Voting for democracy – lambs to the slaughter



Next May there is to be a referendum, at the behest of Nick Clegg, on whether or not the UK should change the first-past-the-post system to the Alternative Vote (AV) system. Under AV, voters must rank the candidates according to preference and if no candidate has an overall majority the bottom candidate’s votes are re-distributed amongst the others, and so on until there is a clear winner. This keeps minority parties in the race, as one would expect under a proposal from the leader of a minority party, but there is no clear reason why that is an improvement, any more than there is for literally scores of other possible voting systems, each of which has its own following.

In terms of benefits to mankind, all voting systems are varieties of the question “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” They are poor substitutes for exchanges that can be made amongst individuals under which all gain and nobody loses; if some don’t like the game they don’t have to play and by definition are no worse off than before.

The chattering classes and the elites of politics love elections. A good example of this is the BBC; you can almost feel their paroxysms of delight throughout the whole election process. Yet the process is essentially a very serious game which, by virtue of an advance auction of goods about to be stolen and redistributed elsewhere (with huge commissions to the auctioneers), creates enormous aggregate net losses, just as does any other form of theft.

When government was small this hardly mattered. But now, government doesn’t do small, and as it expands its scope, it attracts people of a very different mind-set. The motivations for a Parliamentary career have changed radically, from a strong wish to do good to exercising power for its own sake and the corruption of the system for personal gain. This fits precisely Hayek’s explanation of “why the worst get on top”.

Thus in 1930 a Labour MP gave his wife and daughter two rail travel vouchers from a pack issued to him (only) for travelling between his constituency and Westminster. The ticket inspector pressed charges and that was the end of the MP’s career.

Over a less than century, serious corruption in Westminster has moved from virtually unheard of to routine. The same goes for abuse of power – examples I recall include Jack Straw’s refusal to release records of how the Iraq war came about (it would “damage democracy”) and Harriet Harman’s reaction to Fred Goodwin’s pension (“it might be enforceable in a court of law but it’s not enforceable in the court of public opinion and that is where the Government steps in”). It’s not that many years since Harriet was a National Council of Civil Liberties activist. 

This decline coincides (but not coincidentally) with the rise of total taxation over the last century or so from about 5% of GDP to about 50%. But we ain’t seen nothing yet. My knowledge of history isn’t exhaustive, but I suggest we’d be hard put to find a democracy that lasted as much as 500 years. Of course there is room for doubt about what a democracy actually is, which is one reason why Churchill’s famous remark “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried” is little more than a sound-bite.

An unlimited democracy in which all decisions can be settled by a majority vote is essentially the same as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. A “representative” democracy is potentially even worse, with government itself taking all decisions in an elective dictatorship, such as those of Hitler and Mussolini. Modern Britain is getting ever closer to this position.

What is needed above all else is a constitution, listing all the areas which are off limits for either government or majorities to settle (such limits, both personal and economic, being based in particular on the bulwark of private property in its widest sense).

Not one of the original constitutional documents of the USA (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights) mentioned the word democracy. These documents are themselves bulwarks, but over a period of time “representative” government dismantles them or disobeys them without fear of retribution.

If history is anything to go by, the picture is bleak indeed. We are fiddling while Rome burns, which it duly did. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human Action, “The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Fuhrer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.”

8 thoughts on “Voting for democracy – lambs to the slaughter”

  1. Posted 23/07/2010 at 10:28 | Permalink

    Well said. What matters most about politics is not how governments are elected or self-appointed, but what they actually do. And limiting the role of modern governments is a vital part of the process. Hence some of David Cameron’s rhetoric about the strangely-named ‘Big Society’ is quite encouraging.

    Democracy is not an end in itself, but a means to an end; and (as Hayek explained) not every extension of democracy is necessarily an advantage. When I was young and mischievous I used to argue, as if in earnest, that five-year-olds should be given the vote.

    As I see it, the main essential is to get a chance to throw the rascals out. That is a major objection to the European Union.

  2. Posted 23/07/2010 at 12:26 | Permalink

    But to implement your policies you need the support of the people, and be seen to have the support of the people. We have to have a government, so we should want it to represent our views as closely as possible. So the nature of the electoral system actually does matter.

  3. Posted 23/07/2010 at 14:40 | Permalink

    GF – yes it does matter, but it’s hardly as important as other issues. We shouldn’t be so worried about how the government gets elected, as that’s always a compromise, as much as the vast size and power which government possesses. It’s all very well to have a constitution, although without constant vigilance and a culture of liberalism, but no constitution is safe from the accretion of government power (that’s the central lesson of US history in the c20). Democracy is fine, but as Hayek argued, it’s a means to an end (liberty) not an end in itself. Thus more democracy won’t cure the problems of overmighty government, we need less government, not more democratic government.

  4. Posted 23/07/2010 at 15:44 | Permalink

    I hope it’s a given that I’m in favour of limited government, and that I only view democracy as the means to that end. My point is that it’s the only stable means to that end. We can democratically set a new constitution that ensures limited government which, for example, does not allow laws overriding free speech. Of course constant vigilance is required to ensure it is not subverted, but that is impossible to overcome in any system.

    I also maintain, furthermore, that more democratic government actually leads to less government. The problems we face in the UK today vis a vis corruption and the increase in the tax take is because the voice of the people is not being heard, not its opposite.

  5. Posted 23/07/2010 at 16:10 | Permalink

    Firstly, that’s a questionable assumption as representative democracy and big government have grown hand-in-hand in this and other countries. And now that voters are gifted public funds, it is in no politician’s interest to take this away (the ‘voice of the people’ doesn’t say small government. Everyone has a vested interest in various areas large government and will protect the areas that serve them). How is AV, FPTP or PR going to give a louder voice to the electorate? Instead we could think about restricting the franchise – e.g. public employees can’t vote, and those in receipt of public funds can’t vote (except that would be everyone! so we’d have to wait).

  6. Posted 23/07/2010 at 16:38 | Permalink

    “The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Fuhrer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.”

    With the possible exception of the Chinese Empire.

  7. Posted 23/07/2010 at 16:40 | Permalink

    If limited government is so wonderful (and I believe it is) then we should be able to persuade the electorate of that. We can argue contrariwise that people will fight to get rid of the parts of government that don’t benefit them. The point is that people will vote for what benefits them overall, and I believe we can form a coalition of “screwed tax-payers”, which form the vast majority of this country.

    Again, the “democracy” we have now is hardly representative. When was the last time you heard anyone being happy with the performance of Parliament? They’re institutionally incentivised to take care of themselves first, so let’s change the institutional incentives!

  8. Posted 23/07/2010 at 20:29 | Permalink

    A single vote every four or five years in a general election is hardly a discriminating instrument by which to eliminate ‘the parts of government that don’t benefit’ people.

    Possibly a much larger number of narrowly focussed referenda might achieve that — and it’s noticeable how most ‘democratic’ UK politicians are strongly opposed to referenda (perhaps for precisely that reason). Even when all three parties have promised a referendum (on the EU Constitution) in their manifestos, they shamelessly broke their (unenforceable) promises. What sort of prospect for democracy does that offer?

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