Five disturbing things about democracy

Here it is: that post I’ve been sitting on for upwards of a year. Before I start, I am going to make a few introductory notes about what I do and don’t mean when I call democracy disturbing. I find that all too often debates about this subject are clouded by dogma, which leads to poor thinking and boilerplate arguments.

Before some cheesy person wheels out that Churchill quote about democracy being the worst system apart from all the other systems, yes of course I have heard it. And it is true. I am a democrat because I believe it brings about favourable conditions. For instance, there is the correlation between democratisation and higher GDP per capita. (Whether democracy is cause or effect does not matter. If the value of the higher GDP per capita is greater than the cost of democracy per head — as it almost certainly is — then democracy is a price worth paying.)

Furthermore, I should define more closely what I mean by democracy. Most of the flaws I will point out are actually problems with elections rather than democracy as a whole. Aspects of democracy such as civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, due process, and so on and so forth, are of course things that I am deeply supportive of. This will become clear in my first point.

I tackle the issue not from an anti-democratic perspective. Far from it. My problem is with the approach which sees democracy almost like a religion which ought not be questioned — what Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter called “democratic fundamentalists”:

Its purest expression is the cliché, attributed to failed 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith, that “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.” In other words, no matter what happens, the case for democracy remains untouched.

No case should remain untouched. That is why, for me, there is not enough scrutiny placed on democracy. There is a fear of investigating it, because the benefits of democracy are perceived to be so self-evident that anyone who stops to ask what the disadvantages are is instantly regarded as a fool. That must be dangerous. If we agree that the system is imperfect, the only way to improve the situation is to investigate it and have an awareness of what the problems are.

Just as a final point, much of my thinking in this area came about as a result of the research I did for my dissertation, which was about the “paradox of voting“. In case you want to read more about voting behaviour, I have uploaded my dissertation here.

Having got all of the caveats and explanations out of the way, it is time to move on to my five points.

1. Democracy is not guaranteed to uphold freedoms

This is more or less a rehash of The Devil’s Kitchen’s post which I referred to yesterday. Above I said that “aspects such as civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, due process” are important. Arguably, these have all taken a battering by recent democratically elected governments.

Wave goodbye to your right to peacefully protest, have a fair trial and take photographs in public. Say hello to ID cards, the database state, endless reams of CCTV footage, mass DNA collection, control orders, detention without charge and extraordinary rendition. Thanks, democracy!

2. Tyranny of the minority

Most people are familiar with the concept of the tyranny of the majority. Thanks to the system of democracy adopted in this country, it doesn’t even take a majority to construct a tyranny. In the 2005 General Election, 9,562,122 people voted for Labour candidates. Assuming a population of 60 million, this translates to around 16% of the population.

The votes of this small percentage of the UK’s citizens has given the Labour Party 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, a majority of 67 seats. What gives the government the right to rule the country with such dominance? Not the people, that’s for sure. Only 16% of the people expressed a preference for the current government. In fact it is the way the system is constructed, and nothing else, which gives Labour its “legitimacy”.

That brings me neatly on to…

3. The system can’t be fixed

Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem states that there can be no voting system which will be able to fulfil a number of desirable criteria:

  • The Pareto principle — if everyone prefers x to y then y should not be elected
  • Anonymity — every voter should be treated equally
  • Neutrality — every candidate should be treated equally
  • Independence of irrelevant alternatives — the ability of x and y to win an election should not be affected by the entrance of a candidate z
  • Transitivity — if x is preferred to y and y is preferred to z then x should be preferred to z

Independence of irrelevant alternatives is the one that riles up proponents of electoral reform the most. Just think of Ralph Nader, or the farcical events of the 2002 French Presidential election. In this case, the voting system is far more important than the voters themselves. The fifth item on the list refers to Condorcet’s paradox, whereby attempts to find a winner of the election leads you on an endless circle.

We can argue among ourselves about which voting system should be adopted. But (and I’m not saying this will necessarily come as a surprise to anyone), you will never find a system that will please everyone. It will be a matter of choosing the least worst option, as every system has a fatal flaw of some kind. For what it’s worth, my preference is Single Transferable Vote — but that’s a matter for a different post in the future.

For more along these lines, read this post about a talk I attended a couple of years ago. It was given by economist Eric Maskin en route to collecting his Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He had some very interesting views on electoral reform.

4. An individual vote is almost worthless

If you are concerned with affecting the course of history by having your say on major political issues, going to cast your vote in an election is more or less a complete waste of your time and energy. It is said that you are more likely to be killed on your way to the polling station than to actually cast the deciding vote.

The probability the the outcome of an election will hinge on your vote is minuscule. Even under the fanciful assumption that in a two candidate US Presidential election each other person is likely vote for either candidate with a probability of 0.5, the probability that your vote will be the deciding vote is 0.00006.

Yet the costs of voting are actually rather large. You have to spend time and possibly money learning about each of the candidates and their policies. The time and money spent travelling to the polling booth is not exactly negligible in the context of the minuscule probability of your vote actually meaning a damn thing.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that voting is wrong. People don’t vote because they believe it will affect the outcome. They vote because it makes them feel good. But the fact that you need to resort to non-instrumental incentives in order to justify the act of voting leaves wide open the possibility that people with bad motives (or motives with bad effects) are more likely to vote…

5. Many who do vote base their decision on prejudices

In his very interesting book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan said that the fact that people vote can be explained by the fact that they like to hold certain political beliefs. Let’s call our voter a sheep. He may hold suboptimal opinions and support policies that would actually make him worse off. This might be due to social pressures, a sense of self-image or whatever. It is, after all, all too common to meet someone who votes Labour just because their dad did.

