Friday, 8 November 2013

One Moron, One Vote

I think it was Winston Churchill who pointed out that democracy was a bad system, but everything else that has been tried was even worse. I grew up indoctrinated with the orthodoxy that democracy was, on the contrary, a very good thing. However, living and learning do little to substantiate that opinion, and each passing year deepens my suspicion that the great man was right.

For small groups and trivial questions, simple majority voting is more than adequate. As the voters rise into thousands and millions, though, the scale brings practical problems to all but the most sparing use of general popular votes. Moreover, as the questions become more complex and arcane, the validity of the general lay voters' judgement necessarily declines. Thus, we have to resort to representative democracy, where the nominally empowered voters elect, according to context, a committee, council, board or parliament comprised of those who the voters trust most to study the complex questions they lack the time, if not the capacity to research, and vote appropriately on their behalf. Well, that is what they need to do to make it work, anyway.

Regular readers will have noticed a mundane tendency of this blog to pay more attention to real world outcomes than the beauty of theories. So, the reality is, many voters, especially political voters, do not ask themselves whether they trust their representatives to judge well on their behalf, but instead vote for either the most famous candidate or the one from their loyalty group, without the least attempt to assess their capabilities to make the well-informed and thought-through decisions they are unable to make for themselves.

Equality of rights is a fine and good principle, that I am proud to uphold. Even so, equality of ability is an absurd fancy, so a presumption of it is an unsound basis for anything. The compromise lies in the concept of fairness. Unfortunately, fairness is an inherently subjective matter in a way that equality is not. We all know what honestly seems fair to each of us, but our individual ideas of fairness vary and even conflict. Yet another matter where consensus is probably the best thing, for all the reflexive difficulty in fairly determining it.

One way to resolve the conflict between equal rights to vote and unequal ability to use that vote is to weight the voting, so that those likely to have better judgement count for more. I do not know why political thinkers generally shy away from considering this. The only writer I personally know to have explored it was the mid-20th Century novelist Neville Shute.

Shute once wrote a dystopic fantasy of what Britain and the Commonwealth might have been like in the 1980s, projecting from a time of writing in the early1950s, called “In The Wet”. His premise, reflecting his personal circumstances as the proprietor of an aircraft factory under the Attlee government, was that the UK was a hotbed of creativity and engineering talent dragged down by an electoral system favouring talentless union placemen, while the entrepreneurial spirits had all baled out for colonies with go-ahead leadership, as Shute himself did in real life. In the book, the extra votes went for having a degree or equivalent, working abroad then coming back, being a clergyman, raising a family to adulthood without divorce and a few other indications of being a solid citizen. Shute's vision, rightly or wrongly, was that this would lead to a sharp increase in the quality of candidates being elected.

Sixty or more years on from when Shute flew his kite, the electoral process is a hot topic in the Bailiwick of Jersey. The current electoral districts are gerrymandered to restrict the representation of urban voters to way below pro rata, and the urban voters do their own part to justify their under-representation, by mostly abstaining from voting for the few Members they do get. Despite this manifest apathy, the minority, who do care, have long clamoured for reform.

2013 actually saw a referendum on electoral reform, but the questions were fudged to make a three-way choice between a fine reform, a botch to make matters worse, or leaving things be. Of course, people will be people and the botch narrowly won, fortunately with too small a turn-out to provide any sort of mandate for implementing it. However, one interpretation that could be put on such a result is that the democratic will of the people of Jersey is for an unequal distribution of voting power. This is where Shute's additional vote scheme comes in. With updated and locally appropriate criteria, only politicians rash enough to suggest that anyone of superior judgement would be prejudiced against them could object.

While the principle is not unreasonable, the devil would be in the detail of how the additional votes were assigned. Could we trust the States of Jersey to give the extra power to the wisest voters, or would they settle for something similar to gerrymandered boundaries, maybe one extra for a bank clerk, two for an officer, three for lawyer or accountant and none for a teacher because they are often left-wingers? I fear the latter would be the reality.

If it could be done honestly, it could be a way of improving Jersey politics, by playing on the vanity of the current establishment, to lead them to empower those who they think would support them but don't. Moreover, it would accord with the local cultural expectation, that politics should be for the middle classes. Although I would not back it myself, except as the other choice to a truly awful option, it is at least a different approach to stopping Jersey democracy from being considered an oxymoron, so I offer it as food for thought.

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