A libertarian argument for Alternative Vote
Libertarians have traditionally been sceptical of the case for electoral reform, in large part because there appears to be a relationship between high levels of public spending and the various systems of proportional (or near-proportional) representation. The big government countries of Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Holland and Norway, for example, all have proportional electoral systems, whereas relatively smaller government countries like the UK, USA, Canada and New Zealand all use FPTP. It is believed that PR systems produce higher levels of public spending because of the log-rolling required to build a governing coalition after an election.
But whether the electoral system is the independent variable that produces higher public spending in the manner described may be questioned. Today, UK government spending as a proportion of GDP would rival that of most other European countries, suggesting that FPTP is not sufficient protection against the growth of government. It is also the case that Ireland reduced its public spending from 43% of GDP in 1990 to 34% in 2005, making it one of the smallest governments in the developed world, with a system of PR. It may well be, then, that levels of public spending are determined by other factors, such as political culture, and these other factors may be randomly correlated with FPTP or PR.
It is also the case that FPTP enables a political party with the support of a minority of the electorate to assume absolute political power. In the 2005 UK election, for example, the Labour Party won an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons with only 35% of the popular vote. With the support of only marginally more than a third of voters and barely over a fifth of the entire adult population (including non-voters), the Labour Party was able to introduce a host of draconian and unpopular policies without any constitutional limit on its power.
Libertarians are rightly wary of the tyranny of the majority; FPTP is an electoral system that creates majorities out of minorities. PR systems create coalition governments, where the views of at least half of the voters must be represented (albeit imperfectly).
Within a FPTP system libertarians may sometimes be influential members of the governing majority – as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s. But given the dubious attractions of political power there is surely a much greater likelihood that statist authoritarians will invest the time and effort to attain high office than will benign libertarians. Hence, the majority-creating potential of FPTP is more likely to be used against liberty than to defend liberty.
It would be naive to believe that any electoral system alone can create or protect a free society, but PR must be an essential component of a constitution that limits the power of government and protects the liberty of individuals. Libertarians should support AV in the forthcoming referendum.