It is precisely because a person’s vote is so worthless that sheep are encouraged to vote. They like to go and vote because it makes them feel good, reaffirms to themselves their ideological loyalty and so on. But sheep never stop to think if the policies they support would make them worse off. They don’t have to because their vote doesn’t matter anyway. The cost of ideological loyalty is low. Indeed, the benefits of it are enough to outweigh the costs of voting.

Those who hold no strong ideological loyalties, and who may therefore be expected to enter the polling booth ready to judge fairly based on all of the information they have gathered, are actually far less likely to vote. This is because they feel no warm glow from the act of voting for their favoured party.

As such, the traits of voters are the sort of traits you would normally expect to find on a football terrace. They will trudge along to express their tribal feelings, and will keep on doing so even in the driving rain, even if their football team is rubbish and the game is low-quality.

One might say that the political party you support is rubbish and the state of politics just now is low-quality. Who wants to buy a season ticket? Is it not better to leave that sort of behaviour on the football terraces?


  1. DoctorVee,

    Good stuff. The line which chimes clearest with me is “sheep never stop to think if the policies they support would make them worse off” and that’s what depresses me most. The fact that many of my friends are eligible to vote, but don’t know who DC is, and still think Blair is the PM, would alarm you.

    I’m sure if you (or anyone) wanted to be pernickity (?), you could have probably found 100 disturbing things about democracy and there never will be a ‘one-size fits all’ system.

    As you say, most of the problems with democracy stem from elections/electorate but I especially find it interesting (and telling) that in a discussion about democracy that there is no mention of MPs. I’m sure we could find 5 (or 100) disturbing things about them, but we’ve got the Telegraph for that.

  2. All good stuff Duncan.

    I have always wondered if the herd mentality or people voting as there parents do/did is a part and parcel of every countries democracy, or if it has to do with our education. Looking into modern studies, you really had just to learn the info and be able to write a coherent essay. The subject doesnt make pupils engage and come up with their own opinions, but replicate that of others. It was the same in history etc. Classrooms are not places of debate or ideas but off book learning. Maybe if we encourage individuality and debate(with reason) we would have an electorate which would think for themselves. Though, Frank Skinners idea for only the knowledgable voting is brilliant.

    I think that one way whereby the system can be improved is by having a policy rethink. If we move as much decision making as possible to the local level we can take power away from the centre. A vote at a UK election would be less important and therefore one persons lack of influence would be less of a problem. Local democracy would be increased and voting would be more important, as with a smaller electorate each persons vote counts more and is more likely to influence the result. We would all have a greater influence over how we are governed.

  3. Richard, I think you’re right that more of politics needs to be at a more local level. Not sure it would make someone’s vote count much more though. Westminster elections are already local in a way, because you can only vote for a representative of your constituency.

  4. I think what i was trying to say is that if local democracy was strong then people would be able to have greater influence upon decision making, rather than each vote counting more per say. i.e If each council had more power over the money is raises then the local populations needs/wants would be taken care of, whereas at Westminster its really only the wants of people in swing seats that get an airing. And then if the other party is in power it takes years to have another opportunity to change the policies of the govt. What im after is more power at the local level because it would give people a greater opportunity to get the politics and politicians they want.

  5. Bit of a late entry. Just discovered this excellent blog.
    Every bit correct.

    Does the solution not lie, however, in circumventing this entire issue by noting the evil to be voting for candidates within parties, when we ought be voting for the policies themselves?

    Lets imagine Govts broken into 5-10 agnostic departments, manned by experts without political prejudice, holding the responsibility to implement the consensus view of the voter. In respect of the 5 reasons to distrust democracy, we might see….

    1. None of the anti-freedom measures accepted, certainly not if the option was expressed to voters in terms of willingness to pay for them.
    2. There would not be any tyranny of the minority – the population could vote for (e.g.) stronger prison sentences vs less prison sentences; more immigration vs. less immigration etc. If the issue means something to you, you vote.
    3. Parties act out of self-interest. Politicians currently lie, deceive etc because of self-interest, within the party system. So, engineer this behaviour: Re-define the role of MP to being a literal public servant. To act in the public interest and self-interest becomes one and the same.
    4. As above – individuals could certainly voice their opinions in public debates that preceded votes to change policy, thereby persuading and educating others. Everyone can be an activist.
    5. If people vote on prejudices, then let’s change that. Removing the party system removes the targets of those ancient prejudices. The proposal – to vote for policy direction – also serves to motivate curiosity and engagement with the issues and see prejudices challenged within the inevitable debates.

    Switzerland – best off country in Europe: I rest my case.

  6. Thanks for your interesting comment Anthony. I have my doubts about direct democracy. Quite how likely it is that you would ever be able to construct agnostic government departments is something I doubt too. But you are right to point out the affluence of Switzerland.

  7. Henry, thanks for the comment.

    I don’t want to get too bogged down in a debate about semantics. Really this was an article about the shortcomings of elections, and I used the wider concept of democracy to hang that on.

    However, I would define a democracy as a situation when citizens are free to express opposing political viewpoints and there is an effective and established mechanism to peacefully change government.