Becker and Posner deal (here and here) with the affirmative action issue on their blog this week. Interestingly Posner's opposition is more mild, and he leaves open a few possibilities when affirmative action would be justified. Becker, on the other hand, is a staunch opponent.
Becker's grievances are the usual list against the practice. He argues that affirmative action actually hurts minorities in many ways. For example, if we lower the criteria for certain groups, the rational outcome would be less qualified minorities on average in almost every school. This concept, dubbed the mismatch effect, was recently empirically supported by Richard Sander in his work on the effects of affirmative action on Black law students. Like Sander, Becker argues that the mismatch effect results in poorer performance by the minority group, which will often lead to fewer job opportunities.
In what would seem a counterintuitive conclusion Sander concludes that affirmative action in law school actually decreases the overall number of Black lawyers. His argument presumes that being in the bottom of the class will diminish self-esteem and lead many Black students to drop out of school or choose another career.
Moreover, Becker notes that the perception of minorities needing a "boost" leads many to conclude that the individual minority worker is not actually qualified but received his job because of his race. That perception causes many minorities to feel inadequate and has a drastic effect on self-esteem.
Posner's qualified opposition notwithstanding, Becker's complete disapproval seems to flow from the logical outcome of an affirmative action program. Granting minorities benefits at such a late stage in their education career would not likely benefit them. Perhaps more emphasis on elementary school education in minority districts or maybe even vouchers might be more successful in helping a large percentage of minorities reach the average standards of most of society.
On last point: neither Posner nor Becker dealt with the moral issues involved. Should society, to make up for past wrongs, impose new wrongs on members of the ethnic majority? Of course framing the question this way begs the question. So we can look at it this way: if society discriminated against women, would it be wrong to allow women to catch up by implementing programs that give them benefits over men?
I would say no. Granted discrimination existed in the past, but minorities now are (at least legally) on equal par with majorities. They have the same opportunities. Yes, it might take a few generations before minorities are properly represented in most fields. But creating a new form of injustice to rectify past wrongs seems unfair. It's wrong to assume that absent discrimination a minority candidate would be equally qualified with the majority candidate affirmative action programs displace. With everyone able to reach the utmost heights, we should allow the market to work itself out.