No reservations on reservation

THE great Thomas Paine, political philosopher, pampheleteer and author of Rights of Man, made a simple but eternally wise observation in The American Crisis, when he said: ‘What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.

No reservations on reservation

Protests against quota are based on a hierarchical view of ‘merit’.

S Subramanian

THE great Thomas Paine, political philosopher, pampheleteer and author of  Rights of Man, made a simple but eternally wise observation in The American Crisis, when he said: ‘What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.’ How true this is for an appreciation of the mounting resistance in recent times, amongst our upper castes and classes, to the notion of reservation for disadvantaged groups in education and employment! As long as seats in professional colleges and top jobs in government or the public sector were the near-exclusive prerogative of those on top of the heap, these were ‘obtained too cheap’, and ‘esteemed too lightly’; but with quotas for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, not to mention (horror of horrors!) quotas for the Other Backward Classes, seats and jobs hitherto taken for granted have begun to acquire a tangible value bestowed on them by their newly perceived ‘dearness’. 

The phenomenon is not dissimilar to the West’s initially relatively easy tolerance of the influx of cheap manual labour into its countries, and the evolution of that tolerance, as job markets became tighter and the prospect of unemployment and low wages more imminent, into resistance, distrust, competitive rejection and outright spite vis-à-vis the invading hordes. Of course, it will not do to admit to such ignoble motivations: the resistance has to be rationalised and justified in the reasonable language of logic and morality. In what follows, I will present two standard arguments that have been levelled against affirmative action or compensatory discrimination, and I will indicate why, in my opinion, these arguments are deficient.

A first major objection to reservation in education and employment is that it will compromise ‘efficiency’. This is at least a little surprising, and for at least two reasons. The first has to do with the widely acknowledged principle in economics that the greatest enemy of ‘efficiency’ is a monopoly. Monopolies and oligopolies retard efficiency just as competition promotes it. ‘The more competitors the less inefficiency’ is as applicable to the product market as in other areas of human conduct: caste-based monopolies of privileged positions in education and jobs are best subjected, in the interests of efficiency, to dilution through deliberate inclusion. A second reason has to do with the apparent obtuseness, which informs the views of many anti-reservationists, to the inefficiency of institutions that is so cardinal a feature of an Indian reality which is presided over by India’s upper castes and classes. Surely, the auctioning of medical and engineering seats to the highest bidder, and therefore to one who is a beneficiary of blind luck and the accident of birth, is no argument in favour of efficiency! Surely, efficiency is not best served by according patronage to private medical colleges in exchange for bribes — and yet witness the arrest, in 2010, of the president of the Indian Medical Council on corruption charges! And surely, these aspects of violence to the notion of efficiency have nothing whatever to do with reservation!

A second, and related, objection to reservation is that the latter violates justice by compromising ‘merit’. An often inexplicitly articulated rider to the proposition is that the presence of merit is an ‘intrinsic’ feature of the upper castes and classes, just as its absence is an ‘intrinsic’ feature of the lower castes and classes. Again, there are at least two reasons why it makes sense to resist objections of this nature. First, it is a very restricted aspect of justice that is involved when we invoke the notion of ‘merit’: this is the notion of ‘justice as desert’. Justice as desert is violated and merit compromised when, with other things remaining equal, the less meritorious candidate is privileged over the more meritorious one for considerations that may have to do with, say, the ability to pay, as distinct from the ability to perform. We have no such problem to contend with when we deal with affirmative action: typically, and among other things, comparisons in this context are not mediated by the ‘other things being equal’ clause. Indeed, what is involved is not a conception of ‘justice as desert’: more compelling notions of justice which are apposite to the issue under review are those relating to ‘justice as fairness’ or ‘justice as answering to need’ or ‘justice as rectification of injustice’.

Secondly, the view of ‘merit’ as a racial or ethnic or caste characteristic is a baneful one that is founded entirely in prejudice, superstition and ignorance. Not surprisingly, the view has been systematically sought to be bolstered, in one way or another, by allegedly ‘scientific’ evidence in its cause. The sciences most abused in the process have been biology and statistics. ‘Intelligence’ as a measure of intrinsic ability has been a much favoured workhorse in theories of ‘merit’. In the 18th and 19th centuries, phrenology — the study of character traits and mental ability based on cranial examination — gained a great deal of ground. The study of skulls was buttressed by the study of statistical distributions of attributes. The ‘Normal Distribution’ (also known as the ‘Bell Curve’ because of its distinctive resemblance to the symmetric shape of a bell) is a profoundly ingenious invention (concerning the statistical regularity of certain empirical distributions) of the great 19th century mathematician Carl Gauss. It is also, most regrettably, an invention that has been employed to serve some of the most perniciously unscientific theses of statistically significant differences in intelligence attributable to differences in racial origin. Indeed, the currency of such views is evident in as recent a publication, in the year 1994, as the influential book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray. An enormously principled repudiation of the ‘science’ underlying such views of the distribution of ability in the world is contained in the wonderful book The Mismeasure of Man by evolutionary biologist Stephen Gould.    

‘Merit’-based arguments against reservation are ultimately based on a hierarchical view of the world that converges, without too much difficulty, on other world-views such as ‘speciesism’. The assumed intrinsic superiority of humans over other animals is not far distant from the assumed intrinsic superiority of certain types of humans over other types of humans. ‘Casteism’ is a specialised form of ‘speciesism’, and shares much of the casually cruel features of the latter, whereby the rights of the disadvantaged are dismissed as being undeserved privileges conferred on ‘naturally’ different (that is, inferior) beings. 

What else can explain a mentality that can bring itself to equate the burning alive of two beautiful Dalit babies with the stoning of a dog? — a mentality that finds the harming of animals and the setting ablaze of children to be morally inconsequential? 

— The writer is National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research


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