Tag Archive for 'Democracy'


Is “politician” just another service industry job?

One of my friends disagrees with my thoughts on the MP expenses scandal in Britain.  I’m not entirely sure, but I believe that part of our difference of opinion starts at a disagreement over what it really means to be a politician.

So here is my question to the world at large (yes, I recognise that it might be a false dichotomy): Is “politician” a job title just like any other, or is being a politician to have some sort of sacred, noble trust? Is there is something more to the role than simply maximising the returns to your constituents or the country as a whole?

Let me propose a thought experiment (for any American’s in the audience, parliament = congress and MP = representative).

Suppose we change the law so that a) voting for your representative to parliament is mandatory; b) each member of parliament represents exactly the same number of people; and c) in addition to electing a representative to parliament, everybody is permitted to vote directly on any matter brought before that parliament. If you choose to vote directly on an issue, then the weight of your representative’s vote is decreased proportionately. In this way, we would have the possibility of anything between 100% pure direct democracy and standard representative democracy, depending on what people choose.

How many people would choose to vote directly on some issues? How many on every issue? Clearly the answer is that we’d have a distribution. Some people would vote directly on everything, some would do so occasionally and some never at all.

So what do we make of that distribution? I’ll grant that I’m thinking like an economist here, but I think it’s a perfectly normal, mundane choice between trade-offs. Should I pay attention to the debate on fishing regulation or should I do something else? Everybody faces a different combination of available options, preferences over those options, incomes and relative prices between those options, so any range of attention to parliament might emerge.

In that situation, choosing to not vote directly is entirely equivalent to taking your shirts to the dry cleaner or hiring a maid to clean your house once a week. It’s an economic decision like any other, which in turn makes “politician” just another service industry job title like “financial adviser” or “maid”.

[Side note: This scenario is currently my ideal. If I could, I’d have MPs  paid per parliamentary vote per person represented, with a negative hit to anybody that introduced a bill to parliament so as to discourage frivolous votes.]

Update (1 June ’09): Put another way, why should a backbench opposition MP, who has only an abstract and indirect power over my life, be subject to more stringent ethical standards than the person performing heart surgery on me, who has direct and absolute power over my life?


Westminster democracy and illiberalism

Cam Riley doesn’t like the new “Bikie Laws” in South Australia.  He quotes Gary Sauer-Thompson, who says:

My understanding is that under the legislation … the Attorney-General has right to call an organisation, which could be anything from an informal group of people who meet at the local pub for a weekly drink through to a football club or a business, a Declared Organisation. The Attorney-General can use secret and untested evidence in making that declaration, and his decision can’t be challenged in the courts.

… Severe penalties are then visited upon controlled members who continue some form of contact, even remote contact by post, fax, phone or e-mail – two years imprisonment for a first offence, five years for a second or subsequent offence.

I agree with Cam and Gary.  This is illiberal and unnecessary.  The law is ostensibly to combat criminality in gangs of bikies, but every element of that criminality is already illegal.  It’s already illegal to conspire to commit violence, or to trade drugs.  So the net effect of this legislation is simply to grant the Attorney-General the power to disallow any organisation that (s)he doesn’t like.  Cam points out that the “emergency” laws enacted in NSW following the Cronulla riots are still on the books.

My question is this:

Why do these laws get passed now when they (probably) wouldn’t have been passed following equivalent crises 100 years ago?

It seems obvious that the legislature has a political incentive to be seen doing something, as time in the media’s spotlight is currency to a politician.  It’s common to suggest, although not universally accepted, that the sharp end of the executive (i.e. those charged with enforcing the law) generally wish for more options in carrying out that enforcement.  In a Westminster system of the executive having a controlling influence in the legislature, that would imply inexorable movement towards illiberalism over time as exogenously-sourced crises occur.

So how has liberalism survived for so long in the Westminster tradition?  What, if you’ll excuse the pun, arrests the movement to a sort of democratic dictatorship?


Power proportional to knowledge

Arnold Kling, speaking of the credit crisis and the bailout plans in America, writes:

What I call the “suits vs. geeks divide” is the discrepancy between knowledge and power. Knowledge today is increasingly dispersed. Power was already too concentrated in the private sector, with CEO’s not understanding their own businesses.

But the knowledge-power discrepancy in the private sector is nothing compared to what exists in the public sector. What do Congressmen understand about the budgets and laws that they are voting on? What do the regulators understand about the consequences of their rulings?

We got into this crisis because power was overly concentrated relative to knowledge. What has been going on for the past several months is more consolidation of power. This is bound to make things worse. Just as Nixon’s bureaucrats did not have the knowledge to go along with the power they took when they instituted wage and price controls, the Fed and the Treasury cannot possibly have knowledge that is proportional to the power they currently exercise in financial markets.

I often disagree with Arnold’s views, but I found myself nodding to this – it’s a fair concern.  I’ve wondered before about democracy versus hierarchy and optimal power structures.  I would note, however, that Arnold’s ideal of the distribution of power in proportion to knowledge seems both unlikely and, quite possibly, undesirable.  If the aggregation of output is highly non-linear thanks to overlapping externalities, then a hierarchy of power may be desirable, provided at least that the structure still allows the (partial) aggregation of information.


Non-geographic constituencies

The Australian House of Representatives has 150 members for a resident population of 21,268,746 (10 April 2008), or almost 142,000 people per representative. The US House of Representatives has 435 members for a resident population of 303,817,103 (10 April 2008), or almost 670,000 people per representative. The UK House of Commons has 646 members for a resident population of 60,587,000 (mid-2006), or almost 94,000 people per representative. The Canadian House of Commons has 308 members for a resident population of 33,231,725 (10 April 2008), or almost 108,000 people per representative.

