What is Democracy? (65): A Political Decision Procedure Distorted by the Order Effect

People’s choices are often sensitive to differences in the order in which the options appear. This is one among many psychological biases we all suffer from to some extent. For example,

In the Eurovision song contest, for example, the first or later performers have more chance of winning than those appearing in the middle of the show. (source)

Unsurprisingly, democracy is not immune from this bias. Here’s some evidence from the Irish democracy showing that the order of candidates on ballots affects election outcomes:

The estimated effect of being listed first on an alphabetical ballot paper in an Irish general election is approximately 544 first preference votes or 1.27 percentage points for the average candidate. (source)

In California,

being listed first benefits everyone. Major party candidates generally gain one to three percentage points, while minor party candidates may double their vote shares. (source)

And it’s not just candidates’ surnames or positions on ballots that affect democratic selection procedures. The tone of their voice, their looks and a ton of other biases also play a role. And yet I still believe in the value of democracy.

Needless to say that the order effect – or “ordering effect”, or “serial position effect” – isn’t limited to politics. Next time you walk into a shop and ask for advice, you can bet that the sales person will present you the most expensive item first, because having seen this one first, all the others will look like a bargain and will influence your decision to buy.

More on the order effect here. More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (64): Plutocracy?

The role of money in democracy is hotly contested. It’s undeniable that democracies spend a lot of money on campaigns, advertising, lobbying etc. Some argue that wealthy individuals or corporations often use their financial means to distort the outcomes of elections or the framing of policy and legislation. There may also be a problem of vote buying: wealthy individuals or politicians paying voters or giving them some other advantages (such as jobs or cheap housing) in an effort to convince them to vote in a certain way. Worries about the effect of income inequality on democracy are partly based on this type of argument, as are efforts to regulate campaign financing.

And indeed, the huge amounts of money going around in democratic politics could potentially move us away of the democratic ideal of equal influence. So the charge of plutocracy isn’t necessarily ridiculous. However, this is essentially an empirical matter and we should therefore look at evidence from political science. Here’s a short and somewhat depressing overview:

With regard to overall spending, Jacobson (1978) was the first to show an effect on vote outcomes, but this effect was mainly present for challengers [in U.S. Congressional elections]. In subsequent years, the effect of challenger spending was confirmed, but others also found effects for incumbent spending as well (e.g. Green & Krasno 1988, Erikson & Palfrey 1995, Gerber 1998). The basic takeaway is that spending more is clearly effective for challengers, and probably also matters for incumbents too, but solving the causal direction problems involved makes it very difficult to be really certain of any of these findings.

One problem is we know that winning candidates generally have more money, but whether money helps candidates or is just a signal of unobserved candidate quality [i.e., people give more money to better candidates] is unclear. Another problem is that not only are donors attracted to high-quality candidates just as voters are, but they are also attracted to winning candidates—that is, if money is given in order to get access to elected officials, donors are more likely to give to candidates who are expected to do well, because the expected return is greater. In both cases, we could observe an empirical relationship between winning and having more money for your campaign, without the money actually “causing” the victory. (source)

So, maybe the “plutocrats” can’t just simply spend in order to have their preferred candidate elected and instead spend money on the candidate who is good and who will win anyway. However, the fact remains that their spending gives them privileged access to politicians and possibly also privileged influence on subsequent policy, and that isn’t something we want in a democracy. If “winning candidates generally have more money” – whether the money causes the win or not – one can reasonably assume that the candidates will in some way be indebted to or influenced by their donors. Also, even if there are doubts about the causal direction, it is worrying that the evidence doesn’t rule out the possibility that campaign spending – especially spending by challengers – can determine who gets elected.

Regarding deterrence – successful fundraising by incumbents deterring challengers from entering a race – the empirical evidence is weak:

there is no consensus in the literature regarding deterrence, and once again there are major questions about causal relationships (i.e., do high-raising incumbents deter, or is it just high-quality incumbents who can raise a great deal of money and simultaneously deter quality challengers for reasons having nothing to do with funding?). (source)

Whatever the evidence on deterrence, it’s clear that money determines who can run. It’s naive to think that a candidate with few means would be able to run against another having a lot of means. The former would simply be invisible, even if he or she feels undeterred.

What about campaign advertising, one of the more visible ways in which money could play a part in politics?

