Saturday, July 31, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging

Soilwork, "20 More Miles"

On secrecy and Wikileaks.


So, as everyone and their brother's roommate knows, Wikileaks managed to get their hands on another chunk of material that the powers-that-be would rather the rest of us never saw. This time, of course, it was a collection of documents related to the war in Afghanistan. This has raised a number of issues which, oddly, didn't come up when Wikileaks released the CRU emails or the draft of the ACTA treaty.

Secrecy and the Government

I think it's important to get away from the idea that the government has some absolute right to keep secrets. It does not. In fact, its right to keep secrets is really quite limited. Exactly what the right is depends on the governmental structure. (I know, of course, that the actual functioning of government really deviates from these ideals. But, insofar as it does, the government is asserting rights it doesn't actually have. If the citizenry don't or can't contain this, that's a separate issue.) In the US, it's reasonable to say that the government has to always be able to justify its secrecy -- and, when it doesn't, it can't keep secrets. This seems to flow from the checks-and-balances idea, but also from the idea that only limited powers are delegated to either the federal or state governments. That is, in the US, anything the government doesn't explicitly have the authority to do, it lacks the right to do. There is no explicit authority to keep secrets of all kinds from the populace. When it comes to Canada, the government can keep secrets only insofar as it does so responsibly -- that is, on our behalf and with awareness of a real and pressing need to keep information secret. The idea here is responsible government. Government is entrusted with massive power, but is expected not ot use this capriciously or for its own benefit. On Afghanistan, the Canadian government has clearly failed in this regard. Keeping deaths of civilians secret clearly has more to do with protecting the government than with anything that benefits the people of Canada.

Secrecy and War

It's also important to note that there is no special right to keep secrets during war. (I'm assuming that it can be truthfully said we are at war in Afghanistan. There's certainly an armed conflict. But is it war? Not every armed conflict -- such as between street gangs -- is therefore a war. I tend to think wars can only be fought between state actors, and there's a legitimate question as to whether Afghanistan currently exists as a state and, if so, whether it's in a condition of war with anyone else.) If there were, it would be an instance of a general right to keep secrets. But there is no such general right; at best, there's a limited right, when keeping secrets is either justified to the populace (the US) or in the best interests of the populace (Canada). So, "it's war" is never good enough to justify secret-keeping by the government. There has to be more than this. "National security" or "troop safety" are no better -- these are formulas, not sincere justifications. As yet, no sincere justification is available for keeping as much secrecy around Afghanistan as there is.

Redacting Names

Redacting names is a tricky issue. It seems to make sense to keep names secret if it puts people at risk for unnecessary harm. After all, to want to keep people from unnecessary harm, especially people who are already exposed to a certain amount of risk, seems like a bad thing -- so, making the risk or the harm greater seems wrong. But, there are two issues that need to be established here. First, is the harm or the risk of harm increased? If the names were already known to people who might put them at risk, then Wikileaks has only confirmed the names. That's a pretty small increase in harm or risk of harm, at worst. Second, even if there is an increase in harm or risk of harm, then this has to be evaluated against any increase in benefit or chance of benefit. That is, the approach in play here suggests that the harm must be weighed, which raises the possibility that the harm or risk of harm is counter-balanced by some greater increase in benefit or chance of benefit. (This is the problem with consequentialist thinking: if you're going to say that putting people at risk is too much harm, then you have to allow that this could be outweighed by even more Benefit.) Arguably, given how much our governments have been keeping from us, this is actually the case. Certainly, it's not clear that the increased risk -- no one's died yet as a result, after all -- in comparison to our benefit in terms of knowledge gained is such that Wikileaks is not justified in naming names.

One might suggest that there's a kind of absolute right to having one's identity concealed in these sorts of situations. That only makes sense if the government -- the agent who had the information -- has an absolute right to keep secrets. So, the right to have one's identity concealed has to be contingent and limited, if it exists at all. Again, then, the names should only have been redacted if there were demonstrable harm caused by not redacting -- not proven, and unlikely, given the high level of danger already present -- and if that harm were not outweighed by the benefits -- tricky, as all consequentialist calculations are.

