Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Majorities and Majorities (Brit edition)

If you ask Americans, they'll tell you that a two-party system stinks -- solid majorities believe that the US would be better off with a third party, and generally we have no shortage of people who affect disdain for our large, coalition-style parties.  And they don't like the electoral college, preferring simple majority voting.

Alas, these preferences work poorly together.  I do wonder how Americans would manage to put up with, for example, the current situation in the British elections.  We have three parties polling within percentage points of each other, to begin with, meaning no party will get anywhere near to 50%.  But that doesn't matter, because what actually matters is how many seats each party wins in Parliament -- and because these seats are apportioned (like in the US House) via a "first-past-the-post" simple plurality system (and not proportional representation), some parties will do better, and some worse, than their raw vote totals would indicate: Labour is expected to win a higher percentage of seats than their percentage of the vote, while the Liberal-Democrats are expected to win fewer seats.  Moreover, assuming that no party wins a majority of seats, the next step is negotiations between the parties to form a new government, with the results only vaguely dependent on the exact number of seats each party holds, which in turn was only somewhat dependent on the overall number of votes each party received. 

With that buildup, you may be expecting a "we do it right, they do it wrong" conclusion, but you're not going to get one.  I like the American system very much...but I've been convinced that one should be cautious about redesigning political systems; while there's no guarantee that democracies over time develop institutions that suit them, it's awfully hard for outsiders (or even insiders) to know which constitutional quirks are mistakes, and which are strongly connected to the local political culture.  What I can say is that a quick look at variation across systems is a good reminder that thinking of democracy as simple majoritarianism is not only problematic in theory, but also doesn't correspond to any actual political system that anyone has devised.  The Brits certainly have at least on the surface a majority rules system once the government is in place (at least among the pols: pols vs. the bureaucrats is a whole 'nother story), but getting there has very little to do with simple majority rule.  And the Brits seem to be on the whole just fine with that (at least as far as I'm aware; I'm no specialist, but I do follow along a bit) -- although we'll see if that's still the case following this election.

What that means to me, in terms of institutional design, is that making sure that the majority gets their way can never be the sole goal when it comes to organizing democratic institutions.  Majorities are important, but as I'll keep repeating, democracy is rule of the people, not rule of the majority.

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