[A]ds appear to be somewhat effective but have wide variance in their effectiveness (that is, some ads help a lot, most help very little or not at all, and a few are counterproductive). (source)

Voter mobilization – face-to-face canvassing, mailings, phone calls – is also very expensive, hence well-funded candidates can do more of it. Whether they in fact do more of it depends on its effectiveness:

mobilization efforts appear to be effective but costly (face-to-face canvassing appears most effective by far, while phone calls & direct mail have much less effect). (source)

The conclusion is that campaign spending is somewhat effective, and that those candidates with more money do somewhat better. This results in a financial arms race between candidates, increasing the risk of donor indebtedness and of unequal access and influence:

Candidates who raise a lot of money tend to do better, and it’s more likely than not that at least part of this relationship is due to money paying for things like ads and canvassers that help candidates win over new voters and/or turn out their bases. (source)

Vote buying is the other channel through which money could potentially influence democratic politics. Here, some of the evidence is more encouraging:

The experiment took place during the March 2011 elections in Benin and involved 150 randomly selected villages. The treatment group had town hall meetings where voters deliberated over their candidate’s electoral platforms with no cash distribution. The control group had the standard campaign, i.e. one-way communication of the candidate’s platform by himself or his local broker, followed (most of the time) by cash distribution.

We find that the treatment has a positive effect on turnout. In addition, using village level election returns, we find no significant difference in electoral support for the experimental candidate between treatment and control villages.

…the positive treatment effect is driven in large part by active information sharing by those who attended the meetings. (source)

In conclusion: democracy is not simply a market transaction, but neither is it silly to worry about the role of money in elections and legislation.

More on money in politics here. More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (60): Is Separation of Powers Compatible With All Types of Democracy?

OK, that question is probably way too ambitious for a blogpost. There are dozens of types of democracy, so let’s just look at two types: presidential democracy and parliamentary democracy (PrD and PaD for short in what remains). And that means not only limiting the scope of the investigation but also simplifying it: there are many different types of PrD or PaD (the Westminster model is one form of PaD, the US system is one form of PrD). But that’s what you have to do if you want to keep your blogposts relatively short and readable.

Moreover, separation of powers is an enormously complex topic as well, so again I’ll have to simplify. I’ll focus on two of the three powers that are traditionally distinguished: the executive and the legislative powers and ask how separation between these two powers is compatible with PrD and PaD.

First, why is separation between these two powers an important value? For the same reason that separation of powers in general is important: to create checks and balances and to pit different powers of the state against each other so that there is less risk of tyrannical government and collusion of different powers against the people. The executive power, which normally executes the laws voted by the legislative power, usually also has a veto power against certain acts of legislation in order to limit the risk of oppressive or unjust legislation. Sometimes, when it gets very bad, the executive can also disband the legislative power and provoke new elections. Conversely, the legislative power often has the power to demand accountability and transparency from the executive power. If the legislative believes that the executive power acts in impermissible ways it can vote laws that make those acts illegal. And so on.

What are the main differences between PrD and PaD? In a PrD – where you have of course also a parliament – the executive power is elected directly by popular vote. People elect a president and this president selects her government. The people also elect members of parliament in separate elections.

In a PaD, the executive isn’t elected directly by the people. The people elect only the members of parliament. The political party (or parties) that manage to get a majority of elected members of parliament then form a government (often after coalition negotiations between parties when there isn’t one party that has managed to acquire a majority of representatives in parliament).

A PrD seems better able to respect the separation between the executive and legislative powers. A president doesn’t sit in parliament and doesn’t rely on the approval of the legislative for her political survival and hence she is unlikely to always have the same views as the legislative majority. Checks and balances can work. She has an independent mandate from the people and she can have a view that’s different from the view of the parliamentary majority. In PaD, the executive is a product of a parliamentary majority. It’s often even composed of some members of the parliamentary majority who sit both in the government and in parliament. Therefore, it isn’t common in a PaD for the executive to counteract the legislative or vice versa. In a PaD, these two powers are more or less the same. The executive is the parliamentary majority and parliament as such is systematically in agreement with the executive. It’s only the parliamentary minority that can voice opposition. But that’s it: it has a voice but it can’t effectively block executive initiatives, since it’s merely a minority. The act of legislation often originates in the executive that in fact has the power to enact whatever legislation it wants since it automatically has the support of the parliamentary majority. Why is that the case? Members of the parliamentary majority who aren’t part of the executive are often second rate party members who are easily persuaded to approve the legislative initiatives of the executive because their political career depends on the support from the senior party members who make up the executive. For the same reasons, the accountability and transparency requirements are often sidestepped because the parliamentary majority doesn’t want to embarrass the executive.