Furthermore, there's an issue here about responsibility. If I'm wrong above, then Wikileaks is required to try to figure out which people would be at risk if named. According to them, and not denied by anyone else, they tried to contact the White House to have them review the documents and indicate which names should be removed, and got no response. (Which is quite stupid on the White House's part; they didn't even need to read the documents, only claim they had and say all the names should be redacted.) That seems to discharge their responsibility: the choice then is either to name no one, or name everyone (of those they aren't sure about, that is). I don't think the first option is at all reasonable, as then the government can just name something as secret by refusing to explain. So, the second option was the only reasonable choice. It would be a different matter if Wikileaks had just named everyone, without showing any concern, but trying to contact the White House seems to demonstrate a reasonable level of interest in the problem.

And, we can't ignore two other points. First, the Taliban has already been targetting suspected informants, so Wikileaks may actually be saving innocent people, namely those who would have been targetted as informants and now will not be, because they aren't really informants and the documents prove it. And, second, no one would be targetted if the military weren't there. Let's not let governments off the hook here; responsibility doesn't just accrue to the proximal cause of a harm, but also to the cause of the harmful situation.

If, on the other hand, you're the type who thinks that any harm is bad, then you're basically screwed in this case. There's harm no matter what Wikileaks did (what the literature calls a "tragic dilemma"): civilians have been killed (as now proven), civilians would continue to be killed, soldiers would continue to be killed, etc. So, if that's your view, it follows that there's nothing right to be done, so Wikileaks may as well have flipped a coin. In other words, this kind of position is not respectable in this situation, as it yields no guidance on how to proceed. The counting harms approach is the only reasonable one, and, when counting harms and benefits, it has to be done honestly: that is, one has to take the broad view, not just pick out the harms that one personally find outrageous and ignore the rest.

Assange and wikileaks and the MSM

Some have suggested Wikileaks and Assange are not the right sort of organization to release this kind of information. I'm not sure what the right sort of organization means, except as a kind of off-hand smear of Wikileaks because they're weird and not nice and safe like, say, the New York Times. Filthy hippies or something, I suppose.

It's necessary to remember that the NYT et al have sat on important information before. To my recollection, the New York Times has yet to do any serious investigation of whether George W. Bush ever showed up for his alleged military service -- which one would think was at least worth looking into. The MSM, particularly in the US, have been big ol' cheerleaders for war, and suppressed the views of those who raise legitimate concerns about it. (Do I need to remind everyone of what the run-up to Iraq and Afghanistan was like?) Generally, they've fallen down on their job of keeping the government accountable, by telling us the things the government would rather we didn't know, but really has no business keeping secret. The same does apply to Canada as well, unfortunately. Given that situation, where the government is keeping secrets they shouldn't, and the MSM are failing to make it clear, what else was going to happen? Wikileaks was inevitable.

It's like Napster, really. (Seriously.) The record industry wasn't letting people get their music electronically in a convenient fashion, as they wanted. So, Napster came along and forced the issue. Now, more or less, you can get music electronically in a convenient fashion. (Still not perfect, but we do have BitTorrent.) The same is going to apply here. If you aren't providing what people want -- in this case, clear and accurate information about what's going on in Afghanistan -- someone on the internet will, sooner or later, step up and give it to you. The demand exists and some organization will fill it. If you don't like the way Wikileaks does it, you have a few choices. One, try to suppress them legally. (Go ask the recording industry how that's working out.) Or, two, outcompete them. Wikileaks has very few resources, certainly in comparison to mainstream news organizations. If the MSM wanted to, they could do wikileaks' job better than wikileaks, and confine them to the status of a fringe organization. There isn't a good track record when it comes to out-competing web-based competitors, but I suppose journalism might figure it out. (Think, over in entertainment, how often we hear about TMZ scooping the MSM.)

But, instead, Wikileaks keeps scooping the MSM. The CRU emails, the ACTA draft, the BNP (British National Party) membership lists, Afghanistan. The mighty MSM keeps getting shown up by some hacker and his buddies. The documents Wikileaks finds are obviously in the public interest: even when the resulting scandal is bullshit, like the CRU emails, the documents themselves are something people should know about and be able to see. (When it comes to the CRU emails, I would suggest that the MSM was the real problem: they didn't bother to carefully read through them, which would have shown that there was no scandal there, and they didn't bother to push back against the developing right-wing talking-points, due to some misguided notion of neutrality on an issue of science.)

