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The Least Worst Option

Most people believe democracy is the best form of government. Or maybe, as Churchill said, it is the worst… apart from all the rest! I think I agree but there are many variations on the basic theme of democracy which give different types of results within the basic framework of the system.

Currently here in New Zealand we are debating changes to our proportional representation system. I think PR is firmly established here now and our particular form, MMP, while having well recognised faults, is a good system overall scoring highly on simplicity and fairness.

In the US, where the system isn’t proportional, the absurdity of how things currently work has become quite apparent. The election hinges on a few “swing states” and the rest of the country is largely irrelevant. In the past the US (as happened in New Zealand before MMP) has elected a president who got less of the total vote than his opponent. Is that fair?

I think it’s clear that proportional systems are fairer than non-proportional. They do have some problems as well: small parties might get a disproportionate amount of influence, PR is often more complex, and sometimes more representatives might be needed. But on balance I don’t think these are significant disadvantages.

It’s clear that in a system like the one the US has at the moment it is practically impossible for any new ideas to be introduced. And I’m not just saying that because the US clearly needs a party representing genuine liberal views, because the libertarian cause has also suffered in the past

Politicians in the US have less freedom because they are so obligated to their sources of campaign funding, which is mostly from corporates. Clearly this power behind the politics has no interest in changing things because they currently control both large parties. It’s unlikely that they will allow things to change like our politicians did in New Zealand where the major parties allowed the introduction of PR even though it was against their interests to do so.

I recently heard an interview about the lack of logic which governs democratic voting. It was with the author of the book “Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn’t Work at All Works So Well”. He discussed some interesting ways that voters make weird decisions and how they can be influenced in various ways which seemingly make no sense. But despite that and as the name of the book suggests he still thinks democracy works.

I will blog about this book in the near future because I found some of the experiments on voter behaviour he quoted quite bizarre and fascinating.

As I write this blog the US presidential election is under way and at this stage it looks like Obama will win. That is the result I would prefer because, as I have said in the past, although I’m no great fan of Obama the alternative is unthinkable!

So I’ll finish this blog with some relevant quotes about democracy…

First I will repeat Churchill’s because I think that is the most relevant of all: “Democracy is the worst form of government… apart from all the rest.” Yes it has many faults but on balance I can’t think of a better way to do things so let’s make the most of it.

Here’s another from Churchill (he was so witty): “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” I’ve said in the past that most people don’t deserve the vote because they are so ignorant over the issues they are voting on. But there is the “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon which might rescue the process in the long term. That’s a topic I might tackle in the future.

Woodrow Wilson said: “The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.” If he noticed that 100 years ago so imagine how much worse it is now!

Then there is this: “The voter should not expect to be able to choose the best option, they should be happy with choosing the least worst.” I created that one – with deliberate bad grammar to emphasise my point – but it is based on the thoughts of many others, of course.

So in the end I guess we should all he happy to have ignorant voters make the least worst decision using a system which is the worst apart from the rest and is controlled by unseen forces in the background. When you think about it, it’s amazing it works as well as it does!

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