Democracy – the most undefined word in the world!
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
Minority rule is no good. Our forebears long since came to the conclusion that single rulers – kings and emperors alike – were often tyrants. Surely the wisdom of many would be better than the whims of just a single one.
Accordingly, instead of minority rule, which was obviously a wrong, many countries adopted its supposed opposite, hopefully a right, majority rule. But what does it mean in practice? For the world is now run by another bunch of all-powerful singletons, the likes of Bolsonaro, Johnson and Trump. Something has gone seriously wrong.
So what is “the will of the people”? Well, as it were by definition, on any contentious issue, unanimity does not exist. Accordingly, after much debate, yesterday’s thinkers thought the “will of the people” was that which gave “the greatest good to the greatest number.” The best to the most. The superlative. Sadly, most democracies use majority voting. Take it or leave it. The comparative. And yes, it’s all gone horribly wrong.
The fault-line was detected by Pliny the Younger in Rome over 1900 years ago: in a multi-option debate, where there’s no majority for any one thing, there’s a majority against every damned thing. So, when there are lots of options ‘on the table’, to take only one majority vote on only one option, as in Brexit – “Do you want X, yes-or-no?” – is at least silly. And on Brexit, 52% voted ‘no’. But nobody knew what the 52% actually wanted; we knew only what this small majority didn’t want. Whereupon Boris Johnson does what he, the singleton wants (albeit with a few other very right-wing Tories). It is yet another instance of minority rule. In the name of the majority. Pure hypocrisy.
But this is majoritarianism, in practice. The politics of power. Pick on a minority; thereby gain majority support; and then do (almost) whatever you want. It is all the politics of win-or-lose, of ‘us’ versus ‘them’; of division, if not of war. It applies to all countries, both democratic (government versus opposition) and communist (government with no opposition).
+ Hitler came to power democratically; he opposed a minority – the Jews and others – to thus claim the majority, and then, on the basis of a (2/3rds) majority vote, Germany became a one-party state.
+ In the USSR, