There are lots of good arguments against positive discrimination, be it through female quotas for company boards, quota systems in political institutions, affirmative action or otherwise. For a start, it is difficult to find any institution that exactly replicates the demographic composition of society, and we don’t always know the exact reason why a particular group is underrepresented. Too often, we simply suspect discrimination because this has become the default assumption. But if the actual reason is something else entirely, legislation would impose costs for no gain. Moreover, it is rarely the case that every single member of a group is disadvantaged. Legal privileges are more likely to serve the well-placed individuals within the group, who would have done well anyway, rather than the genuinely disadvantaged. Then, there are the side effects, such as the resentment which preferential treatment causes. And the list goes on.
To be fair, not every proponent of positive discrimination sees the public as prejudiced bigots, who need to be re-educated by wise legislators. Some of them think of their policies as a one-off correction, necessary to break up a pattern of path dependency. What’s wrong with giving it a temporary try? It need not remain in place forever, they argue.
The problem is that once granted, positive discrimination is here to stay, even if nobody remembers the reason why it has originally been granted. And here is a curious example that illustrates this point:
Following the recent state election, the Northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein is now heading for a new government coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and the SSW, a regional party commonly referred to as the ‘party of the Danish minority’. This coalition would be impossible if it were not for a special privilege that only the SSW enjoys: they are exempt from the 5% threshold which keeps small parties out of parliament. In practice, this exemption guarantees a permanent presence in the state parliament, not a bad deal for a party that has never reached 5% of the votes since the late 1950s.
If the term ‘Danish minority in Northern Germany’ sounds weird, that’s because it is. The Schleswig-Holstein Danes are probably the only minority in the world that is indistinguishable from the majority population, be it in physical appearance, social indicators or lifestyle issues, unless one counts their use of an ø instead of an ö. If the political privilege for the SSW did not exist, nobody would call for its introduction today. It evolved out of a very specific historical context, which has long become obsolete, but it continued to exist for one simple reason: because it was already there. A very small minority (the party members) defended it loudly, while for the majority, it was no more than an oddity that did not bother them a lot. Or at least until last Sunday - because now, a party which would not even be in parliament under normal conditions will be part of the next state government.
Boardroom quotas would probably evolve in exactly the same way. They are a trendy, touchy-feely subject, which is why a party that is keen on ‘detoxifying’ its nasty image is naturally drawn to them. But once introduced, such a provision would be set in stone forever - even if a few years down the line, progressives have found some other victim group to defend, and nobody quite remembers why these quotas were ever introduced.