Alone in the voting booth, Homer J. Simpson had a dilemma. “Diamond” Joe Quimby, Springfield’s umpteen-term incumbent mayor, was in a tight race against the upstart challenger, Sideshow Bob. After a tough campaign, Homer had to decide which candidate deserved his support. On the one hand, Sideshow Bob had attempted to murder Homer’s son Bart—normally the sort of thing that would be a deal-breaker for the average voter. On the other hand, Bob had also tried to kill Homer’s much-loathed sister-in-law, Selma Bouvier. While Homer certainly couldn’t condone the attempt on his son’s life, neither could he overlook the challenger’s efforts to rid the world of Selma. Reluctantly, he voted for change.
While Homer may have been weighing an unusually personal grab-bag of policies, his predicament is familiar to any Canadian looking to vote for the “best” platform this coming October 19. You might agree with the Liberals’ plan to raise taxes on upper-income earners, but oppose Justin Trudeau’s support for Bill C-51. Or perhaps you like the NDP’s plan to bring in a national childcare program, but are not so keen on their willingness to lower the bar for Quebec separation. The Conservatives and Greens also propose a hodgepodge of policies that only a committed partisan could support in their entirety, since major party platforms contain not a series of ideologically coherent ideas, but rather whatever mishmash of contradictions the focus groups told its pollsters would lead to electoral success. Apart from the rare single issue party (such as the Marijuana Party) and a few fringe groups that claim ideological purity (such as the Libertarians and the Communists), all political parties are the same in this regard.
This issue arises not only with policies that are analogous to buying goods and services, like whether or not to build a hospital or subsidize daycare, but also with policies that are analogous to charitable giving. For example, a party may call for increases to welfare payments, foreign aid, health care for refugees, and so on. Most people with money to spare are happy to donate to causes they support, but they are unlikely to agree with every “charitable” plank in a party’s platform. They may want to give money to causes that the party is not advocating (say, microcredit in South Asia or an African fistula hospital). And while they’re still free to do so, they of course have less money to give thanks to taxation. But what’s worse is that in order to vote for policies that they do like, they will in all likelihood end up endorsing causes that they oppose, such as government funding for faith-based initiatives or access to abortion.
While we are accustomed to our political choices being designed in this manner, let us not forget that this situation is highly abnormal. There is no other field in which totally disparate choices are arbitrarily bundled together such that they have to be accepted or rejected wholesale. A business may bundle the sports channel with the women’s network, or bedsheets with pillow cases, but never a screwdriver with a watermelon or a toilet seat with singing lessons. And yet that is essentially how our political alternatives are presented to us: If you want the smartphone, it only comes with tampons.
The consequences of this dilemma are grave. For one, it makes a (further) mockery of the notion that electoral results reflect “the will of the people.” Setting aside the dubious notion that policy details determine how many votes a party gets, how can anyone be certain of which proposals its voters supported, which left them indifferent and which they opposed but decided to overlook? Moreover, given the sheer number of policies in a modern political platform, it is almost impossible that a party’s voters were aware of them all, much less that they understood them and analyzed them seriously.
Crucially, there is no way to solve this problem by implementing some reform or another. It is not the result of a loophole or oversight that can be corrected, but a design flaw that is inherent in the system. As long as there are political parties that formulate electoral platforms, they will continue to offer us a potpourri of ideas that are too numerous to properly digest, usually inconsistent with one another, and above all presented as a single take-it-or-leave-it proposition with no way for voters to express different views about different elements. The winners of the election will inevitably claim that the people have endorsed their platform, no matter how absurd the claim is on its face.
The only way to avoid falling into this trap is to remove decision-making from the political realm and transfer it to the private sector. When purchasing goods and services, consumers are not forced to acquire bundles of unrelated good and services. Nor, when giving to charity, are donors compelled to support totally unrelated causes whether they believe in them or not. And, of course, we can each decide individually what to buy or what cause to support, whereas when these decisions are made through the political process, we are all stuck with whatever the voters (in truth, the government) decides. The political process compels us to make choices in a way that is unnatural, undesirable and unnecessary. All of us—Homer Simpson included—would be better served by a process that allows each of us to make these decisions separately, for ourselves.
* 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.