The Guardian reports that the Labour party is considering, yet again, introducing quotas to protect the position of women and minority ethnic groups. This time it’s about the English judiciary, but whenever the idea of quotas is mooted, it’s generally intended to protect the position of disadvantaged groups. Good motives, however, do not justify bad ideas. What the proponents seem not to grasp, no matter how many times it’s been shown to be the case, is that quotas are self-defeating – either ineffective, or counter-productive – a thoroughly bad way to respond to disadvantage.
First, quotas are exclusive as well as inclusive – they define who can’t be appointed as well as who can. So, people from the ‘wrong’ minority ethnic group are disadvantaged relative to others from the ‘right’ group. That is the source of a string of cases in the USA, notably Bakke and De Funis. Second, quotas become ceilings. Elster, in Local Justice (1992), compiles a long list of evidence that while quotas may initially help to redress the balance, they shortly become devices to stop the process of equality going any further. Third, even before the ceiling is reached, quotas act to slow down the process of redressing the balance, deterring and limiting applications from the very people they’re supposed to help.
There are decades of evidence to draw on – that’s why quotas were made illegal in the Race Relations legislation of the 1970s. But this is another of those ‘zombie’ arguments. It doesn’t seem to matter how often it’s exploded, cut down, disappeared or confined, it just carries on shuffling towards us.