Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Venting about the Ontario election.

I'm going to put off continuing the open access series until next week, in favour of this about the upcoming Ontario general election. The punchline is that, while I see reasons for voting in the referendum, I see no reason whatsoever to vote in the election. (FWIW, I didn't vote in the Toronto municipal elections, either, for approximately the same reasons as given below.)

As far as the referendum goes, I'm convinced that those who oppose the MMP proposal are either (1) deluded or (2) anti-democractic. The deluded are those who think that, if MMP fails, there will be another opportunity to revise the electoral system in favour of their preferred alternative to FPTP. Won't happen. The government clearly doesn't even want MMP to succeed (given the arbitrarily high threshold that's been set on the referendum's success). If it fails, is there really any reasonable chance that the process will be repeated for some other possibility? It's hard to see how there could be.

The anti-democratic are those who dishonestly oppose MMP on other grounds. The case is fairly clear in favour of MMP's democratic credentials. However you think people should vote -- Millian consequentialism, Lockean self-interest, Rousseauian general will, etc. -- it's not in dispute that the resulting parliament should reflect the votes of the people. And FPTP ensures that this does not happen. No one has won a genuine majority of the popular vote in Ontario since, I believe, sometime in the '50's. And yet we've had successive majority governments for as long as I remember -- and not marginal majorities, either. Remember the Rae and Harris governments?

I should point out that, in principle, I think democracy is a stupid system. It only makes sense if we have people of a certain quality (with particular powers, i.e., positive liberties), and I'm not a big fan of the demos we have these days. But, if we are going to have a democracy, then let's actually have one, instead of this only nominally democratic system of elections.

So, I see clear reasons to vote in favour of MMP. It's a more democratic alternative; this is supposed to be a democracy; so, let's actually have a democracy. However, I see only reasons against voting in the election, none for.

I know of two particularly prominent defenses of voting. Either it is a form of tacit or implied consent to the authority of the state (social contract tradition) or it is a way of being recognized as a person with autonomy and dignity (more broadly deontological, but consistent with utilitarianism; Mill's defense rests on such a notion). There are other defenses -- Plato, in Laws, defends a form of pluralistic democracy as a way of selecting the best rulers; Popper, in The Open Society, defends democracy negatively, as a way of warding off tyranny -- but these are the two I find most compelling. But, see here.

The first is simply bad, and its problems are well-known. First, tacit consent is barely genuine consent. It's just odd to say that some other action, besides overt agreement, can "count" as agreement. Second, even if this does make sense, voting doesn't signal consent to the government, because of a simple dilemma. Either voting signals consent only to be governed by whoever you voted for, or voting signals consent to be governed by anyone, regardless of your vote. If the former, a reductio ad absurdum appears: no one who votes for the losing side would ever be under the authority of the state (and, indeed, that would suggest a sure-fire way to get out of being obligated to the state: vote for some no-hope party). If the latter, a reductio also results, for then the preference you signal by casting your ballot could in principle be ignored without in any way violating the consent you have given. That is, your choice could be ignored without violating your choice.

So, the best hope is the second defense. But to be consistent with your dignity and autonomy, voting must allow for the possibility of not voting. After all, not voting is an act I can engage in autonomously, just as voting is. This follows from the fact that compelling me to vote would violate my autonomy. Thus, allowing me to not vote is required in order to respect my autonomy.

There's a number of complaints people tend to lodge against those who don't vote. The first is that doing so requires that you not care, but this is simply stupid. I do care; it's because I care that I'm not voting. The candidates in my riding are simply pathetic. David Zimmer (incumbent Lib) is running on his record but, off-hand, I can't recall a single thing he's done to actually help Willowdale. Should I vote for him because he's a good party man? But we vote for representatives, not parties (at least, under FPTP we do); he is supposed to be representing the interests of his riding in the Ontario parliament. So, what he's done for the party is irrelevant. Moreover, what the party will do for Ontario is irrelevant. What matters is what he will do -- and has done -- for me, and I've seen nothing, on his website or his election materials, to suggest that he'll do anything. So, he's out.

