In this first post I will try to argue that electoral reform will not improve democracy and it will definitely not help the libertarian cause. You can find the outline of the possible discussion in this post
The more democracy position
The problem, according to the promoters of more democracy such as Dave is lack of engagement. He sees apathy, the lack of political participation as the major source of the problems democracies have. He believes that better representation and more involvement in the political process will create a better expression of the will of the electorate, a better democracy and thus a better world as well.
He came to a libertarian event as a proud socialist. He argued that his ideas do not represent political partisanship because his initiative will help small parties of any political persuasion.
Before we can evaluate his position, we need to understand:
What is democracy and how it is supposed to function?
Is democracy moral?
What is the scope of democracy?
How does democracy actually work?
What are the causes of voter apathy?
What is democracy?
You can start with the Wikipedia definition.
In its own hype, meaning the self-justifying propaganda of electoral democracies, democracy is the ultimate social good, an expression of public virtue, a forum for the expression of “La volonté général”, the arena where the members of society can express their will by entrusting their representatives with the power to execute their shared will, to realize the vision of the public.
Not even its most fervent proponents claim that it is like that. They tend to quote Winston Churchill, who said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
As voter participation is on a steady decline, the promoters of democracy vow to fix it by manipulating its mechanism. Mandatory voting, proportional representation, etc. But:
Will electoral reform bring democracy closer to the ideal?
Is democracy moral?
The question is the point of the quote from Benjamin Franklin.
Democracy is the dictatorship of the majority.
If 51% of the people think that we should enslave the blacks and kill the Jews, would that make it right? What if blacks are less than 1% of the population and 99% agree that they should be slaves? Would that be right?
Now let’s suppose that the slavers have only 48% of the votes but there is a marginal party with 3% of the votes advocating that the natives should be turned into slaves. They feel excluded by the process but they would be willing to compromise if they could only participate. Would an electoral reform allowing them in improve democracy? What if every single voter in the jurisdiction you live in would agree that you should die for your subversive ideas? Would that make it right?
If the answer to any of the above questions is no, then we already shook the foundation of democracy’s legitimacy. We established that there should be other principles to decide what constitutes a moral society.
Democracy is not good in itself; it is in fact a very dangerous social order. Its dangers lie in the reverence we hold for its supposed legitimacy: if most of us want it, it must be a good thing. In democracy we idolize the prospect of mob rule. Democracies can be seriously immoral. Just look how it worked in the French revolution. Just look how it turned out in the third Reich. That was ALL democracy. (The story of Hitler’s coming to power is very instructive. I will return to it.)
So even before we start talking about democracy, we have to ask what its limits are. What are the moral principles behind it? What options are available to those who disagree with the majority decision?
What protection do they have if the majority decision hurts them in some way? What are the moral principles of collective decision making?
Will an electoral reform improve the morality of democracy?
What is the scope of democracy?
We make hundreds of decisions every day. Which ones of those decisions should be shared? Which should be mine and mine alone? How can we devise a principle to determine what could and should be a shared decision? Should I make decisions on subjects I don’t care or don’t know enough about? Should other people, who have absolutely no knowledge of me, my wishes or circumstances, be allowed to make decisions about my life? Even if we say yes, is there a practical way to involve everybody in every decision? That is just not possible. The scope of democracy must be limited for all sort of practical reasons.
We cannot make shared decisions about everything. There are just too many decisions to be made, most of which are irrelevant to everybody but the ones affected by it. Why should anybody care what you should have for dinner? Except of course if it’s your neighbour that you want to have for dinner.
Even under the darkest communism, people did have some personal choices. Who to fall in love with, how to tie their shoes, what to stand in line for.
In some ways, we have far more liberty than that. We have more choices as we have a wider variety of goods and civil liberties. In some other ways, we have less. What you can have for dinner is already a choice limited by democratic decisions. You cannot have for dinner, for example, the milk of your own cow with a cannabis laced cookie. If the communists did not take your cow away, you were at least allowed to drink its milk. Democracy is all about decisions: what shall we decide upon, how we’ll make the decisions and who will actually make them.
When considering electoral reform, we have to ask:
Will it increase or shrink the scope of democracy?
How democracy actually works?
