Saturday, April 28, 2007

Democracy isn't quite what it's cut out to be

WINSTON Churchill is often quoted as saying that democracy is a very bad system, but all the others are worse. The last part of his saying meets with near-universal acclaim. But not enough weight is put on the first part.

At a minimum, democracy requires majority voting. Here, however, one comes to an immediate snag. A majority has a clear-cut meaning only if there are just two candidates or two possible policies. Otherwise, one runs into the voting paradox that was discovered by the 18th-century French thinker the Marquis de Condorcet.

Imagine that there are three candidates or policies, A, B and C. The voters may prefer A to B, B to C but C to A. Everything then depends on the order in which the votes are taken. Experienced committee chairmen realise this in their bones. Numerous attempts have been made to get round this paradox. But none has been generally accepted. Indeed, one contemporary political economist, Professor Kenneth Arrow, won a Nobel prize for showing that there was no decision rule that could satisfy widely accepted canons of fairness.

One practical definition of a fair voting system is one in which electors can express their true preferences without tactical considerations obtruding. Whoever is elected president of France will be the first choice of at most 31 per cent or 26 per cent of voters. In the first round there were 12 candidates. But a rational voter could not just choose his preferred candidate. Suppose that his main objective was to stop Mr Jean-Marie Le Pen from emerging in the final round as he did in 2002. Then voting for any of the eight minor candidates would risk helping the National Front candidate come into the top two.

Now take the position of a supporter of the centrist candidate, Mr François Bayrou. If his main objective was to secure semi-liberal economic reforms, he might have done best to vote for Mr Nicolas Sarkozy to stop Ms Segolène Royal. But if he was chiefly alarmed by the authoritarian tendencies of Mr Sarkozy (who was photographed on a white horse) he might well have voted for Ms Royal as the best way of stopping him.

There are, of course, many other voting systems. There is the alternative vote, in which the elector can show his preferences in order. A similar system is to have a number of successive ballots with the bottom candidates dropping out after each one. This is, in principle, the system used in electing the British Labour leader and deputy leader. In practice, after the first one or two ballots, most of the candidates throw in their hand.

I have often thought that the Blair-Brown stand-off of the past 10 years would have been avoided if Mr Gordon Brown as well as Mr John Prescott and Ms Margaret Beckett had stood against Mr Tony Blair in the 1994 leadership contest. But this is not as simple as it sounds. By supporting Mr Brown, a voter would have risked splitting the New Labour vote and allowing, incredible as it now may seem, Mr Prescott to come top on the first ballot and then acquire a momentum difficult to stop. Most of the complicated systems of proportional representation, like the single transferable vote used in Ireland, are much better than 'first past the post' at stopping a feared candidate than at promoting a positive one.

These voting paradoxes are not, however, the heart of the matter. Even if they did not exist, some 51 per cent imposing its will on 49 per cent is only slightly better than 49 per cent imposing its will on 51 per cent. Market liberals often point out that a supermarket acts as a continuous referendum where each voter can express his preferences and register their intensity. There are, however, collective goods, such as defence, where political decisions are unavoidable.

Even more important, democracy is not itself a sufficient protection for human freedom. An intolerant majority can make life hell for other citizens. For this reason, entrenched provisions are often inserted in Constitutions in places such as Northern Ireland where one religious group is in a permanent minority.

Plato argued that giving every citizen the same say was no more rational than putting a newly recruited sailor on the same footing as a master mariner. The problem with this analogy is that there is no undisputed expertise in ruling a country and that the ordinary citizen has as good an idea of where the shoe pinches as a high-powered civil servant. Democracy is best understood as a decision rule for changing the government without the use of force. At the least, however, one should never praise democracy without qualifying it as liberal democracy.

As Professor Gordon Graham puts it in his under-discussed book, The Case Against The Democratic State (Academic Imprint, 2002), liberalism is a check on democracy, not a reinforcement. US voters might well have chosen to give both presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton a third term, but the Constitution now forbids this as a protection against personal power. Bad offenders in the use of democracy as the be-all-and- end-all of wisdom are the neoconservative supporters of President George W. Bush who act in the spirit of 'fight them, beat them and make them democratic'. Look where that has got us.


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