The poverty of voting

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.

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16 Responses to The poverty of voting

  1. “In fact, many goods … financed by public funds … are vitally important to some minority who cannot otherwise provide themselves with them. Obvious examples are…”
    Yes, facilities for the disabled, but observatories and non-financial sporting fields, and I’m guessing public media, et al? Really?
    Do we have to keep a vigilant watch on the heavens in case of Mars Attacks? (as in the movie). Aren’t there less expensive sporting facilities: table tennis, surfing, jogging, cycling, squash, martial arts, etc. And are ads so annoying that we have to pay a $billion a year for the sensitive ones to be without them?
    “Politics becomes a scramble to decide “who gets what”. So, public goods are demoted to the status of the spoils of conflict.”
    Even below that John. Spoils of conflict often relate to naval combat of the nineteenth century where brave marines would engage in lethal battles. Those whose colours were still flying at the end of the engagement and had defeated the enemy in the name of Queen and country were rightly entitled to the spoils of battle, being surrendered ships or the content therein. Hardly comparable to voters who risk nothing in an attempt to gain spoils from their fellow citizens.

  2. Bert Lancaster says:

    One of the things that has concerned me for a long time is the claim, by the winning party in State and Federal elections, that – because they won then they automatically have a mandate to implement all of their stated policies. They will use that supposed mandate to shout down all opposition to their proposals on the grounds that they (the opposition) are opposing the will of the people. This is arrant nonsense of course but we need to find some way to keep them honest. One thing that I have considered is that perhaps the voting process could include a secondary process whereby the voter gets to approve/disapprove the specific policies of the candidate (candidate’s party) being selected. Of course this would make the voting process much more complicated and it would require the electorate to be much more up to speed with what the candidates/parties are proposing. Since the results of the secondary information would be completely transparent, however, it would mean that the successful candidate/party could no longer sail blithely along claiming a mandate for all of their policies. Of course this would be far too complicated to implement in a system which has a morbid fear of electronic voting but perhaps similar ideas could be implemented in other ways such as (mandatory) postal surveys for controversial policies.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      One of the sensible things John Howard said was “the mandate theory of politics is nonsense”. Of course once elected he immediately switched to “we now have a mandate”. But I still treasure that brief moment of sense.

      In a multi-party democracy the idea that people can vote on policies or issues has somewhat more merit, since at least some of the population can elect the “my one issue” party. But few people are single-issue voters, let alone on single issues that can be clearly distinguished. The “we tell better lies about the effect of economic policy on the economy” party isn’t likely to get many votes, even though that’s the substantive platform of the major parties.

      Nick’s articles about direct citizen input on specific policy is more likely to work well (IMO) than a plebesurveypoll at each election. Can you imagine how we’d even set the questions, let alone act on the results? And I expect the donkey option would be even more popular, rising as voters progressed through the questions.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      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.

      The caveat is important, especially in light of the contested-centre view of how two-party politics work, since that seems to be a fairly accurate description of reality. “why vote for the lesser evil” as people used to say before Trump came to power. In practice most critics of the current system find that they do, in fact, have to vote for the lesser evil because if there is a good party it will be marginal (the “mandate” for destroying the Great Barrier Reef and torturing refugees is about 90% of the vote, for example – suggesting your conjecture about individual voters having a narrow view of the process is accurate).

      There are increasingly many “singing voters”

      That is an awesome misspelling. Sadly, Australia is not Wales and our singing voters should probably be encouraged to quiet down.

      • I was wondering who ‘singing voters’ were supposed to represent. It wasn’t the only typo in the piece. Poor editing.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:


          The author is 90 and has macular degeneration. He’s doing his best. However he’s hoping to have his wife check things in future. I picked up some typos on the way, but it’s not my strong suit.

  3. Paul Frijters says:


    welcome! Good to see a debate on democratic innovations. I look forward to hearing what you have in mind in your next installment.

