Joseph Schumpeter

Schumpeter says no. Image via Wikipedia

Most of the arguments used so far against AV have been so dubious or downright misleading that it’s a pleasure to come across an argument against based on a description of what democracy is for.

Paul Sagar’s review of James Forder‘s The Case against Voting Reform provides an argument against AV based on the political philosophy of Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter, an economist, had no time for the “general will” of Rousseau and other democratic theorists, and still less for the idea that democracy and voting might be in any meaningful way based on rational deliberation or facts.

Instead, and here I’ll let Paul’s review take over:

For Schumpeter, what marked democracy out was that it was a particular mechanism – albeit an extremely impressive and efficient one – for selecting and controlling the minority elites who [following Max Weber‘s Principle of Small Numbers] would inevitably vie for political control: a way of regulating “the competitive struggle for power and office”. Crucially, on Schumpeter’s view individual voters did not collectively constitute “a people”, and they did not form a “general will”. They remained different individual voters who attempted to select different leaders, who could then be entrusted with power – or if necessary, stripped of it. In all of this, the charismatic appeal of individual leaders who are able to sway enough of the electorate was irreducible and usually paramount.

As you might imagine, the link between this view of the world and AV (or indeed any form of proportional representation) is that it makes it difficult to strip the selected leader of power. As elections become more proportional (though it’s worth noting AV isn’t that much of a step towards proportionality) there is less potential for a single 1997 landslide moment where the country chucks the old lot out, and more for fuzzy coalition. For Schumpeter, this denies one of the main benefits of democracy.

Personally, I don’t agree with the analysis of proportional representation or coalitions presented here. To say that people vote so they can get a leader feels rather like saying that people get married so they can have regular sex without bothering about chat-up lines. It’s a statement of the roots of the institution, but leaves out a lot of higher-level thinking.

It’s true, as Paul Sagar says, that many people vote on the basis of who a party leader is, and the level of knowledge of actual policies is pretty minimal. I don’t see those as iron facts that will never change, though. In fact, I think that the decline of parties and the rise of single-interest groups is evidence that a leader-based attitude to politics is already changing.

Whether you agree or not, go and read the article. It’s good to see a rational argument against AV.

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Written by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

This article has 1 comments

  1. Chris Huang-Leaver

    Shame that rational argument is “most people have no idea what they are doing and are too stupid to vote”. By that logic, you might as well stop elections altogether, that would be better still or maybe restrict voting to land owning gentry like we used to.
    With more than two parties, FPTP converges on “allocate power by rolling dice.” If this is the best “NO to AV” can come up with , best stick to lies with pictures of screaming babies.