So, PaD abandons part of the separation of powers in order to gain efficiency. Parliamentary systems, compared to presidential systems, can act in a more decisive and a quicker manner (in theory at least). In a PrD, the president can block legislation coming from parliament or can have her legislative proposals voted down by a parliamentary majority.

However, this efficiency advantage of PaD compared to PrD is often lost when coalitions are necessary. This is why some parliamentary systems avoid proportional representation – which tends to produce more than two political parties with representatives in parliament – and use some kind of district system combined with first-past-the-post elections – which tends to lead to two party systems and hence avoids the need for coalitions.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that PaD doesn’t have any separation of powers at all. It usually has an independent judiciary that can act as a counterweight and that can use for example judicial review to invalidate laws that are incompatible with the constitution. So it really isn’t easy to say which system is preferable. Efficiency is perhaps just as important as separation. Yet the direct election of the executive, which is typical of PrD and also the basis of many of the advantages of PrD compared to PaD, generates more popular control and hence more democracy, and that is important as well. And finally. PrDs are more stable. So on balance I think I prefer PrD.

What is Democracy? (58): A Voice Based Selection Process for Politicians

It’s both a damning verdict on democracy and a charming play on words: voters apparently use their vote to choose politicians with a certain type of voice (the word “vote” being related to “voice”). More precisely, voters prefer politicians with lower-pitched voices:

Participants in the study, published in the journal of Evolution and Human Behavior, were asked to listen to archival voice recordings of nine U.S. presidents. The researchers, from Canada’s McMaster University, created higher- and lower-pitched versions of each voice. Listeners were then asked to assess the attractiveness, honesty, leadership potential and intelligence — among other qualities — of the speakers.

For nearly every attribute they were asked to rate, participants were significantly more likely to prefer the deeper voice. The only category in which higher voices won? Most Likely to Be Involved in a Government Scandal. …

Previous studies have found that both men and women find men with deeper voices more attractive and more dominant. And in eight U.S. presidential elections between 1960 and 2000, the candidate with the deeper voice has won the popular vote. (source)

Politicians’ looks create a similar distortion of proper democratic processes. Hence I guess the answer to the questions I asked here and here should be “yes” after all.

More posts in this series are here.

Measuring Democracy (8): A Multidimensional Measurement

Any attempt to measure the degree of democracy in a country should take into account the fact that democracy is something multidimensional. It won’t suffice to measure elections, not even the different aspects of elections such as frequency, participation, fairness, transparency etc. It takes more than fair and inclusive elections to have a democracy. Of course, the theoretical ideal of democracy is a controversial notion, so we won’t be able to agree on all the necessary dimensions or elements of a true democracy. Still, you can’t escape this problem if you want to build a measurement system: measuring something means deciding which parts of it are worth measuring.

You would also do best to take a maximalist approach: leaving out too many characteristics would allow many or even all countries to qualify as fully democratic and would make it impossible to differentiate between the different levels or the different quality of democracy across countries. A measurement system is useful precisely because it offers distinctions and detailed rankings and because it makes it possible to determine the distance to an ideal, whatever the nature of the ideal. Obviously, a maximalist approach is by definition more controversial than a minimal one. Everyone agrees that you can’t have a democracy without elections (or, better, without voting more generally). Whether strong free speech rights and an independent judiciary are necessary is less clear. And the same is true for other potential attributes of democracy.

Once you’ve determined what you believe are necessary attributes you can start to measure the extent at which they are present in different countries. Hence, your measurement will look like a set of sliding scales. With all the markers on the right side in the case of a non-existing ideal democracy, and all the markers on the left side in the unfortunately very real case of total absence of democracy.

(The aggregation of these scales into a total country score is another matter that I’ve discussed elsewhere).

Some candidates of attributes are:

  • Does a country include more or less people in the right to have a democratic say? How high is the voting age? Are criminals excluded from the vote, even after they have served their sentence? Are immigrants without citizenship excluded? Are there conditions attached to the right to vote (such as property, education, gender etc.)?
  • Does a country include more or less topics in the right to a democratic say? Are voters not allowed to have a say about the affairs of the military, or about policies that have an impact on the rights of minorities? Does the judiciary have a right to judicial review of democratically approved laws?
  • Does a country include more or less positions in the right to a democratic say? Can voters elect the president, judges, prosecutors, mayors, etc., or only parliamentarians? Can they elect local office holders? Does a country have a federalist structure with important powers at the local or state level?
  • Does a country impose qualified majorities for certain topics or positions? Do voters have to approve certain measures with a two-thirds supermajority?
  • Does a country provide more or less ways to express a democratic say? Can voters only elect officials or can they also vote on issues in referenda?
  • Does a country impose more or less restrictions on the formation of a democratic say? Are free speech rights and assembly and association rights respected?
  • Does a country accept more or less imbalances of power in the formation of a democratic say? Are there campaign financing rules?
  • Does a country show more or less respect for the expression of a democratic say? How much corruption is there? Is the judiciary independent?

A “more” score on any of these attributes will push up the total “democracy score” for a country. At least it seems so, if not for the conclusion that all these complications in the measurement system are still not enough. We need to go further and add additional dimensions. For example, one can argue that we shouldn’t define democracy solely on the basis of the right to a democratic say, not even if we render this right as complex as we did above. A democracy should, ideally, also be a stable form of government, and allowing people to decide about the fundamental rights of minorities is an expression of the right to a democratic say but it is not in the long term interest of democracy. Those minorities will ultimately rebel against this tyranny of the majority and cause havoc for everyone.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (57): A System For Signaling Disapproval of the Weather

I already mentioned the fact that a country’s economic performance determines to a large extent the outcome of democratic elections, irrespective of the causal link between this performance and the policies or behavior of elected officials. I also stated my disappointment: ideally, democracy is more than a system for signaling disapproval of the economy; it should be a process of judging the desirability and effectiveness of the policies (and proposed policies) of politicians (and candidates). This process is meant to improve the quality of policies (through trial and error) and to guarantee that policies correspond to the wishes of the people (wishes which have themselves been improved through deliberation). Just voting out the “damned bastards” because the economy is tanking, even if those “bastards” prevented worse, is not an approximation of the ideal.

However, things seem to be even worse than this. Although economic performance should not be the main criteria for judging politicians – the economy is determined by many different things, and policies only play a limited role – it does make sense to make it part of the evaluation: in some cases, there’s no doubt that politicians can harm or benefit the economy, and all politicians have some influence on it. The same isn’t true for the weather, and yet there’s evidence that voters use elections to signal disapproval of that as well:

We find that voters regularly punish governments for acts of God, including droughts, floods, and shark attacks. As long as responsibility for the event itself (or more commonly, for its amelioration) can somehow be attributed to the government in a story persuasive within the folk culture, the electorate will take out its frustrations on the incumbents and vote for out-parties. Thus, voters in pain are not necessarily irrational, but they are ignorant about both science and politics, and that makes them gullible when ambitious demagogues seek to profit from their misery. (source, source, source)

Obviously, politicians shouldn’t be punished for natural events, but they should for mishandling the aftermath (rescue, rebuilding, future prevention etc.). The latter should be part of democracy as a decent ideal. Politicians should be judged on the way they handle the aftermath of weather events, especially given the fact that some such events become a disaster only because of the political or governmental reaction to it (or absence of a reaction).

However, many natural disasters that used to be considered purely natural events are now believed to be at least partially man-made (for example, global warming may provoke hurricanes). Hence it’s not always irrational to blame politicians for the weather itself, rather than for their handling of the aftermath of weather events. What is irrational is the attempt, contrary to the scientific facts about natural and political causation, to blame politicians for natural events or their aftermaths when those events or aftermaths are not clearly manmade.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Democracy? (53): Secret Ballot, or Public Vote?

The secret ballot has become so common in modern democracies that it’s hardly ever questioned. And yet, there are good reasons why a democratic vote should be public. So, let’s go over the pros and cons of the secret ballot, and see where that gets us.

Advantages of the secret ballot

  • The desire to avoid voter intimidation or bribery is the obvious and most commonly cited justification of the secrecy of the ballot. If people in power know how an individual votes, then this individual may be pressured to vote in a certain way. And “people in power” should be understood in a broad sense, including employers, dominant husbands etc. This justification is based on certain key features of a democracy, namely equal influence, one-man-one-vote etc. The risk of coercion is present even in societies where the general level of coercion is low and democratic values are widely shared. And it’s often the least advantaged who will be coerced, because they have most to gain from changing their vote to please someone else, and most to lose from not doing so.
  • The risk of pressure can also be present in other, more subtle forms. For example, it has been shown that people are afraid to publicly oppose authority figures. Tests have shown that when an authority figure speaks first, there’s less dissent afterwards. An open ballot can lead to forced conformity.

