by Adam Allouba*
People Are Always Right? Freedom and the Ballot Box (Print Version)
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?
The fact that voters have a
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
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
What influences voters besides the issues? Well, an analysis of the 1987
Ontario election found that a candidate’s ethnicity had a measurable
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
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
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
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
sits in cabinet. If you’re wondering whether Israelis are satisfied
with their politicians, six months ago 88% of them called their
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
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
exist. And despite what any
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.