A post by Campbell Wallace:
It is universally accepted that free elections guarantee the happiness of a nation.
At a time when men and women risk their lives and die for democracy it may seem indecent, even sacrilegious to criticise it. I do not write in order to mock those who struggle heroically against tyranny. But where is the evidence that the longed-for democratic elections are any better than chance as a method of choosing leaders?
Of course, voting an unwanted leader out of office (when it works!) is much better than bombs, kalashnikovs, or foreign invasions. It is in choosing politicians that the vote fails so miserably. I hardly have to justify this statement: everyone can think of examples of incompetent, corrupt, dishonest – or worse – democratically elected leaders, even though we would not all draw up the same list.
Governments seldom please those who elect them; a recent poll suggested that 81% of Americans are dissatisfied with their government. And let us not forget the long and horrible history of human rights violations by democracies, nor that some of the most despotic and bloody tyrannies were installed or kept in power by the democratically elected leaders of other countries.
The failure of elections in democracy
There are many reasons why elections don’t work very well, including the following:
Those who seek office are ipso facto ambitious, and there is truth in the dictum that “no man who seeks power is fit to exercise it”. Does your candidate want to change the laws to suit his own interests, or does he just enjoy making rules for other people to follow? And too often the politician’s only aim, once elected, is to hang on to power and position, by any means available. Wwhich is understandable, if politics is his only way of making a living.
Successful political campaigns require huge sums of money. That money comes from powerful institutions and individuals who can make or break a politician. Politicians must put the interests of their backers before those of the nation, or risk losing their job at the next election.
Because politicians crave re-election, law-making is sometimes a bizarre form of horse trading. “Will you vote for the aircraft carrier?” “I can’t do that.” “Suppose you got a subsidy for planting new wheat varieties and a 150% tax rebate on farm machines?” “Get me a six-lane bridge across the Muddy River and I’ll vote for the war against XXX as well.” And so on.
Voters cannot know what a politician will do once in power. Any would-be politician who says clearly what he means to do puts himself at a disadvantage with respect to those who mouth meaningless formulas. A well-defined policy can be attacked, misrepresented, quoted out of context, and ridiculed. Slogans like “it’s time” “yes, we can” and so forth have too little meaning in them to be capable of being distorted.
The information the public receives from the media is always incomplete and biased, often grotesquely so. The media depend on advertising revenue, and even in the absence of overt pressure, self-censure their news content. Given the pressures on editors, it is not surprising that even the best sometimes uncritically reprint propaganda prepared by “spin doctors”.
Even if we had politicians with clear policies which were accurately presented to us by the media, those policies could not take account of events which are still in the future. Should we then vote for the declared policy, or for the person likely to make the best decisions in unknown circumstances?
Voting systems and counting methods are never perfect, and often very far from ideal. Votes don’t count equally: a vote in a swinging electorate is more valuable than one in a “safe” seat. As an example, in a system with one seat per electorate, a party with 30% of the popular vote will win no seats at all if its voters are evenly distributed in all electorates. On the other hand, it will win a very comfortable majority if its supporters make up 51% of the population in 59% of electorates.
Some countries have adopted quite complicated electoral systems to try to reduce such unfairness. Nevertheless, it is still common for a government to be elected which is not preferred by the majority, even when there are no irregularities.
People with similar political views tend to be grouped in certain areas. This makes possible gerrymandering, where electoral boundaries are drawn to favour one or another party.
In the case where there are two large, approximately equal parties, a small party may exercise power that is out of all proportion to its size, if it is needed to form a governing coalition. Conversely, if it is not needed, its voice will not be heard.
A close election may be decided by accident. In South Australia in the late 1960s an election was decided by a majority of one vote. If some mischance had prevented two people from voting, the result would have been reversed.
A spectacular event which stirs emotions can swing an election in a way that voters later regret.
There are no new discoveries here, of course. All this is well-known to the point of nausea. Nevertheless we still (thoughtlessly!) claim that free elections will bring good government. Yet look at the results of democratic elections: consider the last ten elected presidents or prime ministers of any country you choose; would you consistently get a worse result by picking names with a pin from a telephone book?
Give chance a chance
If elections are no better, and probably worse, than chance at picking leaders, why not use chance?