Disadvantages of the secret ballot

  • Implicit in the doctrine of the secret ballot is the assumption that the electoral process is no more than the aggregation of individual preferences which have been fixed previously and independently of the electoral process. However, the voting process is, ideally, also formative of preferences, and not merely an arithmetic process based on fixed preferences. That means that people deliberate and discuss about the best way to vote, about the best candidates and policies. But that also means that people have to present their positions and preferences in public. Maybe the ultimate vote can still be secret, but the initial voting intention can’t be if we want democracy to be a lively debate. But if the voting intention can be public, why not the actual vote?
  • An open ballot allows representatives to know exactly whom they are representing. One of the advantages of this knowledge is that it allows for some efficiency gains. Representatives know who has to be convinced. Those efficiency gains should improve the electoral process.
  • When you vote in an election for representatives or in a referendum, this vote has real consequences. Taken together with the votes of your fellow citizens, your vote is likely to change the lives of a number of people, and sometimes change these lives dramatically. Moreover, those people are likely to be minorities, and hence relatively powerless. It’s therefore important that voters are accountable to their fellow citizens and that they explain and justify the reasons they have for voting in a certain way. This horizontal accountability is incompatible with the secret ballot.
  • Why should we have secret ballots for voters and at the same time open votes in parliament, as is usually the case? After all, the justifications for a secret ballot for voters also apply to representatives. They also may be subject to pressure when it’s known how they vote. Maybe to a lesser extent than some parts of the electorate, since they tend to be wealthy and generally powerful, but still. Representatives are less numerous, and hence it’s easier and more effective to use pressure in order to manipulate a vote. Also, the public nature of representatives’ positions makes them vulnerable to specific kinds of pressure that can’t be applied to ordinary citizens (e.g. they may be blackmailed for indecent private behavior and thereby pressured to vote in a certain way). Of course, representative bodies are different from electorates, and therefore not entirely comparable. For example, it’s hard to see how a representative body can be accountable to the electorate when it votes in secret. Voters have to know what the individual representatives have accomplished, or not, so that they can “throw the bums out” at the next election if necessary. Also, this threat of non-reelection can pressure the representatives to act in ways desired by the electorate. So, pressure – at least some kind of pressure – is part and parcel of the representative process, whereas it’s incompatible with a popular vote. However, even if a vote by representatives isn’t entirely comparable to a vote by the people, it still is somewhat comparable, and people arguing for a secret ballot in a general election will have to explain why their arguments don’t also apply to votes in parliament.
  • Open ballots, both in representative bodies and in general, force people to restrict themselves to preferences and arguments that they can justify to others. If you vote in a certain way, and are seen to be voting in a certain way, people will ask you why. And if you’re pressured to answer this question and to justify your vote (or voting intention), it’s a lot more difficult to be motivated, or to be seen to be motivated by self-interest only. Hence, the open ballot will make voters more sensitive to the general interest, which is a good thing. Also, this public justification tends to improve the quality of preferences, since people have to think about them, argue about them with others etc. That’s the logic of the marketplace of ideas.
  • And, finally, open ballots make electoral fraud a lot more difficult, if not impossible.

Obviously, not all of these advantages and disadvantages have the same importance, and they don’t make it instantly clear whether a secret or an open ballot should be preferred in principle. Much depends on the specific circumstances. For example, in a country with a lot of economic inequality and gender inequality, the case for a secret ballot for voters is relatively strong. In general, a mixed system is probably best. However, we don’t have such a mixed system at the moment. Most modern democracies strongly favor secret ballots, and seem to ignore the real problems resulting from such a system. I believe some more attention should be given to these problems and to possible solutions, which obviously doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and deny people’s right to keep their opinions to themselves if they so wish. There can’t be a duty of free speech.

What is Democracy? (37): One Man, One Vote

Or better, one person, one vote. It’s not until relatively recently that women and minorities have been given the vote, even in the most advanced democracies in the world.

In most modern democracies, most adults have a vote. Few large groups (felons, children and immigrants excepted) are excluded from voting, and no one has more votes than anyone else. (In the early days of many democracies, some people had a larger number of votes; this was called plural voting).

However, it’s not because all people have one vote, that all votes have the same weight and that all people have an equal weight in the aggregate outcome of the vote. They only have in democracies that use proportional representation. PR results in a political spectrum in parliament that roughly coincides with the spectrum of the voters. No part of the electorate is over- or under-represented.

