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Commentary

Elections Are a Lousy Way to Run a Country


     
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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 romantic statists.

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 “majorities.”

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 a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Quebec at Outaouais in Canada.






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