Frankly, we need Wikileaks, given that no one else is willing to tell us the things we may not want to know, or may have been told we shouldn't know, but really do need to know. We need to know that civilians have been targetted and killed by the military. That's an important piece of information in deciding if we still want to be in Afghanistan. We need more Wikileaks, really. For example, can someone get their hands on anything showing the discussions in the government regarding the census decision? We know it's Harper's idea, and Clement and Flaherty hate it, but imagine if we could prove it? Or, could someone get their hands on internal Canadian government documents regarding the billions they've blown on fighter jets. It'd be nice to know whether anyone in the government thought this might be a problem. But, the MSM is unable or unwilling to help us out here. Besides Wikileaks, what resource do we have to help us figure out what we need to know?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging

Heaven Shall Burn, "Combat"

Friday, July 23, 2010

On proportional representation (2): the case against


Last week, I argued for the claim that proportional representation (PR) is preferable to single-member plurality (SMP) as a system of electing representatives to a democratic assembly. The central reason for this conclusion was that PR is the default system of elections, given that it is the system which ensures a strong connection between the expressed preferences of the voters and the representatives in the assembly (calling this the "strong connection" thesis in what follows). In this post, I consider nine objections to this conclusion, all of which try to identify important principles which PR allegedly cannot accommodate, but SMP can. What I'm looking for here is whether these principles are sufficiently important to outweigh the principle which supports the conclusion that PR is preferable to SMP.

(1) PR leads to unstable governments/difficulty forming governments

The idea here seems to be that stability is an advantage in assemblies or in governments. It's not clear, though, what's supposed to be so good about stability. I presume it's something like predictability: if the assembly/government is stable, then we can make reasonably good predictions about what they're going to do in any given case. If that's right, then I don't see how this can override the importance of the strong connection thesis. The problem is that if stability is more important than the strong connection thesis, then the system of elections is fundamentally paternalistic. That is, if people make the "wrong" choice -- a choice which leads to instability -- then this choice should be "corrected" by the biases of the system itself. If, however, one has followed me to this point and accepted that the strong connection thesis is important, there is really no basis for the claim that a choice should be corrected in this fashion. This sort of paternalism is inconsistent with giving the strong connection thesis any importance beyond some minimal limit.

If stability is important, then it is less important than the strong connection thesis. So, if stability is to be achieved, it must be achieved by people choosing in such a way that a stable assembly/government results. Anything less would just demand stability -- and, if we're going to go down that road, why have elections at all?

(2) PR allows fringe elements to get elected

This criticism can come from the left, usually against racist or fascist parties, and from the right, usually against socialist or communist parties. The underlying principle seems to be that being mainstream is an advantage, and we want to preserve mainstream candidates and parties in the assembly.

What's good about being mainstream, though? Presumably, being mainstream means that lots of people agree with one's views or ideology. Else, one is fringe. But once we see that, it becomes obvious how wrong-headed this criticism really is. You can't know what's mainstream or fringe until you know what people prefer. It might turn out that a fascist party/candidate or a communist party/candidate has more supporters than had previously been believed. This shows that the mainstream isn't where one might have thought -- or hoped -- it would be.

So, if the judgement about what's mainstream and what's fringe has this content, it actually supports, rather than undermines, PR. PR allows us to see clearly, in the assembly, where the mainstream is and where the fringes are. The judgement might have a different content, though. It might by a covert attempt to privilege conforming to a certain set of attitudes or ideals. That is, the "mainstream" are those who agree with me, and the "fringe" are those who don't. Like (1), though, this is deeply inconsistent with giving the strong connection thesis any importance at all. If it's legitimate to sweep away some preferences because they aren't the "right" ones, then it's hard to see why we would respect any preferences at all.

