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In the past few months, there have been lots of discussions about the necessity for political representatives to reflect their constituencies not only in terms of the ideas they defend, but also in terms of social categories in the broadest sense. Since that one has been floated around recently – and because it is worryingly popular – I’ll take as example the case of  feminine representation. Be aware that I consider however that my arguments hold in discussions about representing any social category.

A prime example of this concern was the nomination of the President of the European Council and of the High Representative for foreign affairs. During the build-up to the actual nominations, it was frequently stated that a major goal during the nominations was to ensure correct gender representation. And this, in turn, greatly impacted the choice of the person for the latter role. The consequence of this is that the nominated person might be representative of her constituency, but is just not fit for job – she doesn’t have the credentials to do it right. Aiming for “representativeness of representatives” can only lead to mediocre representatives.

This is lunacy raised to an art form. Here’s why.

The goal of representation in the political arena

It seems lost on many people that the goal of representation in the political arena is to represent the will of We the People. Put in other words, the aim is to represents people’s ideas, not who or what they are. This is not some sort of marketing oriented statistical population selection. Politics is not about reflecting what people look like, how they live or what they do. It’s about what they believe is good for society.

People are people

Couldn’t resist the urge to quote a Depeche Mode song. Anyway, people, however you may wish to categorize them for whatever dark purpose, are individuals. They have their own life, make their own choices, hold their own ideas.

Thinking that a specific characterization – gender, race, hair colour or shoe size – will adequately capture a set of common ideas is basically denying that people are complex entities, for sure influenced by a certain amount of determinations, but essentially defined by their own free will.

Some will feel the need to argue for social determinations, or even genetics, and try to convince us that free will is an illusion. Well, apart from my total rejection of such metaphysics, you can’t escape the single obvious fact, observable in everyday life, that there is no single social category that can adequately provide for the prediction of a person’s beliefs. Case in point: the single person with which I hold the most common beliefs is my dearly beloved. And apart from the obvious fact she is a woman and I’m not, we have enormous differences in our social backgrounds.

So at the very least, even if someone were to hold on to the dangerously mistaken notion that free will is an illusion and our beliefs are determined, they would have to admit this determination is chaotic and thus, unpredictable.

Social categories are represented anyway

By the way, in the political arena at least, social categories are represented. In case somebody didn’t notice, voting rights in our societies are not limited to any specific social category (except children and sometimes convicts). So, to take the example of women, holding that our representatives should comprise more women “to express the voice of women” is clearly absurd. The voice of women has already been expressed – in ballots.

And for those who have decidedly not been paying attention, there have been high-profile women in politics for decades, both across the world (Thatcher, Gandhi, Clinton or Meir to name but a few) and closer to home (just look at party presidents in Belgium).

Do you really want to represent all social groups?

Just for fun, let’s imagine the idea that our representatives should exactly reflect the social categories of their constituencies is correct. What would that mean, and where would we stop?

How about ensuring hair colours are adequately represented? Sexual orientations (with obvious implications as to full disclosure of all sexual practices)? Shoe sizes? Illnesses and ailments? Criminal records (criminals are entitled to be represented too after all)? Homeless politicians? Politicians in a coma?

Of course, there could be no such thing as professional politicians, because all professional categories would need to be represented.

And then, of course, most of our representatives would need to be morons, because, let’s face it, most people just aren’t that smart.

Actually, that last one might be achieved already.

The root cause of this idea

At the end of day, people who fuss about how representatives do not match the general population usually have a hidden (often to themselves as well) agenda. And that is trying to get more representation by people they (wrongly) believe will share their ideas. Just can’t accept that their ideas aren’t the dominant ones.

Actually, I can’t either, but I don’t kid myself about it, nor do I try to mess with the system under false pretences.

Final side-note

Of course, if representation were done at a much lower level, this kind of argument would basically disappear. With representation at a very low level and direct democracy as much as possible, there would be little room left to complain about not being heard – you would be heard loud and clear.

Because, guess what? The person that can best represent me is myself.

I’m always terrified by the existence of totally useless or
ridiculous regulations. Here is an example of such a regulation in
french. I haven’t changed a word:

22 MAI 2005. – Arrêté royal portant interdiction de la
mise sur le
marché de jouets de type yo-yo élastique comportant une boule remplie
d’un liquide.

Article 1. Pour l’application du présent arrêté, on entend par yo-yo
élastique : des jouets de type yo-yo constitués d’une matière colorée
très élastique, qui se présentent sous la forme d’un cordon pouvant
s’étirer de manière très importante, doté à une extrémité d’une boule
plastifiée emplie d’un liquide et à l’autre d’un anneau dans lequel on
peut passer un doigt.

Art. 2. Le stockage, l’importation, l’exportation et la mise sur le
marché, à titre gratuit ou onéreux, des yo-yos élastiques sont
interdits.

Art. 3. Il sera procédé au retrait du marché et à la destruction de
ces yo-yos élastiques.

