A libertarian argument for Alternative Vote


Housing and Planning

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.

13 thoughts on “A libertarian argument for Alternative Vote”

  1. Posted 01/09/2010 at 12:35 | Permalink

    AV is not a real proportional system. It is a system that redistributes votes won by one party to another based on diminishing preferences. We see outcomes at least as ‘unproportional’ in Australia (which uses AV) as we do in Britain. For example, the Greens won 1% of the vote in the 2010 election in the UK and gained 1 seat. In Australia they won 11.6% and also gained 1 seat (and narrowly at that). It has been estimated that the Conservatives would have won fewer than 100 seats under AV in 1997 – further enhancing Blair’s majority.

    PR and it’s ability to curtail the powers of government are excellent. But attempting to reduce government spending under it is immensely difficult.

  2. Posted 01/09/2010 at 12:48 | Permalink

    I agree with Sam that AV is a very bad system of PR. In particular, ‘minor’ parties such as UKIP and the British National Party will in all likelihood remain with no MPs despite receiving a significant share of the vote. AV, like FPTP, would therefore seem to favour unfairly the establishment ‘centrist’ parties.

    Another consideration is that a high proportion of policy is determined either at supranational level by unelected committees and/or through the process of ‘buying off’ special interests, so one shouldn’t assume changing the electoral system will make that much difference in terms of economic freedom.

  3. Posted 01/09/2010 at 13:08 | Permalink

    I disagree with John here. From a libertarian point of view, the ability to reject a government is more important than how a government is put together. I think that FPTP enables electorates to reject governments more decisively (eg 1979, 1997). Of course, I agree with John that FPTP enables a minority to rule more easily but we should not regard democracy as an absolute value and I am sanguine about that. Also, one must allow for the different ways in which coalitions are created in the two systems. Coalitions are still created in FPTP but within parties rather than between parties after elections (in normal circumstances).

  4. Posted 01/09/2010 at 13:31 | Permalink

    I can see Philip’s point here, but the question of electoral systems depends on whether you see it as a means of getting – and getting rid – of a government, or as a means of representing opinion. From the point of view of libertarian this is important because it is not the view held by the majority (not than any other view is either).

    If the only way to achieve a libertarian government is through a system that allows minorities to dictate to majorities can it ever be legitimate? I’m reminded of Jan Narveson’s argument about whether it would ever be legitimate to impose libertarianism on an unwilling population.

  5. Posted 01/09/2010 at 13:39 | Permalink

    Richard: AV isn’t a bad system of PR. It’s more straightforward: it isn’t PR. However those who favour PR should still vote Yes to AV as a rejection of FPTP and as a sign of willingness for electoral reform in general. Otherwise we’re stuck with FPTP for a generation.

    Philip: FPTP means that only a tiny subsection of voters have the power to reject governments – the swing voters in marginal constituencies. So in order to reject a government you need to be open to the idea of voting either Labour or Conservative (or in a few areas Lib Dem), and you also need to happen to live in the right place. Everyone else has no power to reject the government.

  6. Posted 01/09/2010 at 13:46 | Permalink

    One of the few functions of elections is, as Philip so rightly says, is to REMOVE a government. Elections are not particularly good at selecting a replacement, however. The problem with elections is that it presumes one is voting for the best, as opposed to trying to avoid the worst or seek the least bad.

    If we were to think about avoiding tyrannies, one should have the ability to vote “none of the above” or some form of reverse ranking, so that the least bad gets in.

    That said, AV is better than FPTP, though I would have preferred a simultaneous 2-stage vote, FPTP to see if we change from it, then use AV to select the final system.

  7. Posted 01/09/2010 at 15:00 | Permalink

    Bit puzzled by the conviction that the purpose of elections is to remove a government. Surely the purpose of elections is to redistribute political power according to the wishes of the people. AV gives people more scope to express their preferences, and hence more authority over their Government. I’m not a libertarian myself, but I would’ve assumed that’d be your aim.

  8. Posted 01/09/2010 at 20:01 | Permalink

    Adam – this is tricky and pragmatic. I think that democracy is really for preserving liberty (though I would also add to ensure compliance with aspects of the natural law – prevent unjust killing and so on). It cannot really fulfil any other function (certainly not simply through majority voting -other forms of government at other levels might be good at providing public goods). Given that you either win or lose an election, it does not redistribute power in accordance with people’s wishes. My desire is therefore for an electoral system that is decisive in ridding us of very illiberal government and where the alternatives are reasonably clear. I don’t feel I get that from PR or AV.

  9. Posted 02/09/2010 at 00:14 | Permalink

    I think there is an attraction to the “kick them out” element of FPTP. But this diminishes if the party system starts to become multi-party rather than two party. In 2005, about 2/3 of voters cast their ballot against the Labour Party. Result? Labour re-elected with a majority of over 60 (and nearly 60% of the seats). Unfortunately for defenders of FPTP, customers/voters have chosen in very large numbers to desert the main two brands of Labour and Conservative. This undermines the ability to reach a “clean cut” result. We have yet to have a truly insane result under FPTP, but it’s becoming more and more possible that we will.

  10. Posted 02/09/2010 at 11:56 | Permalink


    ‘Given that you either win or lose an election…’

    I fear this is rather begging the question. You’re arguing because that the likely outcome of an FPTP election – i.e. one party achieving sole executive authority, ‘win or lose’ – doesn’t redistribute power according to the wishes of the people, democracy can’t do it. I would also say that you’re not recognising the mechanism by which democracy preserves freedom – equal distribution of power over the executive will in most cases force the executive to recognise an equal division of freedoms. Maximising individual influence maximises possibility of achieving the freedoms those individuals desire.

  11. Posted 02/09/2010 at 14:18 | Permalink

    Why not have a pure PR system, combined with a high minimum threshold to enter parliament (say, 10%)? That system would proportionally represents the votes of those who voted for the bigger parties. Makes it just as easy to remove a government than FPTP, but without grossly misrepresenting people’s votes.
    Of course, it would mean that the views of people who voted for a 9.9%-party are not represented at all, while the views of those who voted for a 10.1%-party would be fully represented. But that’s precisely what FPTP does. The PR+threshold system would just make it explicit.

  12. Posted 06/09/2010 at 00:35 | Permalink

    Proportional voting creates a strong Opposition. Public spending may or may not increase, but the money will probably be better spent.

  13. Posted 06/09/2010 at 07:41 | Permalink


    This system denies an individual to gain entry, which suits the incumbents very nicely. That alone is enough for me to reject the idea.

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