Does Bigotry Pay in a Free Market? Absolutely.
Over at the men’s rights blog/on-line magazine A Voice for Men, German writer Jon Gunnarsson identifies what he sees as the flaws inherent with affirmative action.
Gunnarsson is, I suspect, not particularly well known ‘round these parts, but I’ve decided to quote him because he does put into writing rather succinctly an idea I have been hearing more and more on radio, cable news, and the Internet over the past six months. This idea, which I tend to attribute to pseudo-libertarians, is this:
“In a free market, bigotry doesn’t pay. If for instance an entrepreneur [was] a true misogynist and didn’t want to hire women, no matter how qualified they are, then he is passing up opportunities for making profit. His competitors who do hire women will do better than him, making it difficult for him to keep up. If he doesn’t relent, his market share will decrease and eventually he may go out of business.” [Emphasis mine.]
Some version of this talking point seems to be gaining a pretty firm toehold with consumers of electronic media, and because of this I’m going to take a moment to push back by stating the obvious: In free markets, bigotry actually does pay – a lot. In fact, it is primarily the economic rewards of bigotry that make it so deeply ingrained and damned pernicious. Take a look, for example, at the most clichéd examples of business-based bigotry in our own country’s recent history:
Howard Law may have churned out some of the greatest legal minds of their generation from the 1920s through the 1950s, but that didn’t mean that law firms across the country weren’t justifiably worried about losing their biggest clients were they to hire those minds to work on those clients’ behalf. Businesses in the pre-civil-rights South that refused serve African Americans didn’t make less money for their bigotry – they made more; a restaurant owner’s primary motive for having a white’s only seating area (or entire establishment) was profit. In those bigoted communities, allowing economically disenfranchised blacks to sit with far wealthier whites meant losing profitable customers at the expense of ones who couldn’t afford to pay as much. A suburban real estate agency in the 1970s that encouraged African Americans to buy into predominantly white neighborhoods risked having their business shunned by those community members that held the heavier purse strings.
Gunnarsson’s theories about economic pressures might hold up on the sterile world of paper, but so too does every bit of economic theorizing. In reality, though, a bigoted society rewards bigoted business decisions; always has, always will.
Of course, none of this is to say that Affirmative Action is still necessary. And in truth, this is an issue I go back and forth on. Where to draw the line with race is particularly nettlesome, due to our unwillingness to wrap our heads around the issue: As a society, we are really terrible at having honest, self-reflecting talks about our own prejudices and bigotry. Rather, we prefer the easier (but not at all effective) strategy of largely agreeing that such things are black and white (sorry) and that everyone who agrees with us is not a bigot while everyone that disagrees is an example of the very worst kind. Because of this, it’s damned hard to get an accurate handle on where we are, collectively. (Hell, seven years ago I’d have bet you $1,000 that the United States was waaaaay past the stage where a topic as profoundly stupid and racist as Birtherism could actually be a thing we seriously argued about, so what the hell do I know?)
Even in the comparatively easy sex-based subset of affirmative action, it’s hard to know where I should stand. On the one hand, it’s hard for me to look at the Fortune 500 Who’s Who and not notice the lack of non-male (not to mention non-white) faces, or to believe that this is either coincidental or based entirely on merit. On the other hand, Hanna Rosin makes a compelling case in The End of Men when she says that, as a whole, women in the United States today are actually far better economically positioned as potential bread-winners than are men. Also, it’s hard for me to turn a blind eye to things that I suspect might very well be unintended consequence of gender-based affirmative action. One of the great ironies I have noted in my years in risk management is that those industries that champion affirmative action to best secure a place for women in the work force (academia, government employees, white-collar unions) are the last industries where I see regular, systemic sexual harassment flourish unchallenged.
As I said, we’re never going to know exactly where we do or don’t need affirmative action (if anywhere) so long as we continue to fall back on those sophomoric platitudes that serve little purpose save allowing us to feel better about ourselves. This idea that bigotry is inherently not profitable – and it’s unspoken but implied corollary, that profitable businesses can therefore not have bigoted policies – seems to be the fastest growing of these platitudes. It’s in all of our best interests to push back when it comes up.
 I should probably take a moment to note what I mean by pseudo-libertarian:
Since the 2008 election of the Kenyan sleeper agent bent on destroying our very way of life through socialism and Sharia law, social conservatives have doggedly tried to co-opt the descriptive phrasing of libertarian principles, but (and this is important) not the actual principles themselves. Pseudo-libertarians invoke anti-government first-amendment rhetoric when opposing birth control provisions in Obamacare, for example, but are happy to demand that the government interfere with the legal building of mosques. They will self-identify as libertarians as they defend a conservative photographer’s choice to refuse to take a gay wedding on as a client, but conveniently leave that that libertarian moniker at the door when the Episcopal church asks to be allowed to perform same-sex marriages. When I say pseudo-libertarian, I’m thinking Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh – people who I see as very different animals than actual libertarians like Jason Kuznicki.
I should also note that I have no idea if Mr. Gunnarsson is himself a pseudo-libertarian, or if that’s even a thing in Germany.