Imagine a chamber of, say, 500 members of parliament between the ages of 25 and 65 chosen at random by computer to serve for five years. Rather than changing them all at once, 10% of them would be replaced every six months to give continuity of government and allow time for newcomers to become familiar with procedures. In the event of inability to serve, a replacement would be chosen at random.
A Prime Minister and a Cabinet would be chosen from amongst the members, initially by lot. At any moment MPs could, by vote, remove from office (though not from parliament) and replace the PM or individual ministers. The government would not “fall”, as in the case of a two-party system, it would merely undergo a sort of continuous tuning.
The parliament would have the authority to make all decisions except fixing MP’s pay and conditions, and the appointment of judges and civil servants.
There is a good reason for proposing a parliamentary government, not a presidential one. In choosing a sufficiently large group, you can be reasonably sure of getting a fair proportion of competent, perhaps even honest, members. Choosing a president with executive powers at random carries a small risk of choosing (for instance) a madman.
Depending on a country’s circumstances, there could be a uni- or bicameral parliament, and the members could be chosen one from each electorate, or all from the whole eligible population, there could be an upper house representing states in a federation, and so forth. And there is no reason not to have a president with purely symbolic functions, and chosen by popular vote too, if you wish, as long as he or she has no power.
The virtues of randomness
The first benefit is the huge saving in cost and public inconvenience. The random choice could be made at almost no cost by a very modest computer; compare this with the large sums spent on elections, particularly in the US.
A more important advantage is that the composition of the parliament would closely represent that of the public. Women and minority groups would automatically be present in the correct proportion. So would different political tendencies. The more MPs, the more faithfully they would represent the general public.
No elections would mean no election-rigging, no accusations of fraud, no riots and no tear gas. With public read-only access to a database of all eligible citizens, anyone could check that their name was listed. A few lines of open (publicly available) computer code – easily checked for fairness – would suffice to choose the members.
The members of parliament, owing their position to no-one, and knowing that they could not be re-elected, would be much less subject to the temptation – or necessity – to favour particular interest groups at the expense of the public. Lobbies would still exist, and would no doubt try to influence MPs by publicity or bribes, but could not threaten to withdraw support at elections, since there would be none.
Similarly, political parties could still exist, and put forward policies, or march in the streets waving banners, or call for strikes or the banning of bicycles, trout fishing, or red hair, but their influence would be moral and hortatory, not coercive. To threaten MPs with expulsion from a party or removal of party endorsement would be meaningless.
A political “caste” could not arise. There would be no “jobs for the boys” or nepotism.
Deselection, not election
But could you not get, in this parliament chosen at random, some members who are not fit to govern, or even to be at liberty in a civilised society? Yes, of course, just as happens now, though probably less often. What could be done about them? Well, here we fall back on the popular vote. It would cost very little to print a list, in a form not easily counterfeited, of all MPs chosen at each selection, and to furnish one copy (only) to each citizen on production of suitable identification. A citizen outraged by a particular MP would cut off a slip with that MP’s name and put it in a ballot box. If a sufficient number of slips were received, the MP would be replaced by another, chosen at random. Again, this would be a form of tuning. (How many votes is a sufficient number? Perhaps about a quarter of the population: more would be too difficult to get together, fewer might leave MPs open to malicious campaigns by small pressure groups.)
You might object that a bunch of “ordinary” people chosen at random would not have the necessary political skills. But what skills make a politician successful? A glib tongue, the knack of avoiding awkward questions, a talent for raising money by fair means or foul, the readiness to make behind-the-scenes deals, and a working familiarity with recent sporting events. In other words, the skills necessary to get elected, not to legislate intelligently – or honestly!
And if the public are competent to vote in elections, to serve as juries, or to decide on constitutional matters in referenda, why would a statistically representative subset be incapable of making the decisions necessary in government? If “ordinary people” had had the say at the time, would they have made worse decisions than those that landed the US in Vietnam, the Russians in Afghanistan, or the US and the UK in Iraq in 2003? Or than the deregulation of banks and the financial markets?
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The author has no qualifications whatever in political science, philosophy, sociology, or any other relevant discipline. He considers that the fact that he lives in this world, and thus suffers the consequences of the immoral and idiotic decisions made by elected leaders both near and far, to be sufficient justification for writing this diatribe.
© 2012 Campbell Wallace