(3) PR allows fringe elements to dominate governmental negotiations

If the underlying principle here is that negotiations being dominated by the mainstream is good, then this falls prey to the same objections as those raised above. Furthermore, it's obviously a rather silly principle -- it amounts to endorsing mob rule, where the biggest elements should get their way, and the smallest should get nothing.

But, more subtly, the underlying principle may be an expression of the idea that weight of voice in negotiations should be proportional to one's actual support in the legislature. If that's the idea, then this supports PR. It's not clear how we could ensure that voices in negotiations are proportional without first getting the members of the assembly to be proportional to the voices (i.e., expressed preferences) of the voters. If we don't do that, then we may as well follow the Athenians and choose an assembly by lot: the privileging of one set of ideas, through affording them seats not earned through earning votes, is basically arbitrary.

Even more subtly, however, the underlying principle may be an expression of concern that, since smaller parties have less to lose for digging in their heels and insisting on getting everything they want, and bigger parties have more to lose, then smaller parties will necessarily have more sway than is proportional to their size in the assembly. I'm inclined to deny that this is actually a problem, though, rather than a reactionary fear.

These people from the "small parties" have been elected, which means some voters out there prefer them. If bigger parties don't want to have to give in to these smaller parties, then what follows is not that we should gimmick the rules to make it possible for big parties to ignore the small ones, but to insist that the big parties should work their butts off to lure more voters to their side. The fact that smaller parties may be able to bargain hard shows only that the big parties didn't do a very good job in their campaigns. Why should the system protect big parties who can't get themselves enough support?

(4) PR governments deadlock

The underlying principle seems to be that making decisions quickly is a good thing. Well, I agree: it's true making decisions quickly is a good thing. But making the right decisions is better. And making decisions for the people that are actually for the people -- and not for the party, or for the next election, or for the post-political career -- is even better than that. "Getting things done" is not what we in philosophy call an "all things considered" good. That is, it's not a thing that's good, no matter what. It's only good in certain circumstances. For this particular thing -- making decisions quickly -- my sense is that it isn't good unless the decisions are ones that are made for the people, and are the right decisions. (If you don't quite agree with me: long-form census, changing the national anthem, and prorogation.) Besides, there's actually no guarantee that an SMP system doesn't deadlock; the US government is elected under SMP -- the House, the Senate and the President -- and they deadlock all the time. Efficiency isn't really something that's got anything to do with the way we select representatives, but with the powers that the representatives have, and they way they approach their dealings with each other.

(5) PR encourages fragmentation of big-tent parties

It's not at all clear what the objection here is. It might be osmething like community is a good thing. But one hardly needs a big formal system to compel someone to be in community with others -- what one needs is an attitude of openness, negotiation, etc. Big-tent parties tend to function by suppressing disagreements which really should be hashed out, in order to help people reach common ground. So, I'm not at all clear how doing away with big parties is a bad thing.

Furthermore, it's important to note that big parties are a relatively recent invention in at least the Canadian parliamentary tradition. The British parliamentary system, to which we are the heirs, didn't have "parties" in any sense we'd recognize until about the mid-19th century, when the Tories and Whigs coalesced into formal organizations rather than loose collectives. So, Parliament has worked without parties of any kind, never mind big ones -- why can't it work again?

(6) Look at (fill in the blank) -- Israel, Italy, etc.

These comparisons really aren't principled. They usually amount to dishonest drive-by smears. Drive-by because the actual problem with (fill in the blank) is often left unexplained -- we're just supposed to recoil from (fill in the blank) instinctively -- and dishonest because the problems with whatever fills in the blank usually have nothing to do with PR. Take Israel, for example. One odd thing elections to the Israeli Knesset do is set the threshold of votes you need to get to get elected very low -- only 2% of the votes cast. Hence, very small parties can get representatives in. Hence, the Knesset has 12 parties splitting 120 seats. Elections are also conducted such that one voters for a party, and not for an individual. I'm not suggesting either feature is necessarily bad, but they are both unusual. Given that, it's dishonest to pretend that any objection to Israel's system of elections must be because it's a PR system. It differs from the Canadian system in other ways, too.

The same could be said for another usual fill to the blank, Italy. Italy is notoriously corrupt and the bureaucracy is highly inefficient. Those are clearly bad things, but they have little to nothing to do with the system of voting, and don't apply to anything like the same extent in Canada.