David Shiner (PC) seems to be running on a platform of magic and puppies and sunlight meadows of wonder and delight. At least, that's the best sense I can make of his boss' promises to improve funding to various things while simultaneously reducing taxes across the board. Do we really need to piss off public sector workers again? It wasn't a barrel of laughs the last time around. Again, note that he has no policies of his own.

Similarly, Rini Ghosh (NDP) has no policies of his own. I can't even see that he's got his own website. Pathetic. Exactly the same applies to Torbjorn Zetterlund (Green), although I sincerely doubt I would ever vote Green. Their libertarian economic fantasies strike me as obviously dangerous and founded on wishful thinking. And the less said about the fringe nuts running in this riding -- Heath Thomas (Libertarian), Kristin Monster (Family Coalition -- although, awesome name), and Charles Sutherland (Independent) -- the better. Although, don't take my shots at them as fringey the wrong way: I've voted federally for Canadian Action in the past.

So, I do care. And I won't vote for any of these people because of it.

Furthermore, not voting doesn't mean relinquishing my right to complain about politicians. I keep hearing this as a justification for voting and it simply doesn't wash. First, I can complain about anything I damn well please. Second, if I don't vote because no one is worth voting for -- and not because I just don't give a shit -- then, far from giving up the right to complain, not voting actually expresses a complaint.

There is some justification for strategic voting, in some cases. I've done that before. However, because the candidates haven't bothered to express what they actually stand for, there's no strategy possible. I can't pick out who's bad and who's good, so I can't vote for the lesser of the evils.

Finally, some may suggest that I refuse my ballot. I would; in fact, I think there should be a "none of the above" space on all ballots, with a little write-in space for you to explain why. But last time I tried that -- federal election after Chrétien quit -- and was told it was no longer an option. I have done it before (federal election but one before that).

So, I won't be voting in the election. As said, I see absolutely no reason for, and many reasons against.


Scott Tribe said...

Hi Adam:

...glad to see you support MMP. COuld I maybe convince you to put up the "Vote For MMP" logo on your sidebar here at your blog and also join the growing list of bloggers at the Vote For MMP site who publicly support it?

Skinny Dipper said...

If you don't want to vote in the election, hopefully you'll vote in the referendum and in favour of MMP.

Scott Tribe said...

By the way, in response to your 2nd part of the blogpiece, you're able to go and cast your ballot on the electoral system referendum, but not have to vote in the Ontario election, if that's what your preference is.

Anonymous said...

MMP? FPTP? Do you really expect your readers to understand acronyms out of the blue? Cause I certainly had to look up that acronym on Wikipedia, and I was lucky that it was listed.

I still like the Single Transferable Vote idea best, but Mixed Member Proportional Representation is certainly an improvement over the crude party-based proportional system.

The Green party is Libertarian? Since when? Green and Libertarians work together in the US, yes, but only because they have a common enemy.

Obviously the small parties have a vested interest in promoting MMP whereas the big parties do not. Thus, if you want to see that change happen, vote for a third-party candidate. Also, don't third-parties get perks if they get more votes? In the US they're eligible for more government funding, I believe.

If it fails, is there really any reasonable chance that the process will be repeated for some other possibility? It's hard to see how there could be.

What's to stop another referendum from being raised?

ADHR said...


I know I can vote for one and not the other. It's two separate ballots, correct? Even if I couldn't, I could, in principle, just half spoil it.

It's a "no" to the badge, incidentally. My "support" for MMP is anemic. It's the best of a bad lot; since I'm generally anti-democratic, I don't think it can truthfully be said I "support" MMP.


I will. That's what I said in the post!


The target audience was mostly Ontario political bloggers. Sorry for any confusion.

The Green Party in Canada has a weird history. Although they're officially part of the worldwide organization of Green Parties, their economic policies read libertarian to me.

Keep in mind, also, that in Ontario, there are two larger parties, but also a viable third party, the NDP. About 15 years ago, they actually formed the government.

I do believe you're right that parties get funding in proportion to how many votes they get. None of the parties on display, though, seem to deserve that funding.

My understanding is that referenda have to be approved by the legislature. So, if this one fails, I don't see why any subsequent government would bother with a new one. After all, if we had a chance to get rid of FPTP, and didn't, the government can plausibly argue that the majority doesn't want to get rid of the current system. Hence a new referendum would be a waste of time and energy.