Democracies which do not use PR often use district systems (e.g. the U.S. and the U.K.). This is also called the “first-past-the-post” system – whoever has most votes in a district (not necessarily the majority of votes) gets the seat in parliament reserved for this district and becomes the only representative for the district (“winner takes all”). In some cases, this electoral system gives power to a relative majority and therefore, not necessarily an absolute majority. A party that has a few more votes than all other parties in a majority of districts, will have a majority of seats in parliament, but perhaps a minority of the votes. As this example indicates, a district system can result in the rule of a minority. An important minority or maybe, even a majority may not be represented at all. Political equality and majority rule, the basic values of a democracy, are affected. There is no longer a perfect match between the views of the people and the views present in parliament.

In such a system, the one-man-one-vote principle can be further harmed If the districts are not equal in proportion in terms of population. If both a small group of people and a large group of people have one representative, then we can hardly claim to have political equality, regardless of the possible problems created by the winner-takes-all rule. In some countries, rich minorities have often been given small districts, which favored them politically and offered them a very large and disproportional share of the seats in parliament. This is called gerrymandering.

For these and other reasons, the type of democracy instituted in the U.S. deviates, in part, from the principle of one-man-one-vote (a reason for some to call it a republic rather than a democracy, although the difference between these two concepts is spurious, see here). Whereas each member of the House of Representatives represents more or less the same number of voters (even though the system is based on voting districts), the Senate seats are not allocated according to population. Each state, large and small, gets two seats. Wyoming, with barely half a million citizens, has exactly the same political influence in the Senate as California (37m citizens). If you view U.S. states as large districts, you could say that the U.S. Senate has institutionalized the bias that gerrymandering can create in district systems.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the U.S. Senate, the Second Chamber in the U.S. parliament, didn’t have so much political power. Its powers, defined in the Constitution, include

  • consenting to treaties as a precondition to their ratification
  • approval of both chambers is necessary for the passage of legislation.

Even a minority of Senators can block legislation. The filibuster is a tactic used to defeat bills and motions by prolonging debate indefinitely. As it takes 60 votes out of a total of 100 Senators to stop a filibuster, a minority can block everything if it wants. So again, a further restriction of the democratic principle of one-man-one-vote. The Economist has calculated that if the least populous states ganged together, senators representing 11% of the population could thwart the will of the remaining 89%. Speaking of tyranny of the majority … The filibuster has often been used for very conservative and ill-intended purposes such as the preservation of Jim Crow laws and wasteful farm subsidies.

It can of course be used for more positive purposes as well. It can slow down over-anxious House representatives and hence improve the quality of legislation. The division of the legislative power into two parts, an Upper House and a Lower House or a House of Representatives and a Senate, is typical of a democracy and makes it possible to correct mistakes made in one House. One House can slow down or stop another House when some decisions are too risky or are taken without the necessary reflection or discussions. This system

doubles the security to the people by requiring the concurrence of two distinct bodies in schemes of usurpation or perfidy, where the ambition or corruption of one would otherwise be sufficient. James Madison in the Federalist Papers.

If we expect two houses or chambers to control and correct each other, then the participants of both must be selected in different ways. But it seems that this can still be done with a higher degree of respect for the principle of one-man-one-vote.

The reasoning behind this deviation from the one-man-one-vote system in the U.S. was to ensure equal representation of each state in the Senate, so that populous states can’t take measures that harm the fundamental interests of small states and therefore can’t violate the federalist philosophy of the U.S. It was supposed to be a counterweight against the “people’s house” (the House of Representatives) that would be sensitive to public opinion. Trust in public opinion has never been very high (which I argue is a self-fulfilling prophecy). But rather than protect the U.S. from the tyranny of public opinion, one has delivered it to the tyranny of the minority. Hardly democratic at all.

What is Democracy? (35): A Complete Waste of Time?

The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of an election are very small. Close elections are very rare, and even rarer are those in which one vote is pivotal. So it doesn’t make a difference whether you participate or not. In light of this, it’s a small miracle that turnouts are as high as they are, and it’s ridiculous for people to lament a turnout that’s “only” 60%.

Clearly, people know that their votes don’t affect the outcome and vote for other reasons than a mere sense of responsibility. But what reasons? Signaling is certainly part of it. People vote because they are more than individuals. They identify with others, they want to belong and they want to be part of a “movement” or party that has a certain set of beliefs. Voting makes them such a part, and hence gives them an identity and a cause. Let’s not forget that an identity is highly dependent on expression and on recognition of this expression by others. Elections, even with a secret vote, are highly effective tools for the production of identity. The seemingly meaningless anf futile vote of an individual becomes quite meaningful when aggregated with the votes of like-minded individuals.