    On mandates for policies, my take is slightly different. By and large, I think people vote on the basis of identity, ie which party ‘feels like them’. And the policy proposals that truly clinch elections are often not real proposals at all, but impossible things that make people feel good or scare them (ie that Wall; or John Howard’s fear campaign on the interest rate that Labour would impose).

    So my basic view of politics is not as rosy as yours. Your world has rational voters who know what is in their own interest, with competing politicians enticing them with an optimal package.

    In my view, politicians trawl through our subconscious, looking for whatever we want to believe or can be lead to believe that allows them to hang onto power. Neither truth nor policy is all that important in this arena or our desires and beliefs. I think of druids and yapping dogs following the other dogs.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yep, I’m with you Paul. As is what is now polling as about 38% of Americans.

    • JOHN BURNHEIM says:

      John replies to Edward:
      A core kind of public good is freely accessible knowledge, which in principle is public as soon as it is published, apart from patents and copyright, which are justified on the ground of encouraging people to contribute to public goods. Most of Wikipedia is of no interest to me, but its fantastic contribution to our intellectual life is enormous, and the quality of our intellectual life is an important part of our value as humans.
      It is a sad fact that many people seem to think that knowledge and other community activities are seen as valuable only if they have marketable utility./
      As for the spoils of war convention , it was a relic of an ancient view of war that entitled the victor to enslave captives who surrendered. That was justified. The because it encouraged victors to refrain from slaughtering them, WHICH OTHERWISE THEY WOULD BE PERFECTLY ENTITLED TO DO!
      In many 19C eyes, settlers were justified in slaughtering natives if they rested confiscation of their lands.

  4. R. N. England says:

    It is clear that in the near future, we will be able to almost eliminate traffic accidents and optimise traffic flow by turning driving over to a system of inter-communicating robots using artificial intelligence. How about doing the same for policy decisions? A robot system could continually send out questionnaires to all citizens, about what laws would suit them (taking regional differences into account), continuously crunching data and and what-if scenarios to work out the best compromise. It could make legal and industrial arbitration decisions too. A robot could churn through all the paid propaganda and crack-pot fear-mongering out there, work out from answers to questionnaires what control they have over public opinion, and make adjustments to neutralise them. Eliminating the crippling effects of human error, hypocrisy, faction, and vanity on policy decisions is like an interconnected drone system sorting out traffic decisions in a way that eliminates driver error and the trouble caused by drivers competing with each other. The fundamental principle of the programming is equity in both cases.

    The human input to the programming (which would probably decrease with time as AI takes over) would need to be open to peer review, with people competing to expose inequitable features, in the way that scientists compete to discover new features of the natural world. The programmers would need to inform the public about how the system is working and changing, as scientists do when they publish their findings.

    An equity-based robot system can be devised to do things that people are notoriously unable to do: make decisions for the common good that are not polluted by the decision-maker’s selfish genes.

    As robots take over the unpleasant jobs on the one hand, and reduce the dangers of high-vaulting human ambition on the other, what is left for people to do? The answer is to serve their culture, whose two great pillars are the arts and the sciences, and to ensure its long-term future long after they are gone, by looking after the earth and its non-human populations.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      this is an interesting and important vision, which many have contemplated. This should not be a comment on a thread though but a post of its own, and more worked out so that the contours of the problems get in sight.
      Just to pick two key problems: truth and access.
      A key problem in designing an AI machine to interpret human communication and interaction is that people lie. All the time. Especially to themselves, but in organised fashion as well. Social scientists are no exception. This is partially due to the complexity of social life, but also reflects how we coordinate: our statements and actions are directional in the sense that they push against or with other people in a particular direction. One almost never truly gets to the goal stated and the stated goal of the action and influence usually does not exist in the first place. For an AI machine to be useful, it needs its own conception of truth, de-scrambling everything humans say. How on earth will it get there when it has no ‘honest humans’ to feed it? Everyone and their mother will say ‘me, me, me, trust me’ and they will disagree.
      A second, related problem, is access. If this AI is going to make important decisions, you can forget the fantasy that it will represent the best of us in an open fashion determined ultimately by ‘experts’. The politics of this thing will be deafening, using all the tricks in the book to nudge this thing into the direction of powerful interests. That is just human.

