Monday, May 30, 2011

Some thoughts re voting systems

I'd been meaning to write a post on this during the AV referendum debate, but never got around to it; the proximate impetus was a New Republic article by Jonathan Bernstein on letting parents vote on behalf of their kids. Too lazy to connect my thoughts, hence a bulleted list.
  • There are two kinds of pro-democracy view: (1) that majority rule is morally right, (2) that democracy is the worst system except for all the otters. 
  • On view (1) a system ought to be as democratic as possible, i.e., do as good a job as possible of representing views. On view (2) nothing of the sort follows. Thus most arguments for better voting systems are irrelevant if one holds view (2).
  • My own views are much closer to (2) than to (1). To the (very large) extent that laws are coercive it is of no intrinsic significance whether the minority or the majority gets to do the coercing.
  • Why is democracy superior to dictatorship? A negative argument: it is bad for any large ideological or interest group to be persistently in power (power corrupts) or persistently out of power (with no hope of enacting one's agenda peacefully one would be tempted to do so by force, or to secede or sabotage the system). The case for democracy is weak in cases where one expects the vote to split along persistent tribal lines, e.g., in some southern states and much of the third world; however, shifting coalitions of interests/tribes/ideologies are good.
  • A different, "positive" argument: assuming there are some undecided voters in the middle who are uninformed and vote for/against the incumbent based on their sense of "well-being," democracy encourages governments to act in ways that maximize "well-being."
  • The positive argument strongly favors a two-party unicameral system in which it is entirely clear who the incumbents are. The negative argument prima facie supports a proportional representation system in which as many interest groups as possible are represented. However, it is harmless -- in the sense of being socially stable -- to marginalize small enough groups; in fact it might be worse to give (e.g.) skinheads a legislative voice than to write them out of the political process. (Conversely: a political system in which skinheads felt they had a good chance of getting their agenda passed would probably be a bad one in consequentialist terms.)
  • Unpopular/fringe views are often valuable to have expressed. It doesn't follow that fringe parties should get to be kingmakers as they are in Hungary etc.
  • From my perspective, it is hard to come up with a general position on where this leaves us: the answer depends on the expected effects of moving to a more democratic system in any given country. It is not obvious to me that the British Lib Dems have any particular business existing as a separate party rather than as part of the more upscale faction of Labour: one possible argument is that because most votes in the Commons are strongly whipped, each faction really needs to be a separate party, but this is a very roundabout way of weakening party discipline.
This brings us to Bernstein's arguments re "interests" -- a pet theme of his is this notion that people both do and ought to vote their interests (which would justify unapologetic people-like-me votes); he wants to argue that, because we treat parents as representing their kids' interests in general, we ought to consider letting them be electoral representatives as well. One reason this seems absurd is that people care about social issues, and the youngest actual voters as a bloc disagree thoroughly with their parents as a bloc, so the extrapolation to kids defies common sense. However I'd tend to respond to it in terms of the framework outlined above: there is no imminent threat of a kids' uprising, so whether we should give them proxy votes depends on the probable consequences -- i.e., increased representation rel. to present of views that are associated with parents -- and should be judged based on those consequences. Which, as I've remarked in the past, I think are bad.

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