Speaking of Freedom

The fear seems to concern the width of the definition of freedom of speech:

Those who embrace it completely, fear that the definition would narrow in the face of political correctness. In their view, the definition of freedom of speech itself must be free and unconstrained.

Those who have had freedom of speech thrown at their faces as an excuse for receiving further marginalisation fear that it will still remain wide enough to let through the ones who use that freedom as an official licence for bigotry and ignorance.

There are as well, two considerations here. One is the freedom of speech and the other is social violence, through the baggage of history, nuances and the intended message. Those two differ in the sense that unlike freedom of speech which is loud, social violence is often times silent and unheard.

With regards to social violence, it’s not that I don’t know what it feels like – I am a female in a male-dominated field, an Asian as well as a migrant from a Muslim country.


When weighing an issue, one can either consider the objective image of its consequences, or look at it through the reflections of morality.

Sometimes, the object agrees with what is reflected.

It is when they do not concur that one has to prioritise which vista must be preserved and brought to the forefront, not forgetting of course, that both views are different realities of the same source.

I was brought up in a country that had no tradition of free speech, it wasn’t taught in schools and neither was I exposed to the idea in the local media. I grew up not even thinking about it because my country was peaceful and growing.

There was discomfort of course, but the discomfort was not uncomfortable enough as to warrant a clamouring for freedom of speech and risk imprisonment. Thus, to my embarrassment, my lack of awareness had prompted me to recently study the origins of the freedom of speech (which I would thoroughly recommend everyone to do).

The key takeaway that I derived from that foray was that one, it was and still is for many countries, a difficult idea to adopt and nurture. Therefore, those countries that have been successful are in the trusted position to protect the idea and to make sure that the next generation in the universities understand how precious the idea is.

Furthermore, the idea is still fragile at this stage of humanity. Easy to take for granted and easy to be mutated for perverse results. Our current collective wisdom is still not at the level that the idea of freedom of speech can be trifled with. Ironically therefore, the freedom of interpretation of the freedom of speech must be kept static for the moment.

Perhaps someday, when societies are sophisticated enough, or that we have so conclusively mingled that it would be difficult to differentiate any of us into distinct gender, nationality, races or some other sub-divisions, we can finally be at ease with examining the idea of freedom of speech and achieve a good balance embodying both its form and spirit.

Until then, perverse consequences such as that of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” must be kept in mind.

I read a post this morning,

Loury wrote a furious response pointing out that he is, almost certainly, the world’s most prominent scholar on the topic of racial discrimination and potential remedies, and has been thinking about how policy can remedy racial injustice since before the student’s parents were even born.

An important aspect of his work is that, under statistical discrimination, there is huge scope for perverse and unintended effects of policies. This idea has been known since Ken Arrow’s famous1973 paper, but Glenn Loury and Stephen Coate in 1993 worked it out in greater detail.

Imagine there are black and white workers, and high-paid good jobs, which require skill, and low-paid bad jobs which do not. Workers make an unobservable investment in skill, where the firm only sees a proxy: sometimes unskilled workers “look like” skilled workers, sometimes skilled workers “look like” unskilled workers, and sometimes we aren’t sure.

As in Arrow’s paper, there can be multiple equilibria: when firms aren’t sure of a worker’s skill, if they assume all of those workers are unskilled, then in equilibrium investment in skill will be such that the indeterminate workers can’t profitably be placed in skilled jobs, but if the firms assume all indeterminate workers are skilled, then there is enough skill investment to make it worthwhile for firms to place those workers in high-skill, high-wage jobs.

Since there are multiple equilibria, if race or some other proxy is observable, we can be in the low-skill-job, low-investment equilibrium for one group, and the high-skill-job, high-investment equilibrium for a different group. That is, even with no ex-ante difference across groups and no taste-based bias, we still wind up with a discriminatory outcome.

The question Coate and Loury ask is whether affirmative action can fix this negative outcome. Let an affirmative action rule state that the proportion of all groups assigned to the skilled job must be equal. Ideally, affirmative action would generate equilibrium beliefs by firms about workers that are the same no matter what group those workers come from, and hence skill investment across groups that is equal. Will this happen? Not necessarily. Assume we are in the equilibrium where one group is assumed low-skill when their skill in indeterminate, and the other group is assumed high-skill.

In order to meet the affirmative action rule, either more of the discriminated group needs to be assigned to the high-skill job, or more of the favored group need to be assigned to the low-skill job. Note that in the equilibrium without affirmative action, the discriminated group invests less in skills, and hence the proportion of the discriminated group that tests as unskilled is higher than the proportion of the favored group that does so. The firms can meet the affirmative action rule, then, by keeping the assignment rule for favored groups as before, and by assigning all proven-skilled and indeterminate discriminated workers as well as some random proportion of proven-unskilled discriminated workers, to the skilled task.

This rule decreases the incentive to invest in skills for the discriminated group, and hence it is no surprise that not only can it be an equilibrium, but that Coate and Loury can show the dynamics of this policy lead to fewer and fewer discriminated workers investing in skills over time: despite identical potential at birth, affirmative action policies can lead to “patronizing equilibria” that exacerbate, rather than fix, differences across groups. The growing skill difference between previously-discriminated-against “Bumiputra” Malays and Chinese following affirmative action policies in the 1970s fits this narrative nicely.

The broader point here, and one that comes up in much of Loury’s theoretical work, is that because policies affect beliefs even of non-bigoted agents, statistical discrimination is a much harder problem to solve than taste-based or “classical” bias.

There is more in the post which I would recommend.

Alice and Rabbit were heading to Hatter’s house when they heard the sound of loud crashing and banging.

Alice: Mr Hatter, Mr Hatter! Why are you smashing all the beautiful tea cups?

Rabbit: Yes, Hatter, what’s up with this, ol’ boy?

Mr Hatter had his hammer ready in mid-air, when he heard Alice began to sob and stopped.

Mr Hatter: Why, Alice? Because it’s funny! Don’t worry, stop crying Alice, it’s just a joke.

Alice: But Mr Hatter, we’ve come for tea. How could we now that you’ve broken all the cups?



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