Does it really work as advertised? Do we really submit ourselves to the will of the majority? The proponents of electoral reform will be quick to point out how that is not the case. The ruling party is more likely than not to have less than half of the popular votes and if we factor in voter participation, it can shrink to alarming lows. In the latest Fort McMurray Athabasca by-election the victor had 7.2% of the possible votes.
Even if the elected body correctly represents the will of the electorate, we still have to consider the mechanism of democracy. Here is the classic example:
Let’s suppose three equal size voting blocs:
The first wants to spend on a new school, the second wants to spend on a new hospital, the third says neither is really needed and we should not spend money we do not have. What will be built? Logic would dictate that nothing, as neither block has majority. What happens in practice is that the school wanters will make a deal with the hospital wanters and they will vote on each other’s proposal and both will be built. The one to lose is the one advocating responsibility. Politics is the realm of positive demands. Politics makes things happen, it is much less likely to prevent things from happening.
The above was a theoretical example but it describes pretty well why we tend to end up with things that the majority does not want. The large moral issues are no different.
The majority of people support the decriminalization of marijuana and we still don’t have it. The majority is against abortion and we still have it.
Our representative democracies are run by wheeling and dealing politicians who want to get re-elected; by vast bureaucracies whose primary interest is their own survival and well-being; by lobbyists advancing the interest of their clients and by large organized voting blocs such as labour unions.
The essence of democracy is this machinery of self-interest, killing civil society and individualism with a thousand paper cuts. The real problems are not the big issues, but the small ones. The millions of small decisions that are not made by our elected officials but by the executors of their vaguely defined big decisions. The bureaucrat – as they say – is always in the detail.
The actual workings of democracies have far more problems than what I can address in a blog post, but I urge you to look at the history of Hitler’s coming to power. (or here) It was all democratic, but not in the sense that the majority of the Germans wanted him. It was about how democracy can betray the voters.
Will an electoral reform make the apparatus of the state bigger or smaller? More or less powerfull?
What are the causes of voter apathy?
Proponents of the reform want us to think that it is the broken machinery of democracy (without ever really explaining what broke it in the first place)
When Dave Meslin makes his truly astute observations in this TED talk about how the system makes participation difficult, he stops with the observations! He correctly observers that the actual holders of power clearly do not want more participation without ever contemplating the question why? Not only the question of why do they want to keep more democracy out, but more importantly, why are the excluded so ready to comply? Why would that lead to apathy? He is right saying that POLITICS IS A SPECTATOR SPORT and the political class want to keep it that way but he does not answer how can any individual or group change that? Once an outsider group gets inside, will they not have the same incentives to keep it a spectator sport?
Why do we have a “democracy deficit”? Because more democracy means less decisions left for us to make. The more of our decisions are delegated, the less decisions we have, the less our personal decisions matter, the less influence we have in any particular matter, the less powerful we feel – the less faith we will have in political participation.
Why participate if participation makes no difference? As we are marching on “The Road to Serfdom,” as we are marching toward more democracy, we will have a consistently increasing number of choices that we will delegate to easily corruptible politicians and to an ever increasing number of unelected bureaucrats and unionized civil servants.
No electoral reform can change that. When we say that X Y Z group is disenfranchised in the political process, what we mean is that they do not have direct access to power. The groups that advocate and support electoral reform just want to be in on the game, just want to push their issues, their agenda under the big, benevolent umbrella of collective decision making. Once there, they will have to align themselves with a bigger party, make deals and support the building of many (of the above mentioned) schools and hospitals we cannot afford before they can get their signature causes on the agenda.
Can something that is likely to take more decisions away from us result in greater engagement?
How to improve democracy?
The natural state of democracy is socialism; the more democracy we have, the closer we get to it.
“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground” (Jefferson)
The fact that the proponents of electoral reform come predominantly from the political left is NOT AN ACCIDENT. They know that it is not about helping disenfranchised small parties but about advancing the leftist=statist agenda. Proportional representation will not address the issues about democracy’s morality, it will inevitably increase the scope of politics over our lives as it will make the workings of politics even more……. well, political. It will not decrease, but increase voter apathy.
I do not believe that libertarians could have anything to gain from it.
How we can improve democracy? Bear with me while I deal with the anarcho-capitalists and I will let you know.