Friday, October 17, 2008

Liberals don't get it.

The entitled attitude on display by some (not all) Libbloggers speaks to their continued inability to understand why voters would choose an NDP candidate -- or even (gasp!) a Conservative! or a Green! -- rather than the Natural Governing PartyTM. Don't voters know how awesome a carbon tax is? Don't voters realize that Dion is the greatest politician that has ever lived?!

Here's how it works, for those rational enough to shove aside the partisanship for a few moments. John Rawls famously distinguished a perfect procedure, an imperfect procedure and a pure procedure. A perfect procedure is one that has some external goal to be reached, and realizes that goal... perfectly. Formal deduction procedures might fit this. They are supposed to help us uncover the consequences of a system of axioms, and they achieve that perfectly (in some formal systems, at any rate). An imperfect procedure is one that has some external goal to be reached, and realizes that goal... sometimes. The criminal justice system is a good example. We're trying to determine who's guilty and who's innocent, but we don't ever get that exactly. But we have no idea how to improve on the system. So, criminal justice -- trials, arrests, and so on -- remains an imperfect procedure.

A pure procedure has no external goal to be reached. Whatever outcome comes out of the process is considered to be right because it is the outcome of the process. Sports are like this. While it would be nice if the best hockey team won the Stanley Cup every year -- "best" defined in terms of skill, for example -- the fact is that whatever team wins the Cup is, by definition, the best team. Winning the Cup is the standard for being the best in a season.

Liberals complaining about how awesome Dion is and how stupid voters (especially NDP voters -- which gets Cons and Greens off the hook completely) are seem to be thinking of elections as perfect or imperfect procedures. They clearly can't be perfect procedures, though, as sometimes the best party or person doesn't win. (Robert Stanfield, please stand up.) That they aren't even imperfect may be harder to see. But the fact is that if we want to pick the best leaders, then an election is an astonishingly bad way to do it. We already know who the experts in diplomacy, economics, environmental science, and so on, are. We could, very easily, simply turn the authority to make decisions on issues over to the relevant experts. The experts might need to have an election in order to break deadlocks and actually make decisions, but there's no reason for us to get involved. After all, we aren't experts and clearly don't know enough to make an informed decision. (This is very like Plato's system in Laws.)

If the suggestion is that the experts need to know what "the people" want, again, elections are astonishingly bad. Opinion polls would serve just as well, and might serve to eliminate some of the noise surrounding the signals given by voting. Voting isn't done just to indicate to the powers-that-be what voters are interested in: it's done for a host of reasons. For example, I voted NDP largely for spite: because I was pissed enough at the Liberals to show up and vote against them. (My alternative was not voting for some other party, incidentally; it was not voting at all.) I wasn't really trying to signal that I cared for some issues rather than others. Some voted "strategically"; so, reading off what they want from their votes is simple nonsense.

De Condorcet's jury theorem is often invoked here. This argument gets technical, so I'll skip it. But I'll note that I don't think the first condition for the jury theorem holds in elections, and I'm not sure the second does, either. (See the Wikipedia article for what I'm talking about.)

So, the defense of democracy as an imperfect procedure is a failure. And the reason it's a failure, I think, is that democracy is a pure procedure. Whatever the voters decide is, by definition, the right decision. We may not like that, but if we don't like that, then we are arguing against democracy. (An argument I'd be fine making; but I suspect many Libbloggers will not be.) Democracy, on this conception, means that voters cast ballots and however those ballots turn out, that is a fair and correct result. We might disagree with that result, but it has to be on the basis of a good candidate being unable to convince voters, or on the basis of good policies being ignored by the winner. There's no sense (literally) in saying that the person who won didn't "earn" it or wasn't the "right" one, the one who "should" have won. Whoever won was the one who should've won. That's what democracy is.

So, the rhetoric from some Libbloggers, as well as from some Liberals (like Ujjal Dosanjh), is deeply anti-democratic. And dishonestly so, for they don't connect the dots and admit they are attacking democracy.