Quebec Senator CÃ©lineÂ Hervieux-Payette wants to force corporations, parent Crown corporations and some financial institutions to have their boards of directors include at least 40 per cent women. She is reintroducing a private member’s bill into the Senate to remedy what she views as proof positive of discrimination against women. (A Financial Post survey found that women comprised 14 per cent of directors at the 500 largest corporations in 2009.)
Critics of Ms. Hervieux-Payette’sÂ plan will bristle at further extending government into private sector decisions. They will point accusingly to the decline in productivity that would result from business decisions based on gender, not merit. Braver voices may even whisper that it is women who are currently privileged under law; it is men who are falling behind.
But if the past is prelude, the critics will fall silent at precisely the moment they should speak out most loudly. This is the moment at which the ‘gender justice’ card is played. A quota system is necessary, it will be argued, because discrimination against women runs rampant throughout Canadian society. Gender justice demands that business elites be forced to pry open ‘their clubhouse’ door and rectify centuries of exclusion.
This is the point of discussion at which it is crucial to notÂ cede the moral high ground. Ms. Hervieux-PayetteÂ is absolutely wrong, both politically and morally. Her bill is a piece of social engineering that ranks genitalia above merit. It is a travesty Â that asks parents to legally privilege daughters at the expenseÂ of sons. It is also a violation of human rights.
Happily, the chance of this bill passing is slight. Nevertheless, its best chance lies in the mistaken belief that it represents justice.
The Flawed Politics of Quotas
On its surface, a demand for the ‘fair’ representation of women throughout society sounds like a call for equality and justice. It is not. Or, rather, the call reflects a specific definition of ‘equality’ and of ‘justice’ that conflicts with how most people use the words.
Politically speaking, the traditional view of ‘equality’ argues simply for equal rights; that is, for a society in whichÂ every individualÂ is equal under the law, with no one privileged or disadvantaged. Under equality, a great many inequities in who holds wealth and power would naturally occur; they would arise Â due to a multitude of factors including innate ability, character, hard work and sheer luck. In terms of women, a much-underrated factorÂ is that we are the ones who give birth. This dramatic difference from men is a key to understanding how women relate to society and especially within workplace. For example, several studies have found that the wage gap results largely from women’s preference for jobs with flexible hours and other circumstances that facilitateÂ a family life. If true, then the wage gap doesn’t indicate injustice but rather the freedom of women to choose.
The preceding is not how Ms. Hervieux-PayetteÂ uses the words ‘equality’ and ‘justice’. Her view of equality is sometimes called egalitarianism. Equality is definedÂ as an outcome in which people are politically, economically and socially equal, in which wealth and power are ‘fairly’ distributed. (Ms. Hervieux-Payette’s first bill to mandate Board of Director quotas specified a 50 per cent representation for women; the lower figure in the second one is a bow to political expediency.)
Winston Churchill once distinguished between the two competing visions of equality in his typically pithy manner, “‘All men are created equal’ says the American Declaration of Independence. ‘All men shall be kept equal’ say the Socialists.”
Being created equal means that every human being, simply by being human, has identicalÂ rights that the government is requiredÂ to recognize and protect equally. It results in a society in which people rise or fall on merit; and government gets out of the way. Â Being kept equalÂ is a revolt against nature. It requires massive and permanent intrusion by government in order to redistribute wealth and power.
The Immorality of Quotas
People have the basic human right to evaluate facts, reach their own conclusions and live peacefully according to them. A common expression of this right is who we choose to associate with. The basic human right of free association requires the right to discriminate.
Everyone does it on a daily basis. Our friendships, our romantic lives, our religious affiliations are all expressions of free association. They also involve exclusion. Having dinner with one person means we don’t eat with someone else, joining one church means not attending another. These simple acts express a deep freedom; namely, that no one has the right to dictate to another human being the people with whom they must associate; everyone has the right to reach their own conclusions. Those conclusions may beÂ biased or ignorant and demonstrateÂ poor taste. Nevertheless, in a free society, every individual has the unquestioned right to peacefully walk away from anyone else for any reason.
Quotas deny this right. Through quotas, government bypasses a person’s decision making and imposes the ‘correct’ conclusion upon him or her. The person has no freedom of association if the associates who result are ‘incorrect’.
Why is the stripping of rights from one segment of society in order to enrich another called justice? Why is violating freedom of association seen as morality? The words have been twistedÂ away from their original meaning so that justice requires the violation of rights and morality resides in government making our personal decisions.
Quotas are immoral in yet another way. A friend of mine was passedÂ over for tenure at the university at which he had been teachingÂ for years. He was immensely popular with students and within the department; he boasted a book and had several journal articles to his credit. But he was a white male in a department that ‘needed’ more visible women and minorities in order toÂ retain government funding. Never mind that the woman they hired instead of him was from outside, never mind that she had less experience and fewer credentials. My friend now tells his male students to forget pursuing a degree in the humanities, because “credentials and quality do not matter anymore.” He tells themÂ merit has become irrelevant.
I sincerely hope he is wrong.Â Measures like the one proposed by Ms. Hervieux-PayetteÂ would prove him correct. People need to become blunt and tell the advocates of quotas that they do not speak for equality, justice or morality. They are making a grab for power and privilege. Critics of quotas should lose their hesitancy in arguing the immorality ofÂ quotas. They should insist on a society of true justice in which all individualsÂ â€“ male or female â€“ receive what they deserve, what they merit on the basis ofÂ own worth. Not as men, not as women, but as individuals.