Jon blogs below about winning office with a mere plurality, which touches on issues that political scientists, and theorists of a certain bent, have thought a lot about. Kenneth Arrow’s “impossibility theorem,” which I’ve blogged about before, indicates that if you make certain reasonable assumptions about people’s preferences, no possible voting system (or other means of social choice) can be expected to aggregate people’s preferences without distorting them. This suggests, according to the late William Riker, that democracy is bogus.
Riker argues that there’s no such thing as the “will of the people” – the result of any vote is as much a product of how choices are presented to people as the actual preferences of the electorate. The message is simple – there ain’t no such thing as a perfect electoral system. Let’s take two examples.
Example One: voters in the 1992 US Presidential election were presented with the choice of Bush, Perot, or Clinton. I’m not a US political scientist, so I’m simply going to go with the collective wisdom, which is that most Perot voters would have preferred to see Bush than Clinton become President. These voters might have preferred an electoral system like the French system, in which there are two rounds. First, there’s a free for-all vote in which all candidates participate. Then, if no candidate gets a majority, there’s a second round, in which all candidates are eliminated except for the two front runners. This would have allowed Perot voters to vote their conscience happily in the first round, and then, when Perot was eliminated, to vote for Bush (their second best candidate) rather than Clinton. In such a system, Bush might well have won. The same rationale applies to the Greens in 2000 – many Nader voters would have preferred a second round run-off too. After they’d scared the bejasus out of Gore, and perhaps pushed him a little to the left, they would be able to ensure that we did not get a Republican president – their worst possible outcome.
But a French style system has its problems too – just look at the last French presidential election. The two serious candidates were Jospin, for the Socialists, and Chirac, for the right. However, to everyone’s surprise, Jospin was eliminated in the first round – he ran a lacklustre campaign, and bled protest votes to various die-hard lefties, so that he came in third, behind notorious Hitler-fancier, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Thus, in the second round, Jospin supporters were faced with an unenviable choice between Chirac, a shady political hack, and Le Pen, who notoriously dismissed the Holocaust as a technicality. On the slogan ‘Vote for the Crook not the Nazi,’ they voted for Chirac. Jospin voters would very likely would have preferred a US style system, in which, indeed, Jospin might have won the election.
Riker’s adaptation of Arrow suggests that all electoral systems are going to have problems of this sort – the mechanisms of choice will sometimes have perverse consequences. Obviously, some systems of voting will be much worse than others – but all of them are going to have some sort of distortion.
So does this mean that democracy is a sham? That’s certainly the traditional interpretation. However, there’s also an alternative interpretation, which has recently started to generate some buzz among rational choice political scientists. On this interpretation, Riker’s critique points instead to the need to enhance democracy, by privileging deliberation – deep conversation and discussion, where people try to resolve political controversies through reasoned debate – rather than voting. At least in theory, deliberation isn’t vulnerable to the sorts of problems that Arrow and Riker identify.
The argument goes that even if deliberation is unwieldy as a primary form of political decision making – it’s awkward, messy and takes too long – it can work well as a form of “second order choice.” In other words, deliberation is a lousy way for people to take day-to-day political decisions, but it potentially allows people to decide over the different (imperfect) ways in which they can take these day-to-day decisions. For example, people might deliberate over, whether a particular voting system is the best way to make decisions in one area of social life, or whether a market based system is the best way to make decisions in another. This gives these choice mechanisms a sort of borrowed democratic legitimacy – even if they’re still flawed, people have decided democratically that they’re the best possible mechanism to use in a specific set of circumstances. Thus perhaps, people can at least have the option of real democratic choice over the various imperfect ways of making first order decisions that are on offer, which takes some of the sting out of Riker’s critique.