Traditionally, which is to say always, the constituency of each representative or member of parliament has been defined geographically. That’s simple enough, but now that communication and identification technology has advanced to where it is today, they no longer need to be.

Members of the various lower houses of parliament/congress are meant to be representatives of their constituents, speaking on their behalf and seeking to act in their best interest. Before anybody mentions it, the Edmund Burke argument, that members of parliament ought to focus on the well-being of the nation as a whole, carries more strength in a unicameral parliament than it does in the constitutional arrangements of Australia, Canada and the USA where an upper-house exists with members sitting for longer terms so as – in principal, at least – to focus more on the issues more than the politics. It also seems to me that within her role as a member of parliament thinking of the good of the nation, a representative has a duty to pass on to the parliament the democratically valid views of her constituents, even if she ultimately votes in another direction.

By having electoral districts be geographically defined, we remove from the people the right to self-organise and they instead become passive receivers of groupings that are set down upon them. Unless you have an independent body to determine electoral boundaries, you therefore run the risk of gerrymandering (although whether that necessary causes polarisation is apparently debatable). Even if gerrymandering does not cause polarisation, the relevance of a geographically-defined groups is becoming less relevant as communication and transportation technologies improve. In a more globalised world where the economic fortunes of people are less tied to those of their neighbours, the issues of concern that people share will be less likely to be spatially concentrated.

My question, then, is this: What if 150,000 Australians were to voluntarily opt out of their resident electoral districts and form a non-geographically defined constituency with their own seat in the House of Representatives?

  • Individuals would only be permitted to be a member of one electoral constituency.
  • Everyone would be a part of a geographic district by default, but could change to a non-geographic grouping if they chose.
  • Even then, people would retain a geographical link to the legislature through the Senate.
  • The election of representatives from non-geographic constituencies would proceed just like any other seat in a general election; all of the various political parties would be free to offer candidates and to campaign in whatever way they saw fit.
  • By coming together around a common topic of concern, constituents guarantee that candidates will need to address that concern in their campaigns and that the winner will truly be their representative in parliament.

The idea isn’t entirely novel. Several countries allow for an expatriate electoral role so that non-resident citizens can still vote. These are usually tied back to a geographic district within the home country, but there’s no reason they have to be.

At a first glance, this might seem like a finely grained version of proportional representation. I guess that to a point it is, but since each constituency would still have elections, all parties would be able to put forward candidates and the decision process within each constituency would still be the same as within geographic districts (preferential voting in Australia, first-past-the-post in the UK and USA), it’s not.

It might also seem like this would just be formalised lobbying. To that I can only say: “Yes. So?” People are entitled to their views and in a democracy those views ought to be granted equal rights to be heard. Lobbyists are treated with such scorn today because they seek to obtain political influence beyond their individual vote. They exist, in part, because people do not have any real connection to their representatives.


The endless, cacophonic debates of pure democracy

Believing in something and being willing to act on it are two different things. It is terribly difficult to confront authority. Confrontation itself is hard. It’s awkward; uncomfortable. Your face may flush, you might sweat, or stammer. Worse, you can find your mind slipping. Your memory may fail you, the speed or rigour of your thought may lessen and the strength of your argument weaken as a result.

When the confrontation is with authority the difficulty is even worse. Many people have an instinctive acquiescence towards figures of power or authority. It can feel wrong in the gut to openly disagree with them. If you fear that the confrontation may result in bridges being burned, or if you feel that you owe the figure of authority in some way, it can be impossible.

Understand that I am not referring to the discussion of something that you feel ought to change with people you consider your peers. That is easy and even serves as a sort of release-valve for tension on the topic by letting you know that you’re not alone in your beliefs. A simple suggestion to a figure of seniority can often be comfortably managed by most. I am speaking of a push for change; seeking actively to change the actions, if not the very mindset, of an authority figure who may be reticent to the idea.

This is one of the reasons, if not the ultimate justification, for anonymous ballots. The safety of anonymity can free people of their inhibitions and allow them to speak as they truly feel. But what of organisations that do not have a democratic structure? What of the hierarchical power structures of firms and government agencies, of schools and universities and charities?

Hierarchies allow for genuine decision making over the endless, cacophonic debates of pure democracy, but they come at the cost of hampering information flow (at an extreme, it becomes unidirectional) and making people at the bottom feel ineffective or inconsequential.

As a society, we seem to have settled on the idea of power being locally hierarchical, but globally competitive between those separate hierarchies. This concept works best when those hierarchies compete not just in the ideas that they represent, but also for the individuals that they are made up from. The competition for individuals should mean that there is a countervailing force to the negative aspects of hierarchies: in order to attract and keep the best people, the hierarchy must work to involve those people in its thinking.

I am fine with this concept – I do not support radical decentralisation – but we need to recognise that people are not free to costlessly move between hierarchies. This means that the incentive to involve them in the hierarchies’ thinking processes is lessened. It seems reasonable to assume that as the cost of moving to another hierarchy as a fraction of individual benefit gained goes down, the more involved a person will be invited to be. In equilibrium, we would therefore expect the degree of involvement to decrease monotonically as you move down any given hierarchy.

While I do not wish for a pure democracy in everything, I think that the optimum would involve deliberate mechanisms for allowing ideas and information to pass upwards through a hierarchy. Perhaps an open market for ideas on each level, with those “voted best” being passed up to the level above?