Art. 4. L’arrêté ministériel du 2 mai 2003 portant interdiction de
la mise sur le marché de jouets de type yo-yo élastique comportant
une boule remplie d’un liquide, modifié par l’arrêté ministériel du
30 avril 2004, est abrogé.

Art. 5. Le présent arrêté entre en vigueur le jour de sa publication
au Moniteur belge.

Art. 6. Notre Ministre qui a la Protection de la consommation dans
ses attributions est chargée de l’exécution du présent arrêté.

I am amazed that in Belgium, a regulation is needed to forbid
“yoyo-like toys made out of a colourful stretchy material comprising a
plastic ”ball“ filled with liquid at one end and a ring at the
other”. I am even more impressed that, according to Article 4, it is
the second such regulation. The only goal this type of
regulation might pursue is consumer safety — although there is
no reason to believe that all toys conforming to that
description would be dangerous. But one would think it sufficient to
make producers who’s products generate damages responsible of the
damages (gasp! what a strange idea, civil liability), and eventually
make them pay huge fines if such a damage was predictable. You’d think
that would be deterrent enough. Well, seemingly, that’s not enough for the belgian
government…

I’ve always been opposed to anything resembling positive
discrimination. Positive or negative, it remains discrimination on
inappropriate criteria and should hence be opposed on moral grounds
and on legal ones (it breaks equality before the law). What’s more, it
is totally ineffective and has negative side-effects. The biggest of
these is that positive discrimination undermines the credibility of
the ones favored by it. Typically, if the law establishes a quota of
20% of black students in university, people will logically come to
believe that blacks with a university diploma owe it only to the law
and hence don’t deserve it. This might be true of some: these are the
ones “advantaged” by the law, but the advantage is neutralized by the
prejudice I just described. So on their side of things, nothing has
changed: they have a university diploma, but nobody takes it
seriously, which is the same as having none at all. But the other
ones, those who got through university out of sheer hard work and
talent, those who didn’t need the law in the first place, will suffer
from the prejudice that they succeeded only thanks to the law. Their
situation is hence worse off than before the law.

The second, more obvious, side-effect is that, if the resource given
out (here, university diplomas/grants) is rare, the people evicted to
the “advantage” of the “favored” minority are purely and simply
discriminated against. They have been barred from university only to
favor other people. Excuse-me?

People and European politicians don’t seem to grasp that yet, since we
periodically hear of using positive discrimination in European
society, even though the US have been testing it for 30 years,
noticing it doesn’t work because of the negative side-effects I have
described, and moving away from it.

But it does seem that the reasoning is starting to catch on a bit in
the field of another useless positive discrimination: the one that
forces political parties to present only electoral lists with 50% of
women on it. While for years everyone was ecstatic about this stupid
idea, this article at last starts to state the obvious: this only has
negative effects.

First and foremost, many parties have a tough time fulfilling the
obligation. This entails that they ask each and every woman possible
to be on their lists. The direct consequence of this is that a serious
proportion of these women don’t really care about politics or about
being a politician. Hence they don’t help the campaign. More
importantly, despite what they want, these women might be elected,
even though they don’t care or aren’t competent at all. This is bad
news for the quality of the (in this case local) government. Many of
these uninterested women give up their political mandate as soon as
they can, which is unsurprising.

So what we have right now is many women who are not interested or do
not really think themselves competent on electoral lists. On the other
hand, many men have been asked not to be present on the electoral
lists even though they were deeply motivated and/or competent, because
room had to be made for the uninterested women. So at the end of the
day, the men on the lists are only the most motivated/competent of
men.

If you are a rational person, you can only conclude one thing from all
this: if in doubt, always vote for a man. He is most certainly
motivated if he managed to be on the list, whereas the women most
likely weren’t. Hence, it is highly probable he’ll be a better
politician than the women. In the end, if voters are rational, these
legal rules should prompt them not to vote for women.

The most amusing of all this is that these rules were totally uncalled
for. There have been, in belgian and international politics,
high-profile women for quite a long time, which is proof enough that
there are no significant barriers for them to be successful in
politics. In Belgium, just think of Laurette Onkelinx, Annemie Neyts,
Isabelle Durant, Joelle Milquet, Evelyne Huytebroeck, etc. It is more
likely that the explanation for the weak numbers of women in politics
is something we all notice everyday (and which is proven by the
electoral list fiasco): women are in general less interested in
politics than men. So what?

P.S: I have, for the sake of argument, considered it possible that
politicians be competent and that government be “good”. I doubt both
these assertions. Nevertheless, those who believe in these stupid
rules believe politicians can be competent and that government is a
positive thing and it was thus usefull to work inside of their frame
of reference. For the record, I consider politicians useless and
basically parasites. But I am still enraged by bad rules in how to
pick them, because they can only make things even worse. The fact that
things are bad (we have an extensive government) shouldn’t be an
excuse to let them get even worse (the people who get to govern us are
the worst of the possible options).