Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tom Flanagan: It's All About Social Darwinism

Tom Flanagan flaps his lips about human rights law and gets it so ridiculously wrong it's not even funny.

I'll ignore his worship of Ezra Levant - it does nothing to improve Flanagan's credibility.

... we should remember that the existence of the commissions is itself an abuse. They have little to do with genuine human rights such as freedom of speech and worship, security of the person and ownership of property. They are specialized agencies to enforce anti-discrimination legislation, and issues of prejudice and discrimination are far too complex to be resolved by human-rights sloganeering.

Of course, irrational prejudice and discrimination - assessing and treating people as members of categories rather than as individuals - are pervasive realities. We may not be born xenophobic, but we learn xenophobia very easily. The question is what, if anything, government should do about it.


Now, think about this for a minute. Flanagan is essentially saying that freedom from racism, or religious bigotry aren't real rights. Basically your right to be served when you walk into a shop is, in Flanagan's mind, conditional.

In a competitive market, discrimination is costly to the discriminator. An employer who refuses to hire workers because of race, religion or ethnicity restricts his own choices and imposes a disadvantage on his firm. Meanwhile, his competitors gain by being able to hire from a larger pool. The same logic applies to restaurateurs turning away potential customers, or landlords refusing to lease to people of particular categories.


This almost sounds reasonable. Except it also is quite clear that Flanagan has no idea what it means to be part of a minority population. The whole point is not whether a company does itself a disservice when it refuses to deal with someone on the basis of whatever grounds of discrimination they use is actually quite moot. While some ethnic minorities are now large enough to be a significant economic influence on a business' success or failure, a lot of other minority populations are far too small to have any real impact.

Discrimination, when it affects someone's ability to integrate with the broad fabric of society, is a power play on the part of whoever engages in the discrimination. Further, Flanagan fails to recognize the disproportionate impact of discrimination on the individual at the receiving end.

In the examples Flanagan cites, the business denies itself a sale, or possibly the services of a talented employee. However, for the individual on the receiving end, there are both emotional and economic costs to the discrimination.

A person denied service at a shop not only ends up walking away from an emotionally charged situation bearing not only the brunt of someone's ill-chosen ire, but the message that "you don't matter" - repeated often enough, this can have a serious psychological price. Economically, the individual must now spend more time seeking an alternative source for that service. In theory, there is a competitive market, and thus an alternative source which may or may not act in a discriminatory fashion towards them.

When we are talking about a denial of employment, it goes even further. Not only is the emotional price the same, but the individual who would have otherwise got the job if their skin was the right colour, or if their religion was the right one, pays a second price in terms of lost income. It is the loss of income that is by far disproportionately hostile to the recipient of the discriminatory message. A business usually has multiple clients from which to draw income; an individual usually only has one source of income.

The argument applies no matter how rampant prejudice and discrimination may be. Those who discriminate impose burdens on themselves and confer advantages on their competitors. Competitive markets don't immediately abolish discriminatory practices, but they tend to erode them, not by trying to enlighten bigoted people, but by making discrimination unprofitable.


This is a classic argument of the social darwinist. Flanagan misses the point here as well. In essence, he is arguing that the only people who matter when it comes to matters of rights are those who have the economic resources to enforce their will. Consider the smaller minorities in our population - whether it is the sexual minorities, or exceptionally small religious minorities - and ask yourself how tiny percentages of the population can have anything close to the kind of impact that Flanagan seems to think everybody possesses. The answer, in large part, is that they cannot.

Further, Flanagan is dead wrong in his assertion that governmental application of coercive power has no effect on bigots. Just thinking about my own lifetime, I only have to look at my own attitudes and those of the generation just entering the workforce to see a stark, glaring difference. I'm part of the first generation that grew up in the era after Canada decriminalized homosexuality. To my generation, being homosexual still carries some stigma, but nowhere near what it meant to our parents. To the generation just nicely in their early twenties now, being GLBT is almost a non-issue. They are used to the concept, and it doesn't dawn on them to treat their GLBT peers as anything other than equals. This change has taken place in the relatively short span of forty years.

Were the human rights laws that provide recourse for those who find themselves at the receiving end of that discrimination an important part of that change? Absolutely. In fact, if it were not for those very laws, Alberta would still refuse to protect homosexuals. It wasn't so long ago that the coercive force of legislation made it illegal to be homosexual - and at that time, that very law in fact gave gross license to those who are hostile to gay people the free license to engage in both discrimination and violence against GLBT people.

Flanagan frames his argument entirely in the language of economics, and in doing so loses sight of the fact that discrimination affects people in very real and important ways that should not be ignored. Further, he fails to recognize the history that shows beyond question that the state, through legislation, is capable of effecting enormous positive change in social attitudes.

7 comments:

Patrick Ross said...

You're wrong.

Flanagan is saying that freedom from racism or religious bigotry are rights best protected by the free market.

And he's wrong.

For one thing, the unrestrained free market has a dubious record on protecting people's rights. Secondly, by examining discrimination through an economic lens he overlooks the fact that discrimination is unequivocally not a rational act -- economics, meanwhile, assumes rationality is at the core of human decision making.

MgS said...

The point remains that Flanagan's model relies on the supposition that both parties in a "free market" situation are equally empowered.

In essence, Flanagan is saying "if you don't have a big enough economic lever, you don't count". That's pretty much typical social darwinism at work.

Patrick Ross said...

Not really. Flanagan has made the argument that the competitive nature of the free market puts those who discriminate at a disadvantage as they render themselves unable to hire the kind of skilled and talented employees they need in order to succeed.

This is true. What Flanagan overlooks is the fact that those who practice discrimination aren't rational enough to recognize the disadvantage they place themselves at when they do so.

MgS said...

Flanagan's point might make sense - except for the fact that he fails to account for the relative size of the market lever that minority populations represent - as I addressed in my original post.

At the end of the day, Flanagan's hypothesis is wrong, and his work is intellectually sloppy.

Patrick Ross said...

I agree that Flanagan's thesis is wrong, and this particular piece of work academically sloppy.

Flanagan is, I would remind you, an academic, and academics often make the error of treating the world as if it itself is academic.

I would also argue about the cumulative size of minorities in Canada. An individual minority may seem relatively powerless, but once one starts adding up all the minorities that face discrimination in Canada, I'd suggest that minorities are much more powerful than you're giving them credit for.

Their prominent role in our political system is testament to that.

MgS said...

Flanagan's status as an academic is no excuse for allowing himself to be blinded by his ideology.

Further, the fact that he has been a key advisor to the current PM, and continues to play a significant role in his influence over the government's policies makes him a public figure, well outside of academe.

Remember that discrimination tends to happen to individuals. Minority populations are not monoliths and not all people who are part of a minority are in fact connected to a 'broader community' (if there is even such a thing in their locality)

Collectively, some minority demographics constitute significant political forces, but that is far from true across the board.

Patrick Ross said...

Well, there's no question that a lot of people are out to turn Flanagan's opinion into some kind of grounds to denounce the Prime Minister.

But Flanagan is far from alone in terms of academics who allow ideology or partisan fervor to blind them -- Michael Byers is a much more interesting example.

Furthermore, Flanagan's conclusions aren't much different than the conclusions that many -- admittedly extremely untalented -- economists would reach.

All I really have to say to that is thank god Tom Flanagan isn't an economist.