The Temptation of Discrimination
Why doesn’t everyone just follow the rules? The obvious answer, in many cases, is that breaking the rules has concrete advantages… if you don’t get caught.
Why do people jaywalk? Because it’s quicker than schlepping to the crosswalk. Why do people steal? Because it’s easier than working for a living. Why do people adulterer? Because forbidden sex is exciting. As long as rules like these exist, many human beings will try to furtively evade them.
On the surface, rules against labor market discrimination have the same structure as rules against jaywalking, stealing, and adultery. We’ve created a whole system of public and private lawsuits to ferret out discrimination. We encourage people to come forward and expose acts of discrimination. Our implicit assumption, apparently, is that human beings yearn to discriminate against others. In the absence of harsh punishment, we’ll succumb to temptation.
My question: What is supposed to make discrimination so tempting? For adultery, we’ve got a crisp evolutionary story: Cheating on your spouse without getting caught has a massive genetic payoff. I just don’t see how discrimination is remotely comparable. How many people really enjoy inflicting unmerited suffering? I can easily believe that people enjoy discriminating when everyone else is doing it; people are sheep, after all. But once discrimination is publicly unacceptable, our evolved desire for conformity ought to push in the opposite direction.
My favorite explanation: what popular culture impugns as “hate” is, by and large, merely misunderstood statistical discrimination. Firms are tempted to discriminate because stereotypes save time and money. If you don’t buy this story, though, I’d like to hear your alternative. If discrimination isn’t lucrative, why are employers continuously tempted to break the law?