      Yet, I can see a role for the kind of system you envision. Competition between areas and countries is your friend in this because that competition leads to an interest in good decision making. So the area we might see such systems first is in warfare, and particularly in desinformation. Automated is not the discovery of truth, but the manipulation of the population, starting with that of the enemy. We are already very close to such systems. They are being developed here in London and elsewhere, trialed in major elections. That is the current reality of your bright future.

      • R. N. England says:

        It started as a suggestion for getting a much richer input from citizens into government policy decisions than the present situation of just voting for one faction of representatives or the other. That was pretty much in line with the original post, but it blew out a bit from there!

      • R. N. England says:

        Whether artificial intelligence can be set up in a way to overcome the efforts of human beings to undermine equity is an difficult and interesting question. The hugely expensive razzamataz, personality cults, and largely false accusations of perfidy that characterise election campaigns, are aimed at undermining equity by boosting the numbers of the ill-informed and securing their votes. In the US especially, this activity is corroding public intelligence and approaching the level where civil conflict is possible. One solution that would appeal to economists, is to allow voting rights, issued to each person at a certain age, to be traded on a vote exchange. The poor and the uninterested could sell theirs to buy something else, and the rich could deploy large numbers of them in the struggle to make themselves richer. The hectic goings-on could be confined to the floor of the vote exchange, and the majority could be left in peace to pursue their self-interest in other market places.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Regarding the last few comments, it’s remarkable to me how sentimental we are about democracy, how much we set things up so that “the people” are the good guys and “the people” get taken down by bad guys – politicians and the media for instance. But these are the people who vote for the politicians and buy or click on the media.

    Against the backdrop of the sentimental doublethink, we’re immersed in when we talk about democracy I’m always struck by how often people run together participatory democracy – which RNE is proposing above – and democracy by the deliberation of ‘mini-publics’ like juries. The latter strikes me as the only way to cut through the pathologies of vox pop democracy. I can’t see a move towards participatory democracy could improve things much, but I could certainly see how it could make things worse. Even more hoopla and weapons-grade misrepresentation – and endless campaigns for this and that.

  6. R. N. England says:

    You can’t expect a system of control (government) to work well without adequate counter-control. Without counter-control you end up with many laws that are generally not obeyed. Enforcing them would imprison too many people (tyranny). Lax enforcement means that people unlucky enough to be prosecuted are selected for other reasons, such as criticism of the government, being cheeky to policemen, being the wrong religion, skin colour, etc.. Rules work best when people accept them for rational reasons other than the fear of punishment. That is the unsentimental argument for democracy.

    Adequate counter-control (democracy) is not a sufficient condition for a viable culture. The great majority can be living in la-la land (which is where Western Culture has been heading for quite a while). Even with a better system of counter-control, Western Culture is headed for failure. A culture needs to be concerned mainly for its own survival. A prime condition of survival is the kind of peaceful diversity that can allow it to become universal. It won’t survive if its values are based exclusively on free will, responsibility, human rights, and the cult of personality; none of which stands up to scientific scrutiny. See B. F. Skinner (1970), Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      But we already have a great many laws that are not enforced, and it’s arguably the foundation of British jurisprudence – everybody has broken the law, what matters is who gets punished.

      That’s why we have such outrage when a rich white man is prosecuted, almost regardless of his offense (Bolt, Bond, Skase, Pell etc), but mandatory sentencing and selective policing sees people given life sentences for the sort of thing we rightly find appalling when we read it in history books (“people were transported to Australia for crimes as minor as stealing a loaf of bread” … sorry, I meant “committed suicide after being imprisoned for stealing food“)

      We can’t fix that through naive democracy, minorities will always be vulnerable to tyranny of the majority. People like Nick agitating for better democracy is essential if we’re to escape the trap our politics is in at the moment.

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