profession as part
of the effort to better reflect the role of high-level human resources
in the value of particular companies in the new economy.