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Droit, économie et discrimination


  • Patricia Charléty
  • François Contensou


Discrimination usually has a pejorative connotation. It is generally associated with injustice that should be compensated by more equality or even positive action. In fact, the same term of “discrimination” is used in various contexts, with different causes and consequences. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on this important issue through an economic approach. We examine two fields where discrimination is frequently observed : the market for goods and services, and the labour market. In the market for goods and services, firms often charge different prices for different groups of consumers. Prices vary across countries, ages groups... While it is true that companies benefit from this policy, it does not follow that consumers suffer from discrimination. In fact, groups who would be excluded from the market by a too high single price but buy it when the firm discriminates gain. These groups may well represent the less wealthy part of the population (for example allowing a lower price for drugs in poorer countries help these populations). In general, the welfare consequences of price discrimination are ambiguous, and there are actually cases where everyone (the firm and all consumers) gains. Thus economic analysis has no decisive argument against price discrimination in the market for goods and services as it may actually contribute to a more efficient and egalitarian distribution. The same argument does not apply to labour market. However, it is important to stress that discrimination based on gender or ethnics, which should be condemned, may derive from economic rationality. For example, an employer who is planning to invest in the employee’s human capital may rationally favour candidates expected to stay long enough in the company. This typically is less likely to be the case for young women who therefore will be disadvantaged on the basis that, statistically, they leave more frequently for obvious reasons. Discrimination may also result from self fulfilling prophecies : if everyone believes that women are bad drivers, women may actually refrain from driving, and no observation will contradict the beliefs which are therefore confirmed. Similar situations may prevail in the labour market and lead to discrimination against some minorities. In such cases, policies aiming at fighting discrimination (such as affirmative action) may well harm the segments of population the people they intended to help. It is therefore important to understand the discriminating mechanism at play : preconceptions should not be dealt with in the same manner as decisions of rational agents.

Suggested Citation

  • Patricia Charléty & François Contensou, 2007. "Droit, économie et discrimination," Revue internationale de droit économique, De Boeck Université, vol. 0(4), pages 389-414.
  • Handle: RePEc:cai:riddbu:ride_214_0389

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