Sirota: A critique of democracy, not an attack

AUT law lecturer Dr Leonid Sirota responds to Jack Vowles' opinion piece in Newsroom 'Voting under attack as election approaches'

COMMENT: I have, says political science professor Jack Vowles, come from distant shores to take part in an “attack” on “democracy and voting” in New Zealand, with the “simple message” that “voting is a waste of time and will achieve little or nothing.” Vowles’ evidence? An op-ed I wrote for the Dominion Post, arguing against making voting compulsory, as a number of retired Prime Ministers have recently urged. (I expressed, and express, no views on “efforts to encourage people to vote”. I only spoke of compulsion, which in my view does not count as “encouragement”.)

Vowles does not state his views on compulsory voting, so I don’t know whether he actually disagrees with the position I was defending ― which is nothing more sinister than the status quo in which people are free to vote or not, and roughly three out of four choose to do so. However, two of my arguments caught his critical eye. First, my claim (which the editors ― not I ― made into my op-ed’s title) that “as a means of expressing one's views about public affairs, a vote is … remarkably ineffective”. Second, the idea that expanding the electorate by marching current non-voters to the polls would induce politicians to make even more simplistic and populist appeals to reach people who are not interested in or knowledgeable about politics, as non-voters disproportionately tend to be.

Reading, or worrying about others reading, my claim about the ineffectiveness of voting as a means for expressing one’s views on policy as a call for abstentio, Vowles responds that “changes of governments do matter” and that while one vote may appear inconsequential, “votes counted collectively can be extremely powerful”. That is true, of course, so far as it goes. But my point is not that votes, in the aggregate, make no difference. It is, first that votes cast tell us little about what people think, either individually or collectively, because of the limited number of options on a ballot paper and the virtually unlimited number of reasons to choose or reject any one of these options. And second, that because ― as Vowles acknowledges ― an individual vote matters little, the individual voter has no incentive to become informed about the issues at stake.

Vowles does not dispute the substantial empirical evidence of the widespread ignorance of the voters and of the even greater ignorance of the abstainers. Instead, he dismisses my concerns about the consequences of that ignorance. I am, Vowles says, “out of (my) depth” in the realm of political science. So are, presumably, other scholars who have in recent years expressed similar concerns about voters’ ignorance and irrationality ― legal scholar Ilya Somin, economist Bryan Caplan, philosopher Jason Brennan, and political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. Vowles is confident that a larger, and likely more ignorant, electorate will not lead to a lower-quality political discourse ― as can be readily seen from “no more than a cursory examination of the evidence from recent elections in (the United States and Denmark)”.

I am, admittedly, no Denmark expert. (Is Vowles?) But a cursory examination of the results of the latest Danish election shows that a far-right, anti-immigrant party was the second largest, with over 20 percent of the vote. Were the United States using a proportional electoral system instead of winner-take-all primaries and electoral college, a similar faction led by Donald Trump might have done about as well (though admittedly such hypotheticals are bound to be quite speculative). Meanwhile, Denmark's law allowing the confiscation of refugees’ family jewellery is arguably as sad an example of populist viciousness as any policy yet implemented by the Trump administration.

The real question, though, is not whether Danish political discourse is of better quality than that in the United States, but whether artificially expanding the electorate to include a large number of especially ignorant individuals would have an effect on the political discourse. One need not be a professor of political science to understand that a simple comparison between two arbitrarily chosen countries as different as Denmark and the United States can tell us very little about this. Vowles offers us no reason to think that politicians will not respond to the enlargement of the voters’ pool by adopting more populist positions.

Quite the contrary. Vowles insists that it is important that less knowledgeable citizens vote because this will cause politicians to cater to their desires and interests more than they do when such citizens abstain. But of course, by definition, the less knowledgeable one is about politics and policy, the less able one is to vote for the party or the candidate who really will represent one’s interests ― and the more likely one is to succumb to the simplistic slogans of populist demagogues. Less knowledgeable citizens tend to be more protectionist and nativist than more knowledgeable ones, for instance ― and they will not be better off if public policy more closely reflects their preferences.

Contrary to what Vowles says, my aim is not to attack democracy. I am not urging its replacement by something else. Democracy is valuable because it allows the peaceful periodical throwing out of the bums who have inevitably been corrupted by the exercise of power, and their replacement by a new set of less corrupted bums ― who can eventually be thrown out in their turn. When it is coupled with an ethos among those in government of respect for the rule of law and individual rights, and ideally with enforceable constitutional limits on the government’s power, democracy is the least oppressive system for exercising political power that humanity has yet devised.

Without a commitment to limited government and individual rights, however, democracy will degenerate into a tyranny of the majority. Romanticising democracy increases the danger of this happening. The more we fetishise democracy and lose sight of its shortcomings, the more tempted we may be to trample on individual liberties in the name of our democratic ideals. We could all profit from a discussion about the best ways to remedy democracy’s flaws that its critics identify. Countering criticism with anecdote and dismissal of those who dare cross national and disciplinary boundaries will not profit us much, however.

*Dr Leonid Sirota is a lecturer in constitutional law at AUT Law School. Among his research interests is the legal regulation of democratic politics.


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