It’s only when you adopt an economic and reductionist view of people, in which individuals only pursue their self-interest, that you cannot make sense of apparently silly behavior such as voting in which the costs (transport, risk, time etc.) outweigh the benefits (if any).

There’s also the mysterious force of the “if-everyone-were-doing-this” rule, which we apply regularly. Throwing one piece of garbage in the park is almost absolutely harmless. Someone will clean it, and if not no one will notice. And yet most of us just don’t do it because “if everyone was doing it” – which they are not – it would be hell, and that’s how we teach our kids not to do it. And they understand. And they – or most of them – listen and don’t do it. Part of the reason why this rule works is the force of example. We don’t want to give a bad example because when people follow it, we will suffer, even though we may in the short run benefit from doing what we shouldn’t.

Similarly, when large numbers of voters believe that their vote doesn’t make much of a difference and isn’t worth the cost of participating, then they give a bad example which can be followed by large numbers of people. As a result, the usefulness of the remaining votes increases, and these votes will then determine the behavior of the rest of the population. People will be ruled by a minority with perhaps harmful views. So in order not to find themselves in this situation which is detrimental to most people, most people choose to vote.

A better way to express this idea:

The idea is not that one person’s decision to forgo voting would crash the system—how would that possibly happen?—but that it is immoral to act on a maxim that we cannot imagine everyone else acting on. So if I … will abstain from voting because the costs of voting outweigh the benefits, I will first need to see if the maxim passes a test implicit in Kant’s categorical imperative. I ought not act in accordance with the maxim if it fails the test.

So let’s see: can I universalise the non-voting maxim? Can I imagine living in a world in which every eligible voter opts for a nap or a game of Temple Run in lieu of going to the polls? No. The logic of American democracy does not support such a universalised principle. No one votes, no one is elected, a moment of constitutional failure brings an emergency convention in which unelected delegates draft a new constitution calling for an alternate system of specifying leaders that doesn’t involve the public. The franchise, and America as we know it, disappears. Since the logic of the system cannot be sustained were everyone to adopt the nap-over-voting maxim, I am morally bound not to act on it.

Now, again, the force of Kant’s argument is not empirical: you don’t need to show that a decision not to vote will actually bring a constitutional doomsday. You just need to show that if universalised it would. (source)

What is Democracy? (34): A Civic Responsibility

In most democracy, voting is a right and not a legal duty. Hence, political participation is less than 100%, sometimes a lot less. Some people vote, and vote only in some elections. The number of people who vote is called voter turnout. Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. In U.S. Presidential elections, for example, turnout is usually between 50 and 60%, with slightly more in the 2008 election which saw many first-time African-American voters vote for Obama.

However, even if voting is not a legal duty in most democracies, it is generally considered to be a moral duty and a civic responsibility. A high voter turnout is generally considered desirable for many different reasons, and most democracies spend a lot of energy on “get the vote out” efforts. One reason for these efforts is the fact that low turnouts lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. Policies will reflect this and will be to the benefit of those who vote. This can result in discrimination.

High turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the system and low turnout as a symptom of disenchantment, indifference and ultimately of the demise of the system. Of course, a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference – except in very close races – and hence it’s normal that people feel indifferent. An individual, when faced with a monolithic monster of a state, threatening and distant at the same time, feels insignificant, like a grain of sand on the beach. Powerlessness becomes a fact of life and people retreat from democratic politics. A single voice is not noticed in the noise of millions and is reduced to insignificance. The state does not react to individual claims as quickly as it is supposed to, if it reacts at all. The bottom line is that individuals or small groups cannot hurt the state. Their votes are less than pinpricks. The only elements in society able to influence the centralized state are large, national and centralized pressure groups or political parties that are just as distant from the citizens as the state and equally insensitive to individuals’ claims.

But there is a solution. Federalism and decentralization encourage participation and counteract alienation and a feeling of distance between the citizens and the state.

Apathy and indifference are also the consequence of the impossibility in many democracies to vote for issues. When people are allowed to take decisions on issues, they will be more eager to debate the issues and to inform themselves on the pros and cons of possible solutions. Relying exclusively on representation creates apathy because people can only vote on persons. Take a look here for the reasons why representation creates indifference.

Other ways to promote civic responsibility are better education, a well functioning civil society in which free associations can mobilize citizens, modern information technologies such as the Internet etc.

