MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Governing Principles

Part C: Majority Rule

One important question the philosophy of government must address is what kind of republic is required for the protection of individual rights. Any republic is "government of the people, by the people, for the people" – but what does that mean, in practice?

Government requires two things in order to protect individual rights. The first and fundamental is that this is what it is set up to do (as opposed, for example, to serving the whims of a dictator or a collective). The second is a corollary: if the purpose of the government is the protection of liberty, it must be set up in such a way as to be able to achieve that. That is, it must be run in a stable, efficient, objective manner.

We have already seen that a constitutional republic with numerous checks and balances is the fundamental requirement. But that leaves many possibilities. Should countries be large like the USA or small (imagine Indonesia split into island nations)? Should there be one house of parliament as in Queensland, or two as in Australia's federal government? Should we have a direct democracy, where everyone can vote on every issue, or a system based on elected representatives? At what interval should elections be held? Should representatives be elected proportionally to total votes, or electorate by electorate?

In the context of a free republic, to an extent these are administrative details that can be tried, changed and fixed. But I think they are important enough, and close enough to the fundamental operations of government, that general principles can and should be considered.

The Mob

Direct democracy, though favoured by many people because it is "true" democracy, is a bad idea – because it is true democracy. It didn't work well in ancient Athens, and it won't work anywhere. It is an unfortunate misrepresentation of modern times that the virtue of the West is named as "democracy" – when in fact its virtue is individual rights. A republican system of government is a consequence of individual rights: the right to vote stems from that, not the other way round.

We have already seen that the fundamental principle of government is that it cannot violate individual rights, whether those who want to violate them are one King, a majority of 51%, or a majority of 99%. Thus the ideal government is not "majority rule", where that means the majority may do as they please. It is one defending the rights of every citizen. Those citizens have to decide how best to do that, and the only way that can be done while upholding everyone's rights is by debate and voting. But given that, could not a constitutional republic (in which what the people can vote to do is restricted as discussed) be run via direct democracy?

The practical flaw in direct democracy is easily seen when one considers every other aspect of human life. If you have car trouble, you go to a mechanic and if you have a toothache, you go to a dentist. Specialisation and trade are the cornerstones of efficiency and productivity. It is certainly true that every adult person has a right to have their say in how their government is run. But that does not imply that every decision should be up to a referendum. It is an inescapable fact that the majority of the population are of average intelligence or below, and are busy with their own jobs, families and lives to boot. Should the government, that wields the sole power of physical force and makes decisions on good laws versus bad and who to go to war with, be run directly by them – or are their own best interests served by electing people of higher intelligence, diligence, interest or specialist knowledge who can apply their full-time concentration to the job? Nobody questions that that is how we should choose our doctors – who are less fundamental to our life than how force is controlled in our society.

People's individual rights are not served by supposing a "right" to take a direct part in every government decision when they may have neither the intelligence nor the knowledge nor the wisdom to know what they are deciding. They are served by the right of everybody and anybody (other than criminals) to decide who should represent them in the government, or to stand for election themselves.

A Time to Build Up

Similar reasons lead to the principle that the interval between elections should not be too short. The proper functioning of government requires long-range thinking and actions. The consequences of policies may not be apparent in the short term, and a good policy might bring only costs in the short term, while policies that lead to disaster in the long term might have initial benefits. And unfortunately, too much of the electorate sees only the short term, as one can see by the swings in public opinion that follow practically any event. This indicates that a significant (and election-deciding) percentage of voters do not think in principles, but in short range concretes: and that is no way to run a government. A government must be run on principles, and therefore elections should be fought on principles: and therefore the government needs enough time for its principles to have a fair test.

Again, everyone has a perfect right (within the context of a free country) to praise or complain loudly and to vote for whomever they like, on whatever grounds they please, according to their own judgement, good or bad. But that does not give some the right to hold the rest hostage to their ignorance or poor thinking: it is our government too, whose proper operation is critical to our own lives.

