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.”