Greg Mankiw has a different take on the problem of voter turnout:

Voting is a civic responsibility, they tell us, because democracy works best when everyone participates. … But relying on your fellow citizens to make the right choice … can be perfectly rational. If you really don’t know enough to cast an intelligent vote, you should be eager to let your more informed neighbors make the decision.

Eligible voters who are less informed about the candidates than their fellow citizens choose to stay at home, knowing the outcome will be more reliable without their participation. By not voting, they are doing themselves and everyone else a favor. If the ill-informed were all induced to vote, they would merely add random noise to the outcome.

What’s the evidence that this theory is right, that nonvoters are less informed than voters? Studies of voter turnout have found that education is the single best predictor of who votes: The highly educated turn out more often than less educated. A classic argument for why democracies need widespread public education is that education makes people better voters.

Granted. But rather than encouraging the less educated to stay home, as Mankiw seems to do, we should perhaps try to give them a better education.

What Are Human Rights? (14): Rights of Citizens

Political rights are rights that guarantee participation, directly and through freely chosen representatives, in the affairs of government (mainly legislation). These rights are legitimately reserved for citizens only. A state should guarantee the freedom rights of all persons within its territory, irrespective of their nationality or citizenship, so including the citizens (those people having acquired the nationality of the state by birth, naturalization etc.), immigrants, refugees, stateless people, visitors, tourists etc.

However, political rights may be excluded from this rule because otherwise these rights would become unworkable. This means that people only have political rights in the state of which they are citizens. This in no way limits the universality of political rights. Everybody has political rights, but not everywhere. Furthermore, it must be possible to grant citizenship and the political rights connected to it in a selective way, so as not to empty the meaning of the restriction of political rights to citizens. And this is also what happens in reality. I think there are four good reasons for doing so:

  1. A definition of citizenship purely based on the physical presence within a territory would be too vague. People would enter and leave the community of citizens all of the time and this would create permanent modifications in the image and identity of the political unity (or the political community). This would endanger the stability and the permanence of the state and would allow passing residents to use political rights in order to shape the future of people with whom they have nothing in common. It would therefore be contrary to the democratic ideal of self-control and self-government, an ideal which is the basis of political rights and which I believe to be universally accepted (even tyrannies justify many of their actions on the self-determination of their peoples).
  2. Political rights and citizenship cannot be exercised effectively if the people do not speak a common language (not necessarily their native language). There is no persuasion without mutual understanding and there is no common will without persuasion. On top of that, the effective use of political rights requires that the participants in political life know the political system and the political culture in which they participate. There is even a case to be made for knowledge of general cultural customs as a requirement for granting political rights. All these conditions for the effective use of political rights and hence for citizenship and nationality, seem to imply a further condition, namely a certain stability of residence. It is therefore normal to decide a request for naturalization on the basis of these conditions. However, these conditions do not imply the rejection of multiculturalism. The common language does not have to be the native language and it is possible, in many cases, to know and practice other political and cultural customs without denying your own customs.
  3. Non-citizens usually do not pay taxes. As political decisions often deal with the way in which tax-money should be spent, it seems fair to exclude those who do not contribute to that sum of money. Why should you be allowed to decide what is done with someone else’s money? Let alone spend it for your own purposes?
  4. If a country allows too many people to become its citizens, it can endanger its economic prosperity, especially when the majority of these people are poor and unskilled. This is not egoism. Economic ruin does not help anybody.

Because everybody is not always or cannot always be in his or her own state, and because political rights embody very important human values such as self-government – which means the values of non-citizens as well – we should try to limit the conditions for the enjoyment of these rights by non-citizens to what is absolutely necessary. Foreigners who know the language, the political system and the general culture, who pay taxes and who have lived a certain time in the country should be allowed to enjoy political rights, even when they are not yet citizens in the sense of having acquired the nationality of the country. Not doing so would be discrimination, would lead to frustration and resentment, and would lead to the very problems the first point mentioned above is framed to avoid.

Only freedom rights are universal and come with no strings attached. Citizens and non-citizens alike should have freedom rights everywhere. Freedom rights are the rights of everybody in all places. Political rights are to some extent national rights or rights of citizens only. This does not contradict the principle of the universality of human rights because everybody is a citizen somewhere. Or better, everybody has a right to be a citizen of his or her own state and has a right to be a citizen of a state which protects all the rights of its citizens. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

1. Everyone has the right to a nationality. 2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.