The People Are Always Right? Freedom and the Ballot Box (Print Version)
by Adam Allouba*
Le Québécois Libre, May
15, 2011, No 289.

Of all the platitudes brought forth every time there’s an election, perhaps none is more sacred than, “The people have spoken.” We learn early on that voters cast their ballots based on their understanding of the issues and the platforms, and that the eventual winners collectively embody the desires of the electorate. The policies they adopt are legitimate because they are the implementation of the popular will.

Of course, this story is clearly untrue, and when pressed, virtually no one seriously defends it. And yet, anyone who openly questions the official account is seen as cynical, if not downright rude. So on behalf of cynics everywhere, let’s look at a few questions more closely. Do voters really choose candidates based on their policy preferences? Do they really “say” something at the ballot box? And is government policy legitimate because it reflects the will of the people?

Decisions, decisions…

The fact that voters have a weak grasp of policy and facts is so well documented as to be incontestable. A few examples: in 1997, 60% of Canadians thought that Aboriginals were better off or about the same as other Canadians, while in 2000, two-thirds could not place the NDP or the Canadian Alliance on the right/left spectrum. In 2001, the Ottawa Citizen found that only 17% of us could pass the citizenship exam. In 2009, 51% of Canadians believed that our prime ministers are directly elected.

What influences voters besides the issues? Well, an analysis of the 1987 Ontario election found that a candidate’s ethnicity had a measurable effect on voting patterns. A 2009 Australian study determined that being the first name on the ballot meant an extra percentage point of the vote, which was greater than the margin of victory in 13 ridings in our 2008 election. A month ago, 51% of Canadians said that an important consideration affecting their choice in the ballot box is which party leader they’d like to have a beer with. And as a York University political scientist explained in a recent piece,

A study of Canadian voting behaviour […] showed that usually fewer than half of those who voted did so because of their opinions on a particular issue. When the researchers probed further, they found that even fewer voters could identify a particular issue that influenced their vote, and a smaller number still voted for the party whose position they actually agreed with.

Not exactly the kind of stuff that inspires confidence, is it? And yet the notion that informed voters cast ballots based on which policies they believe would generate the best outcomes is one of the cornerstones of our system’s legitimacy.

The people spoke… but what did they say?

Once people have voted, how should we interpret the results? Take the outcome of Canada’s 41st general election: a Conservative majority, an NDP official opposition, the Liberals routed and the Bloc Québécois nearly wiped out. What did the voters “say”?

Some suggest that Canadians were tired of minority government, as opposed to 2008 when they decided they didn’t quite trust the Conservatives. The problem is that in 2011, the Conservative vote rose less than two percentage points. How can such a small change signal such a major shift in intentions? In 2008, the Conservatives had to build consensus and work with the other parties, but in 2011 they’re entitled to wield unchecked power… because they picked up an average of fewer than 2,000 votes per riding?

“Wait a minute,” you say; “that’s just our archaic voting system! Adopt proportional representation (PR), and you’ll get a legislature that truly reflects the popular will.” While it may sound good in theory, in reality election results under PR are just as inscrutable as under our current first-past-the-post system.

To illustrate, take the simplest hypothetical: Centrist party A wins 40% of the seats. Right-wing party B and left-wing party C each win 30%. Which of the two potential coalitions is the “right” one? Of course, the answer is “neither.” Whichever one ends up governing will be no more legitimate than the alternative. In the real world, where PR fractures the vote by allowing smaller parties to win seats, it is even harder to glean any “intention” from the voters. To take an extreme example, Israel’s government is made up of no fewer than six parties (the first-place party not being one of them) and one in four elected representatives sits in cabinet. If you’re wondering whether Israelis are satisfied with their politicians, six months ago 88% of them called their legislators corrupt―not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Another popular alternative is the single transferable vote, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. The last-place candidate is dropped and her votes “transferred” to the second choices of those who ranked her first. The process continues until someone has a majority. While it sounds appealing, as economist Don Boudreaux has elegantly illustrated, the winner need not be the most popular candidate. This is because only those who supported the least popular aspirants will have their alternative choices counted. For the vast majority of the votes―in other words, those cast for the most popular candidates―only the top-ranked choice matters. This means that a tiny minority chooses who among the leading candidates wins the race. Does that sound much better than what we have now?

