Equality of Opportunity, Not of Outcome

Equality of Opportunity, Not of Outcome
Profile photo of Wendy McElroy

Quebec Senator Céline 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’s 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 not  cede the moral high ground. Ms. Hervieux-Payette is absolutely wrong, both politically and morally. Her bill is a piece of social engineering that ranks genitalia above merit. It is a travesty  that asks parents to legally privilege daughters at the expense 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 which every individual 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  due to a multitude of factors including innate ability, character, hard work and sheer luck. In terms of women, a much-underrated factor 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 facilitate 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-Payette uses the words ‘equality’ and ‘justice’. Her view of equality is sometimes called egalitarianism. Equality is defined 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 identical rights that the government is required 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.  Being kept equal 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 be biased or ignorant and demonstrate 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 twisted 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 passed over for tenure at the university at which he had been teaching 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 to 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 them  merit has become irrelevant.

I sincerely hope he is wrong.  Measures like the one proposed by Ms. Hervieux-Payette 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 of quotas. They should insist on a society of true justice in which all individuals – male or female – receive what they deserve, what they merit on the basis of own worth. Not as men, not as women, but as individuals.

  • Christina

    I find Ms. Hervieux-Payette to be incredibly insulting to women. Does she think that we are too stupid to achieve something great through our own merit and therefore need special laws to put us in top positions?

  • Michael McConkey

    First to Roacho’s concluding question: unfortunately, I suspect you cannot. Where that leaves us, I’m not quite sure.

    To Chris, jeez, why didn’t I ever put that two and two together? One of those things that seem so obvious once it has been pointed out. Thank you for posting it.

    And, of course, Wendy: Regarding the friend you reference toward the end, tell me about it sister. And if the white male also happens to be an uncompromising free marketer, the humanities are just stacked way, way too against you. Though, I’m not bitter; I’ve come to terms with it.

    I know there’s a limit to what you can do with space size on, but a few things that readers might also take account of: 1) the consequences of evolutionary psychology and biology: the math of reproduction is obviously such that a species can far more easily afford to lose a larger number of males than it can females, while maintaining maximum reproductive potential. Thus, evolutionarily, nurturing women and risk-taking men have had adaptive advantages through the long mist of our species history.

    2) No free market business can survive if it doesn’t pay pretty close to productivity. If some are paid above their actual productivity, others must be paid below theirs. So, who is going to be most peeved when Mary gets paid the same salary as Paul, despite the fact that she is always out the door at 5 pm to pick up her kids from day care and never is willing to go on the long, gruelling business trips, while Paul takes the trips and burns the midnight oil at the office, getting ahead in the work: Paul, Mary or Jennifer? Oh, didn't I mention Jennifer? She is Paul’s wife, who chose to either work more balanced hours or to stay home and has to suffer the long absences of Paul from her and the kids. I think it just might be Jennifer pissed off that the family isn’t being properly compensated for the hardship she and her children endure for the long absences of husband and father.

    Finally, 3), I’ve never done the primary research on this and am happy to be corrected on the details if someone knows them better, but my understanding – I’ve heard versions of this from Walter Block, Thomas Sowell and even Steven Pinker – in both Canada and the U.S. going back over many decades, well into the 20th century, the pay for never-been-married men and women is virtually identical. I think it’s like 98 cents to the dollar. If employers had this long history of discriminating against women, why doesn’t it show up in those statistics? Because, as you allude, Wendy, and evolutionary biology would predict: most women rank intimate child care as a higher preference than they do career (or than do men). And the Marys of the world just aren't as productive.

    Anyway, just some additional thoughts. Thanks for the article, Wendy.

  • Roacho

    It is nauseating to think that all of McElroy's points would be countered with the same patriarchal boogeyman. To "Businesses who discriminate against women will be less productive," the statist feminist crowd would say: "that just shows how problematic and irrational the patricarchal boys club is!" To "the wage gap is the result of marriage and child bearing" they say: "No! Women are forced into this position by patriarchy!"

    The statist feminists redefine force and aggression as participation in any action that doesn't suit their values; then conclude that any women who choose to be stay at home mothers or nurses are brainwashed. My question, Ms. McElroy, is why don't more women find this type of feminism insulting? Further, the entire patriarchy theory seems to cover up all its weaknesses with more alleged oppression. This is in like manner to any good conspiracy theory. If every argument is countered with an Orwellian kind of "freedom to choose is enslavement in a patriarchal illusion" double speak, it seems debating this subject can't be fruitful. How can I sell freedom to people that employ this line of reasoning?

    • Kratch

      " is why don't more women find this type of feminism insulting?"

      Because many women have been taught to remain in solidarity with the feminist concept while dismissing idea's that they don't agree with as a different branch of feminism. You will often hear feminists say "not all feminists are like that", or "there are different kinds of feminism". They fool themselves into ignoring the fact that by maintaining a solidarity with feminism in general, they are in fact supporting those idea's that they don't agree with. After all, when those feminists with opposing idea's claim those idea's are feminist ideas, and then point to the vast feminist following (which includes those who don't agree with those ideas but stay feminist non-the-less), it gives credence to the idea.Think about it, Christina Hoff summers (well known for her activism on behalf of men) and Andrea Dworkin are both identified as feminists, yet have two completely different (and highly conflicting) ideals. Yet anyone pushing an agenda as a "feminist goal" could point to both of them as supporters, as they are both feminists. Feminism has maintained an intentionally vague self identity for this very purpose.

  • Chris

    Anyone else find it funny that the same liberal academic crowd who demand we meet gender quotas are often the same group who insist that gender is an entirely artificial construct? Which is it: An objective category that must be bureaucratically administered by the state or an arbitrary invention of patriarchal oppressors? Good thing logical consistency isn’t these people’s strong suit or this might prove a stumbling block for their agenda.

    • lemoutongris

      I never noticed… but you're absolutely right. Just look at Québec Solidaire (Quebec's provincial socialist party). They clamour they are more women than men as candidates, and yet many of their people protest against pornography and fashion, that "victimize" women

  • Alex

    I am late to read this article and I spot no comments. I can only conclude that every reader finds the article, as I do, absolutely correct.

Profile photo of Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy is the author of XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press,1995), Sexual Correctness: The Gender-Feminist Attack on Women, (McFarland, 1996), The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998), and Queen Silver: The Godless Girl (Prometheus Books, 2000), and Individualist Feminism of the Nineteenth Century (McFarland, 2001). Her most recent book is a new anthology, Liberty for Women, (Ivan R. Dee, 2002). Her book on prostitution, Le Gambe Della Liberta, has just been published in Italian by the publisher Leonardo Facco

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