(7) PR prevents voters from directly choosing their legislators

The underlying principle here seems to be that directly choosing representatives is a good thing. I do tend to agree; systems which elect members based on a list formulated by the party worry me. But directly choosing reprsentatives is not barred by PR, only by some forms -- namely, those which allot some seats in the assembly to representatives selected from a list compiled by the parties.

Even allowing that, there's still a sense in which such a system -- such as Mixed-Member Proportional, or MMP -- does allow for directly electing representatives. Non-list representatives are directly elected in the same way representatives are directly elected under MMP. And, list representatives are directly elected in the sense that votes were cast which do count towards their election. The only sense in which there is not a "direct election" of the representative is that the individual is not chosen by the voter -- the party chooses. But, let's be realistic here: the party always chooses who you can vote for. (Even in jurisdictions with a primary system, although those do seem to make it slightly more likely that someone outside the central party structure can stand for election.) Having representatives elected off a list just makes the process a little more transparent.

So, unless one is willing to advocate something very radical -- abolition and prohibition of political parties, say, such that all candidates standing for election have not been put there by any party structure -- candidates and thus representatives will always be partly chosen by the party. This holds under SMP just as it does under PR.

(8) The difficulty in removing an entrenched party from power quickly

The underlying principle seems to be that being able to quickly remove a party from power is a good thing. As a criticism, however, this is fatuous nonsense. If a party's support collapses precipitously, they can be removed under PR as easily as under SMP -- lost support still equals lost seats. Indeed, it's probably easier, as more votes make a difference under PR. Under SMP, support can drop hugely but, if the geography is favourable and the vote against the party in powersplits, that party can still hang on to lots of seats -- possibly even a majority in the assembly.

To my eye, the objection seems to really be motivated by the desire to "throw the bums out" -- and to read the sentiment "throw the bums out" into the voters as a whole -- when, really, there's just a small tick in general support for the party. Under SMP, small ticks can make a huge difference. In the '93 election, Jean Chr├ętien gained 10% in support and 94 seats, amounting to a 113% increase in seats, while Kim Campbell's PCs lost 15% of the vote and 167 seats, amounting to a 98% drop in seats. That a 10% increase equals a 113% increase, and a 15% drop equals a 98% drop. There was no real "throw the bums out" sentiment -- more of a "we're not terribly pleased with these bums, overall, but would like to keep some of them around nonetheless". It just didn't exist. And yet, the results in terms of seats suggest otherwise.

If the bums deserve to be thrown out, they need to drastically decline in support. Just because you want the guys in your colour shirts to win is no reason to to allow the assembly's composition to swing around as madly as this.

By the way: wasn't one of the alleged advantages of SMP that it would produce stable assemblies...?

(9) Difficulties in understanding a more complex voting system

The underlying principle seems to be that it's better to have a system that's simpler, so that voters can understand it.

I'm not sure that it's true that voters can't understand a PR system. We are, after all, talking about people who can grasp the complexities of, say, FIFA's Laws of the Game, or complex statisical calculations regarding the likelihood of a hockey goalie's making a save. So, it's not that people can't grasp complex systems. It's more that they may not care to grasp the system of elections. But, to my eye, this suggests that the the problem isn't that PR is too complicated, but that SMP is discourages people from caring about voting as such. After all, if you know your vote might not make a damn bit of difference, why would you bother learning how the system works? So, I suspect that a system which made an individual vote more valuable would actually encourage people to know how the system works -- so they could use their now more valuable vote most effectively.

(10) SMP is old

People do actually make this argument. They usually refer to the grand British parliamentary tradition, or some such, but this is what it amounts to. Do I really need to explain the difference between being old and being good?

Oh, all right: creationism, vitalism, caloric fluid, and phlogiston. All old. All wrong.


Overall, I'm not persuaded that there is any goal sufficiently more important than matching the expressed preferences of voters which would justify retaining SMP over PR. If there is such a viable possibility, I don't know what it is. Certainly the ones I've canvassed here are pretty dismal failures, turning on either rejecting the value of voting as such, failing to actually show SMP is superior to PR, or being simply ridiculous.

