Policy of Preference: Lessons from India, the United States, and South Africa

By Tummala, Krishna K. | Public Administration Review, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Policy of Preference: Lessons from India, the United States, and South Africa


Tummala, Krishna K., Public Administration Review


Has the sanguine public policy of preference turned out to be a political soccer game? Has it been a victim of ideological fights? Can it undo the past? In India, it has become a tool of competitive populism. In the United States, it has been subjected to the ideological positioning of the Supreme Court and with all types of backlash, the policy appears to be in the doldrums. In South Africa, it is turned on its head with the majority enjoying preference resulting in the flight of the minority "white tribe." Given all the tribulations, can altruism be rescued from politics?

All modern nations have tried to reach out to minorities in an effort to make their public service more representative. Such efforts are known by several names, the most commonly used being affirmative action. This article briefly compares the experience of three different nations in an effort to get a better handle on the issues revolving around this important public policy. The article provides a brief rationale for affirmative action, describes the policy initiatives and the politics of preference, and presents an assessment followed by some concluding remarks.

The three nations chosen here are India, the United States, and South Africa. India, the largest working democracy, in an effort to transform an essentially unequal and hierarchical society into a "Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic" has over the last 50 years embarked upon a serious measure of "reservations" to undo institutionalized social discrimination practiced over the millennia. The United States of America, an immigrant nation and the most stable democracy, has to come to grips with its ethnic diversity and more importantly undo the impact of past discrimination against minorities. South Africa, after a long rule by a tiny minority, has come into the comity of modern democratic nations only recently with the transfer of power to the majority blacks in 1994. While the experience of India and the United States in this context is formidable and long, the South African experience is nascent but important.

While it is not necessary to go into an elaborate discussion of the rationale behind preferential treatment and the criticism of it since much has already been written, it is useful briefly to recall the arguments. Those who support affirmative action argue mainly on four criteria.

First, the concept of compensatory justice implies that the damage done by historical discrimination against some groups either from custom and tradition or through deliberate public policy, should be undone and due compensation should be extended to them.

Second, distributive justice demands that the just distribution of social goods and wealth requires equal opportunity and access to all. Third, social utility theory asserts that everyone in the society has something to contribute and that the society is better off when everyone can participate. This is an argument for inclusion rather than exclusion, which is also quite democratic. Diversity in itself becomes a core value (Rosenbloom, 1998). Fourth, there is the concept of responsiveness, an outcome of the theory of representative bureaucracy, which suggests that if public service personnel become more diverse and representative of all segments of the community, the service itself will become more responsive to the needs of all. In addition, there is an emerging definition of merit based not solely on test scores, which may or may not be valid, but on an expanded concept of deserving in other ways.

There are numerous arguments against affirmative action. The first is that of reverse discrimination, which argues that an effort in the present to prefer a minority in order to undo previous discrimination, perpetuates discrimination even though it is now being practiced on a different group. Second is the "make whole" argument, which posits that at best, preference should be given only to those individuals who actually experience discrimination and not to the whole class of which they are a part because some numbers of that class may be quite successful and well off. …

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