More fundamentally, how can voters “want” a majority or a minority, or a coalition of parties X, Y and Z, or any particular result? There is no such option on the ballot, under any system: whatever party you vote for, you are voting to elect their local candidate (or increase their seat share, under PR). There is no such option as, “A Conservative government, but with a minority.” Or, “Jack Layton in Stornoway, but not 24 Sussex Drive.” Or, “The Liberals in third place, but not totally wiped off the map.”

A group the size of the Canadian electorate, whose members will mostly never meet, cannot engage in anything that can reasonably be called “collective decision making.” The fact that the aggregation of millions of individual voting choices led to a majority Conservative government, an NDP official opposition, a historic loss for the Liberals and the near-extinction of the Bloc Québécois is not the result of any conscious decision or intention. To claim otherwise makes as much sense as inferring that drivers stuck on a highway “wanted” a traffic jam.

To the victor go the spoils?

After the election, democracy demands that until the next ballot we all accept the decisions of the legislators as legitimate. After all, they were elected to govern!

The libertarian objection is that voters have no right to use coercive force on others and therefore have no right to delegate that power to legislators, election or no election. If another person takes your money, we call him a thief. If he prevents you from peacefully going about your daily business, we call him a bully or a thug. In neither case is it a valid defence that others, no matter how numerous, supported or aided him in his actions. How can marking slips of paper with a pencil somehow transform these morally reprehensible acts into some kind of noble undertaking?

Granted, this reasoning will go nowhere with most people. They feel that they have consented to the rules and therefore accept the result. Good for them―but what about those of us who disagree? How do we withhold our consent? Obviously not by declining to participate since, as we all know, if you don’t vote, you can’t complain. And if you’re thinking of spoiling your ballot, Elections Canada takes the position that it’s illegal… although they do helpfully point out that you can always run for office yourself.

There is no positive action involved in giving consent, so one cannot simply withhold that act. Remember the uproar over Rogers Cable’s negative-option billing practices? Clients were incensed that a corporation they had chosen to do business with intended to charge them for services they didn’t order unless they said no. And if they didn’t pay, their cable might be cut off! Now consider the state: We never asked it for anything; it simply took authority over us at birth. It bills us every day, on pain of imprisonment, for services we didn’t order and may never use or even know exist. And despite what any number of cranks might tell you, you cannot politely inform it that you’d rather just be left alone. Frankly, the “Rogers approach” seems benevolent by comparison.

The clichéd response to the libertarian position is that if you don’t like it, leave. Well, for one thing, legal barriers to entry―also known as immigration restrictions―are prohibitively high, without mentioning enormous natural obstacles to movement, such as cultural differences and recognition of job experience. Besides, legal systems do not change much between developed countries; tax rates vary, bureaucracy is more or less responsive, but the fundamentals are often very similar.

Most crucially, how can it be that by living somewhere we’ve accepted that others in that area may use coercion against us? No one would accept the argument that a mugger or a burglar is entitled to someone’s property if he’s walking down a given street or living in a given neighbourhood. So what entitles the state to make that identical claim?

A better way

This argument is not anti-democratic. Churchill was right in noting that democracy is the worst system besides all the others we’ve tried, and if there have to be people who wield coercive power over us, it’s best that they be elected.

But as Bryan Caplan explained in The Myth of the Rational Voter, the real alternative to unrestricted democracy is not authoritarianism, but limited government. We need not grant any group of people the power to decide how we live our lives, regardless of whether they are self-appointed or democratically elected. Given how candidates win votes, given the difficulty of reading anything into election results, and given the impossibility of not consenting to the state’s power, wouldn’t a system in which none can be forced to live by another’s rules be far more legitimate and far more moral than the status quo? Shedding our belief in the existence of “the will of the people”―a fiction so cherished that it take precedence over our individual liberties―would be one more step forward on humanity’s long and winding road to genuine freedom.

* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.