Latest terrible idea: Quotas for “young people” in politics

Democracy, as some of you will know, is a Greek word which means “rule by the people”.

“Irish Democracy”, on the other hand, is an English phrase which means “rule by the right sort of people”:

Quotas for young people in politics, similar to gender quotas, and lowering the voting age to 16, were among the measures needed to attract young people into politics, an online forum heard on Thursday.

Hosted by the trade-union think-tank Tasc and titled Fit for purpose? Does traditional politics work for young people?, it heard from a range involved in activism, the media and the Oireachtas.

Aoife Grace Moore, political correspondent with the Irish Examiner, said she wished there was no need for quotas but “there are so many unconscious biases”. People from diverse backgrounds and age cohorts needed to be visible in politics if it was to be relevant.

“So if quotas are what it takes to get women and young people on boards and into politics , why not?” It was not that young people were not interested in politics, she added, “they’re just not interested in the Dáil”.

We’ll get to the principled argument against this nonsense in a second, but before we do: Who, exactly, thinks it’s a good idea to have more young people in politics, quotas or no quotas? For the past four years Ireland had it’s youngest ever Minister for Health. And the result? Waiting lists of up to five years for a basic diabetic appointment. We had our youngest ever Taoiseach, too, and was he transformative? Hardly.

In every other field of life, we recognise the value of training, experience, and maturity. Nobody, for example, would dream of calling for quotas for young people as surgeons, or quotas for young people as Chief Executive Officers. You won’t see the United States Army appointing many 22 year old Generals, or Manchester United appointing a 24 year old Manager. Gaining the experience necessary to make good decisions is an essential part of any career, except, it seems, in politics, where we want to give young people a chance because “old people don’t understand us”, or something.

That’s not to say, of course, that the voters don’t have the right to select young candidates if they wish – of course they do.

But forcing the voters to choose between two or three young candidates for a seat is inherently undemocratic. Even by the standards of our other absurd quota – for gender – this one doesn’t stand up. With gender quotas, as bad as they are, the restriction on the voter is limited purely to gender, and nothing else. If a voter values experience, they can still select a slightly older candidate.

With quotas for young people though, a critical choice that voters often make is being taken away: Do you go for the candidate with experience, or the young kiddo with the new ideas? Sorry, now you’re just choosing between two kiddos with the new ideas.

In a democracy, we get to choose our rulers. If we are not choosing young people, maybe it has less to do with discrimination than it has to do with the fact that the voters, on balance, prefer to choose people with age and experience (if not wisdom).

And where does this end? If we persist with this nonsense, we’ll end up with a situation where the voters effectively have no choice at all. We’ll have constituencies where there’s effectively a requirement to fill the four seats with two men, two women, with one young candidate, one old candidate, one ethnic minority candidate, one LGBT candidate, and one disabled candidate.

Ultimately, we can go down this road, or we can trust the voters. If they wish to elect younger people, they can. The biggest irony in this, of course, is that there is no real shortage of younger candidates: Parties are crying out for them.

Just wait until the next local elections: Your letterbox is going to be full of leaflets from some Garrett Fitzgerald wannabe with “a fresh new voice for you” written on them.

We don’t need quotas for young people. If we need quotas for anything, it’s quotas for people who actually say something different.

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