So the government must be given enough time for its policies to come at least partly to fruition, so people can vote in an informed way. That protects everyone's rights – including those of the people who would have voted them out mid-term in a reflex response to mid-term costs.

The terms can't be too long either, as the government exists for the people and they have the right to vote on its performance as frequently as practical without harming its proper functioning. Indeed, too long a term encourages unaccountability on the part of the government, and for the same reasons, a feeling of powerlessness to change things on the part of the people from whom their power actually derives.

Where the optimum point lies is a matter for debate, but 4-5 years seems to work reasonably well.

Winner Take All

In Australia's national government, the House of Representatives is voted in electorate by electorate by majority vote. In contrast, Australia's senate is elected proportionally in each State. In many European countries, the parliament itself is elected by proportional voting.

Are there any philosophical reasons for preferring one system over the other?

The disadvantage of an electorate-based system is that in principle, one party could win all the seats with a vote of 51% while the other wins none despite a vote of 49%. In practice, such extremes are statistically (and demographically) unlikely. However, related distortions such as larger majorities than the share of the vote, or winning power with a minority of the vote, have happened, due to how the votes were distributed among electorates.

In contrast, a proportional system results in a parliament closer in composition to how the people voted. But it also comes with disadvantages: the potential for numerous minor parties receiving seats, there being no clear winner, and the resulting government being a loose, unstable federation of warring parties. Historically this has been a problem in many European countries, for example. Even in Australia, where proportional representation is limited to the Senate and to get a seat requires a fairly high percentage of the vote, we have seen government policy held hostage to the idiosyncratic demands of fringe parties (or individuals) whose support the government has had to "buy" with concessions in order to govern at all.

In a properly constituted government, neither of these problems would be critical, as the government is not permitted to do anything beyond the protection of our rights. But because of that, I think the electoral system is superior. The government is not elected to impose one group's ideology on the others nor, consequently, is it required to protect the rights of any groups. If it protects the individual, then it automatically protects their voluntary associations. So the validity of a government does not rest on representation of every ethnic, religious or opinion group in the country. On the contrary, while individuals have the right to argue their point and to vote for whom they like, they do not have the right to impose their views on others via government force: not even in the weak sense of holding the majority to ransom by making the function of the government impossible without "concessions" to their little pressure group. As with the virtues of elected representatives versus direct democracy and longer terms versus shorter ones, everyone's interests, including those whose vote "didn't count", are best protected by encouraging stable, principle-based governments, rather than unstable, compromise-based ones.

In addition, an electorate system at least in principle involves people electing a personal representative: "their" member of parliament who lives in their area and is directly responsible to them. This is a closer match to the government being our delegated agent of self-defence than a proportional system where the government is chosen by the people but the actual members of parliament that comprise it are effectively chosen by their parties.

Every Vote Counts

Some other questions that might arise are how the vote should be counted, and whether everyone should be forced to vote.

Of course compulsory voting has no part in a free society. Choosing not to vote is not initiating force against anybody, merely declining to exercise your right to choose your delegates. That should be entirely up to the individual.

In terms of how votes are counted, I favour the "optional preferential" system, because that most accurately reflects people's actual opinions. In a field of several candidates, you will generally have an order of preference, along the lines of "I really want Smith, but failing that Jones will do: but I wouldn't want any of that other lot." So being able to vote for as few or as many candidates as one wishes in order of preference is the best system.

Birds of a Feather

The question arises of whether there should be political parties or just individual politicians voting according to the wishes of their electorate and their own consciences.

Political parties are a natural consequence of political philosophies. It is natural that people who share a philosophy – a view of what is important to accomplish and what should and should not be done to get there – will vote together to achieve their common ends.

The main disadvantage of political parties is the suppression of dissent within the party. However once again, where the role of government is restricted to how best to protect individual rights, that is not such a big issue. Furthermore, politicians can choose to leave their party and people can choose not to vote for parties. As nobody's rights are violated by the existence of political parties, they are natural groupings, and membership of a party proclaims a basic political philosophy to the voters, I believe they are a valid and even desirable part of the political process.