Next week: Filling in some of the holes here. Why is PR better than a preferential system (e.g., instant run-off voting).

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging

Children of Bodom, "Trashed, Lost & Strungout"

Friday, July 16, 2010

On proportional representation (1): the case for

This week and next I'll be writing a two-part series I've been intending to write for a while on proportional representation. This first part presents the case in favour of proportional representation, while the second part will present the case against.


Some background assumptions. Any theoretical project has some assumptions working in the background; I hope that the ones I'm making here are reasonable. If not, let me know in comments and I can back up a step and try to defend them.

I assume that some form of democracy is defensible. I'm reading "democracy" quite broadly, though, to include a broad spectrum ranging from a system where everyone has a say in determining the identity, nature, etc. of all state authority figures (to the extent that there may be no "state" in any recognizable sense), to a system where at least one person has a role in determining at least one feature of at least one state authority, and that person is not awarding that feature of that authority to him or herself. This is just a simplifying move.

I also assume that we're dealing exclusively with representative systems. So, I'm not trying to address the possibility that direct democracy might be preferable to proportional and non-proportional systems. I don't think it is. I think the practical difficulties are almost insurmountable, and I think there are strong reasons to favour assigning the complex task of government to someone other than the citizenry as a whole. But that's a different argument; here, I just assume my way around it.

I'm also not trying to address the possibility that a system of government based on an assembly of delegates would be prefereable to a system based on an assembly of representatives. Now, a delegate is assigned to act in one's stead, while a representative is assigned to act on one's behalf. So, a delegate is someone who carries entirely and only the authority that one does, while a representative carries his or her own authority. A delegate cannot go beyond what one has decided or would decide. In contrast, a representative can, through using his or her own judgement, experience, and so on. I think that rejecting the delegate theory is a difficult and involved task; certainly a task for another day. So, again, I'm just assuming my way around it.

So, what's being assumed here is that we want some system for electing people to some sort of assembly who act on behalf of, but not in the stead of, the citizenry. (Citizens rather than residents because citizens are those who are both responsible for and responsible to the state. Residents are only responsible to the state, not responsible for it.)

SMP vs. PR

I'm limiting my attention to SMP and PR for a few reasons. First, while I could spend some time considering them in detail, straight majoritarian or random selection methods strike me as deeply problematic, for obvious reasons, when applied to elections in complex multicultural societies. A small monoculture might work for simple majoritarianism; but, in such a society, would a representative system really be preferable to a form of direct democracy? As for random selection, it might make sense if there were no relevant differences between potential representatives, but I'm not sure how that could be determined to be the case in an actual electoral contest. Second, I probably should consider preferential systems in some depth. However, the reasons to reject preferential systems differ in kind from the reasons to reject SMP. I'll probably deal with that contrast in a later series.

So, what are the two systems under consideration? On the one hand, we have First Past The Post (FPTP) or Single-Member Plurality (SMP). I like the latter name better than the former, and will use it from here on. The salient reason, in my view, is that FPTP doesn't really identify where the "post" is -- it could be plurality, majority, or a very low threshold. SMP, by contrast, explicitly states that we're dealing with a system based on plurality. On the other hand, we have Proportional Representation (PR). There are, technically, many different forms of PR -- mixed member, transferrable vote, and so on -- but I think I can generalize over them, in a fruitful way, as follows.

What distinguishes SMP and PR, I think, are three features. SMP has:
  1. Single-member districts
  2. Winners determined by plurality
  3. No strong connection between expressed preferences of voting population and representatives
By contrast, PR has:
  1. Single- or more member districts
  2. Winners determined by threshold, plurality or majority
  3. A strong connection between expressed preferences of voting population and representatives
I'm deviating a little from standard accounts here, but not without reason.

With regard to (1), I don't think a PR system has to hold that districts need multiple members. Rather than electing multiple members in order to assure proportionality of representation to expressed preferences of votes, it would be possible to appoint each elected representative as the representative of a gerrymandered district containing just those who voted for that representative. This would be very impractical, of course, but impracticalities should be ruled out a posteriori not a priori. So, when it comes to (1), SMP and PR can be consistent.

