Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Majority Rule is not Enough

By Carl S. Milsted, Jr.

Democracy is rule by the people. Right?

So why isn’t everyone in favor of democracy? Why do dictatorships thrive? Why do so many people resort to civil war and/or terror?

The answer: the first sentence is wrong. Democracy is not rule by the people. Democracy is rule by the majority. This stinks when you are in the minority, and the majority hates you.

This is why libertarians prefer markets over democracy. Markets cater to minorities as well as majorities. Just because the majority likes Budweiser and pop music, doesn’t mean I cannot have my microbrew and classical CDs.

It is one of the great ironies of our age that many of the same people who call out for more democracy despise the corporations that cater to the majority. Microbrews, shade grown coffee, New Age music, community supported agriculture...these are all products that please a minority. They are examples of the benefits of markets over majority rule.

But I digress. It is rather difficult to have much of a market for certain government-provided services. It is difficult for people in the same area to live under different laws or travel on different road systems. It is necessary to bind everyone to a unified decision. Democracy is an attempt at a second-best solution; for those cases where market choices are not available, then we go with a majority decision. In theory, at least, the majority is served.

In areas of the world where cultural divisions are reasonably small, this is good enough. Where there are tribal, ethnic, or religious factions who dislike each other strongly, democracy degenerates into two wolves and a lamb voting what to have for lunch. This is a description of much of the Third World, and a major reason why these countries’ democratic governments tend toward instability.

One solution to this problem is aggressive federalism; push as many government functions as possible to the local level, and people can shop for the government which best suits their taste. This has worked reasonably well for Switzerland, a country comprised of three linguistically different nationalities, nationalities which have gone to war with each other twice in the 20th Century.

Another possibility is strictly limited constitutional government, with strictly enumerated powers to limit government to provide that which cannot be readily served by the marketplace, and a Bill of Rights to protect minorities. In theory, this is what we have in the U.S. In practice, the democratically elected rulers have found ways around the Constitution, whether it be John Adam’s Sedition Act, Andrew Jackson’s expulsion of the Cherokee, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, or Bush’s Patriot Act.

A promising new possibility is a change in how we elect politicians. Instead of electing the candidate who pleases the biggest faction, we could elect the candidate who displeases the fewest. A simple way of doing is would be through approval voting.

In approval voting, the voters are invited to vote for all of the candidates they approve of. For example, a liberal could have voted for both Gore and Nader. An economic conservative could have voted for Buchanan, Bush and Browne. A doper could have voted for Nader and Browne. A confused person could have voted for both Buchanan and Gore. The candidate who meets the approval of the most voters wins.

Consider the case of Northern Ireland. With majority rule, the Ulster Protestants voted to persecute the Catholics by various mechanisms, resulting in support for a terrorist separatist group. Now, consider a campaign in Northern Ireland which has approval voting. Suppose we have a Protestant radical, who wants to continue the persecutions, a Catholic radical who wants to merge with the rest of Ireland, and a classical liberal who wants strict equality before the law.

With plurality voting, the Protestant radical wins, add the civil disruptions continue. The same holds with instant run-off. However, with approval voting, the classical liberal is the likely winner. Even though the classical liberal is the first choice of fewer voters than either of the other candidates, the classical liberal is overwhelmingly the second choice.

A similar dynamic would hold in Iraq. In a race between a Sunni Arab radical, a Shiite radical, a Kurdish separatist, a classical liberal and a social democrat, either the classical liberal or the social democrat would be the likely winner, since these would be the likely second choice of the largest number of people.

In general, approval voting favors consensus-building candidates over candidates who can motivate a particular faction. This is a powerful mechanism for reducing the demand for dictatorship and/or separatism. If we get in the habit of promoting approval voting (or similar systems) instead of promoting majority rule, we might be able to bring our troops home, without leaving civil war and/or genocide behind.

But note that I am not calling for a massive military crusade to promote approval voting around the world! We should focus on persuasion. And for that to happen, we should first practice approval voting at home. The change to our voting system would be minimal. It is simply a matter of counting the “overvotes.”

But I would suggest that the first place to practice approval voting is not in our polls, but in our private clubs, our legislatures and our boardrooms.

(But for the record: approval voting is not perfect. There are ways in which people can “game the system.”)

Carl S. Milsted, Jr. is a senior editor for The Free Liberal.