in Political Philosophy

Voting and Democracy

Some of you may remember that once upon a time, I was the token non-anarchocapitalist blogger at a place called Catallarchy. The old site has had a name change (it’s now The Distributed Republic), and it has reinvented itself as a community site. If you play nicely — and by that I mean say interesting things and refrain from acting like a dick — Jonathan will promote your stuff to the front page, even when he thinks you’re wrong. Well, I still read DR daily, even though I can’t write for the site any longer and most of the regulars from my day have moved on to other things. Still, if you’re not keeping up, you should be. There’s some interesting stuff going on. Case in point: a new blogger going by the name “Lenin of Liberty” (and no, I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean either) has put up two of the best posts I’ve read in quite some time.

In the first, Why the U.S. Constitution Works, LoL (geez, the abbreviation is worse than the name) offers a qualified libertarian defense of democracy. For those of you not in the know, a lot of radical libertarians are pretty skeptical of democracy, preferring something like polycentric law or building floating cities.* So it was fun to read LoL defending democracy right in the heart of the lion’s den, as it were. I’m intrigued by some of his arguments, and particularly interested in his discussion of Score Voting, which strikes me as an improvement on the single transferable vote that I have favored for a while.

When it comes to scale, however, we part company. I strongly favor proportional voting. LoL does not. For those of you who aren’t Dale or one of my former students, that basically means that I’m in favor of (a) a wide variety of political parties and (b) a  system of voting that results in numbers of legislators from those various parties being in rough proportion to the number of people in the country who support those parties. Wow, that sounds complicated. Here’s the simpler version. If 8% of the voters actually favor the Green Party, then in a proportional system, there would be 34 or 35 Green Party representatives in the House. The Libertarian Party would have some representatives, the “socialists” or Democrats, as the non-crazy people call them, would have some and so on. Hell, Ralph Nader might even be able to win himself a congressional seat, which would be awesome since then we could justify writing about his surrealist ads. LoL, however, thinks that proportional representation is “dangerous,” even going so far as to play the Hitler card (possibly the only lowpoint in either essay).

So why the disagreement? I think it really comes down to a claim LoL makes in one of his comments. When asked whether he thinks democracy is an end in itself, LoL replies:

I think democracy is a means to an end: not too bad government that kind of serves the people. Better government with democracy requires better people; that is, a population with better knowledge of good government. (I’ll address this important point in a later post.)

I do want our government to be more democratic than currently. Libertarian views are under-represented and the current system has biases as mentioned by commenters here and by Moldbug. But I also want near term stability; the herd can panic, and outliers can be disruptive.

I don’t think this is quite right. I agree that the herd can panic and that outliers can be disruptive. But I think that those drawbacks might be inextricably linked to the very thing that makes democracy valuable in the first place.

This all comes back to Mill. (And, really, what doesn’t?) More specifically it comes down to my somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation of Mill. I think that our autonomy — that is, our capacity to make our own choices — is inextricably linked to our happiness. We could have been built in some other way; one can imagine (sort of) a being that derived intense pleasure simply by virtue of directly observing the mathematical principles that govern the universe. I’ll leave it to those of you who are more creative than I to come up with more interesting examples. My point is just that while we might be able to imagine beings whose happiness was not tied up with their choice-making capacities, we wouldn’t likely be able to relate to such beings. That’s because for us, autonomy cannot be separated out from our happiness. It’s contingent that we happen to be built this way, but given the way we are built, autonomy is a necessary condition for real happiness. Also now I can use the phrase “contingently necessary” which is almost as nice an oxymoron as “legal ethics.” (Hi sweetie. Just seeing if you read this far.)

So what’s all this weirdness have to do with with voting? Well, if autonomy really is fundamental to human happiness, then voting is probably going to have to carry somewhat more weight than LoL assigns it. Autonomy is about governing myself. But since direct democracy isn’t really feasible (for lots of reasons that I’m not going to go into here, as I’m already closing in on 1000 words), representative government is our best bet for carrying out our autonomy in the public sphere. A representative democracy that fails to be representative, however, is sort of missing the point. When we leave large chunks of people unrepresented — when we fail to give them a voice at the table — we have effectively denied them the meaningful exercise of their autonomy.

This is all getting really abstract and into the weeds, enough so that anyone who is still following any of this (both of you) has probably already heard me go on about it all before. The takeaway points:

  1. Proportional voting rocks.
  2. You should be reading The Distributed Republic.
  3. Posts that mock libertarians, conservatives and Naderites get way more attention than those that try to do philosophy.

* I’m not actually opposed to polycentric law or to seasteading; both sound to me much like Mill’s experiments in living writ large (though I do have a few reservations about how well this sort of thing scales up). Mostly that’s because I’m convinced that in open competition, some sort of democracy will ultimately beat out a “pure” libertarian system. If I’m right, we’re hardly worse off for having had the competition. And if I’m wrong, well, it’d probably be good to know that, too.

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