[Paleopsych] Independent Institute: Elections Are a Lousy Way to Run a Country
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Tue Aug 24 22:25:34 UTC 2004
Elections Are a Lousy Way to Run a Country
The main result of the [Canadian] federal election has been to
illustrate again the illusion of democracy. Paul Martin's party
obtained 37 per cent of the 60 per cent of registered voters; that is,
at most, 22 per cent of the electorate. And he says, "I do believe we
have a mandate from the people to act on the issues that we set out
and we obviously intend to fulfil that mandate."
Perhaps something like the Venetian custom described by economist
Mancur Olson should be implemented here: "In Venice, after a doge who
attempted to make himself autocrat was beheaded for his offense,
subsequent doges were followed in official processions by a
sword-bearing symbolic executioner as a reminder of the punishment
intended for any leader who attempted to assume dictatorial power."
But the problem of our democratic system is not only that a gang of
politicians and bureaucrats rule under the name of the people, it is
much deeper than this. The first question is, Who is the majority, and
what does it want?
Note that this question remains valid under proportional
representation. Many different rules exist to apportion votes to
representatives in a "proportional representation" parliament. Public
choice economist Gordon Tullock notes that, "for a given set of voters
with unchanged preferences, any outcome can be obtained by at least
one voting method." Proportional representation is a shibboleth for
The mystery of what the majority wants can be summarized as follows.
It has been known for two centuries that majority voting can produce
inconsistencies, depending on which alternatives are put before the
voters. And a result of modern public choice analysis is that when
inconsistent outcomes are ruled out and the issues are not too
complex, the "median-voter theorem" kicks in: to have a chance of
getting elected, all political parties have an incentive to get closer
and closer to the median (the most typical) voter and, thus, to become
more and more similar.
Thus, majority voting produces either inconsistent choices, a tyranny
of the majority, or a tyranny of the mediocre. And they are all called
But this is not all. The political parties promise smorgasborgs of
complex and ill-defined policies with consequences that are impossible
to forecast. And each voter remains "rationally ignorant," as
economists say, because it does not pay him to spend time getting
information, for his one vote is not going to make a difference. In
fact, Martin has no mandate from any voter, except perhaps among his
court intellectuals and close apparatchiks.
Moreover, the gag laws that limit free speech during election
campaigns mean that the outcome is loaded by an artificial equality of
expression. And we have not even considered the idea that state
intervention makes people more and more addicted to the state, as
economist Anthony de Jasay argues.
Democracy is an illusion in a still deeper sense. It is an acceptable
mechanics to decide who will govern, given general agreement on to
what is to be done, but a poor system for resolving deep conflicts.
The wider the range of issues that totalitarian democracy wants to
peep into, the more conflictual it becomes.
In practice, democracy presents two challenges. The first one is
preventing the politicians and the bureaucrats from ruling in the name
of an invisible people. The second challenge is to avoid the tyranny
of the majority, or whatever is viewed or calculated as the majority.
Would direct democracy (citizen-driven referenda, with free speech, of
course) provide a solution? It would at least address the first
challenge--which is why the statocrats are scared of it--but ways to
limit the range of democratic intervention would still be needed. At
any rate, direct democracy could not be worse than the present system.
Pierre Lemieux is an economist and co-director of the Economics and
Liberty Research Group at the Université du Québec à Hull and research
fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California.
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