With regard to (2), I don't think that PR has to commit itself to any particular stance on what proportion of the vote a candidate needs to achieve in order to be elected. Obviously, there has to be some rule. But that rule will be determined largely be practical considerations. In larger, more populous countries, fewer representatives is probably better, if for no other reason than to make it possible to get anything done. Requiring a majority would limit numbers most strongly, plurality less strongly, and a lesser threshold even less. So, again, this issue looks empirical. So, when it comes to (2), SMP and PR can be consistent.

Now, it might seem that (3) under PR entails the negation of (2) under SMP. This is false, though. We could try to track expressed preferences amongst the populace and elect as representatives those who achieve a plurality of expressed preferences -- as when voters can vote in, say, three rounds. This would be odd, but not impossible. (I'm not sure this exact example would wind up being proportional, but something like that seems possible to me.) So, objections to majoritarianism are not well-founded here, I think. There may be reasons to reject majoritarianism, but this is not where to have that debate.

What follows, then, is it's (3) that's really crucial for distinguishing SMP from PR.

Why does (3) refer to expressed preferences of voters? There's two parts which could be questioned here. Expressed preferences could be replaced by real preferences, or by idealized preferences (such as real preferences counterfactually modified by perfect information and perfect rationality). Similarly, voters could be replaced by citizens. (Preferences I'm not interested in replacing as any candidate replacement for the term -- say, needs -- would move us away from a democratic system, violating one of my assumptions.)

The reason, in both cases, is basically epistemic. I acknowledge that it'd be best, probably, to match the idealized preferences of citizens. This would be best possible form of PR as we'd be addressing everyone who was responsible for and responsible to the state, in terms of what they would want under reasonable and ideal conditions -- so, their aims, goals, purposes, etc., corrected for errors in knowledge, reasoning, etc. would serve as the grounds for selecting the governing representatives.

Unfortunately, it's not possible, from an epistemic standpoint, to work with anything other than expressed preferences of voters. Nothing else can readily be measured. That is, we can't know what the preferences of the citizens are except insofar as they tell us. This means that we have to rely on voters rather than the citizens as only voters have bothered to tell us what they prefer. (Relying on a non-electoral poll has the same problem. We'd have to only deal with the people who had bothered to answer the poll.)

Similarly, we have to rely on expressed preferences rather than real or idealized ones because, while real preferences would probably be better, and idealized preferences even better, we can't get either off the ground without some information. And the best information we have is what people tell us they prefer.

(Although I would support doing away with birthright citizenship and only extending citizenship to those who demonstrated some threshold level of committment to and knowledge of their country. Which might get rid of the voters who sincerely express preferences that have nothing to do with their real preferences, and also bring real preferences closer to idealized preferences. But, again, that's a separate point. Starting to notice how quickly this discussion snowballs?)

The Default Position

The question of whether to favour SMP or PR thus becomes whether we should favour matching expressed preferences of voters in a strong sense, rather than in a weak sense. Under SMP, we do have some matching of preferences, in that those who vote for the eventual winner do have their preferences matched by a representative. It's not strong, though, as an SMP election can (and often does) result in the majority of expressed preferences being entirely dismissed. Votes above the threshold of plurality for the winner count for nothing, and votes for any candidate but the winner count for nothing. Under PR, by contrast, matching expressed preferences is part of the point of the system. After all, as I've been arguing, that's what makes PR interestingly different from SMP.

If you're with me to this point, then I think you should see why the strong connection is superior to the weak one. If matching expressed preferences matters, and it seems it does, then we should only favour the weak connection if the strong connection leads us into problems. If the connection matters, then we should aim for the best connection we can reasonably have. This means, though, that the argument in favour of PR rather than SMP is fundamentally very simple. PR is the default position that a representative system should adopt, at least in comparison to SMP. It's just a historical accident that we wound up with SMP first and would have to move from it to PR. The only way to block this conclusion is to identify some pressing and serious consequences of ensuring the strong connection.

So, stay tuned for Part 2 where I consider attempts to do just that.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Weekend metal-blogging.

Empyreon, "Beyond Perception"