A post by John Burnheim.
About ten months ago, John Burnheim wrote to me in terms I’ve reproduced on this blog previously. John was one of the early movers in academia exploring the limitations of electoral democracy with his book Is Democracy Possible published in 1985 and then decades later with his book last year The Demarchy Manifesto. After a long academic career, he’s still gnawing on the bone of how we might make democracy work better in the modern world. And after many quite lengthy exchanges with me by email, he’s writing posts for us here at Troppo. Here’s his first post. There will be more to come:
The poverty of voting
Votes carry very little information, but often give form and content to power. It is sometimes seen as virtue of voting that it hides the motives and understandings that motivate a person to vote in a certain way. From this point of view, a vote is a piece of power. A system of voting determines how many of those pieces of power constitute a valid power that overriding all the other votes and binds the other voters to accept that decision. A constitution determines what matters are being decided by voting and who is entitled to vote.
The voter is thus completely free to vote as she likes, answerable to nobody, in a fully secret ballot. Even In the case of a public ballot, the voter is not required to offer any justification for how she votes. The vote is valid no matter what her motives. If others are entitled to criticise or retaliate; it is because of other undertakings or relationships. The secret ballot is pure liberty, an exercise of power answerable only to one’s own conscience. Advocates of the secret ballot often assume that the voters have a soundly based conscience on the matters on which they may vote and that he danger to be avoided is that others will try to intimidate them into voting against their better judgement. Advocates of public voting often see voters as inclined to vote privately for reasons they cannot defend.
Whatever the weight of such considerations, most systems of voting invalidate votes that are blatantly bribed. Obviously, where to draw the line between what is an agreement to cooperate with other voters or a justifiable tactical move in a wider context and what is simply advantaging oneself at the expense of the common good is often difficult and to some extent arbitrary. But the principle is clear: any authority that the result of a vote can claim rests on its being a distillation of the genuine opinions of the voters about what the collective that accepts that authority should do. Voters are no entitled to use their power for other purposes.
On the other hand, it is asking too much of voters to expect that each of them would have considered every factor that is relevant to a sound collective decision in most circumstances. The tacit expectation in most voting is that most voters will be inclined to vote for or against any proposal by weighing up the benefits they or others about whom they are particularly concerned would on balance be affected by its implementation.
One clear deficiency in such an assumption is that a majority may vote on a particular proposal for a variety of relatively small balances of advantage or disadvantage to them, outvoting a minority for which much more important consequences are at stake. The effect of voting is that it invites voters to treat public goods as if they were private goods, each voter paying attention only to their own costs and benefits. A great deal of libertarian thinking welcomes this consequence, believing that nothing should count as a public good unless it is beneficial to the majority of citizens.
In fact, many goods that are financed by public funds and available freely to any citizen are vitally important to some minority who cannot otherwise provide themselves with them. Obvious examples are many public access facilities for disabled people or observatories for astronomers, playing fields for some sports and so on. In fact, a host of such public goods can make a crucial contribution to our identities if we pride ourselves on the collective achievement of a network of facilities that greatly expand the opportunities our community offers all its citizens. In this perspective, an important advantage that must be credited to any public good is the contribution it makes to the sort of collective achievement we value and with which we wish to be associated.
An intrinsic characteristic of voting is that it divides voters into winners and losers whenever it falls short of unanimity. Such division is exacerbated when it is exploited by the ideologies of political parties competing for a term in government responsible for choosing, regulating and funding by taxation the whole spectrum of constructed public goods. In the electoral process, each party is constrained to define its program by playing up the features that appeal to the section of the electorate that benefit them and vilifying their opponents’ proposals. Politics becomes a scramble to decide “who gets what”. So, public goods are demoted to the status of the spoils of conflict.
The saving grace of this adversarial system is that it makes it possible for the voters to change the government in a genuinely competitive election. That is an important constraint on extremism and ensures that in the long run governments are responsible to the voters. There are increasingly many “singing voters” who will be attracted by less partisan policies. Governments, realising that many voters no longer accept that their being forced to choose between bundles of policies does not show that they support all those items, increasingly accept that they should consult public opinion before acting in controversial matters. So, they spend billions on reports that tell them what to do, while opinion polls tell them how much they can get away with.
In this situation, what seems to be required is a completely independent and open forum that would discuss particular problems and what could be done to solve or ameliorate each of them. The politicians would be faced with a discussion that had a claim to represent public opinion. Perhaps then they might find themselves competing with their opponents by claiming to be best suited to implementing what public opinion wants.
I hope to discuss in a later blog how such a forum might operate. It would, I believe, be best suited to questions which are not matters of what the electorate would like to see done, but of matters where the public needs to get right what needs to be done to avoid impending dangers. Other questions may call for other approaches.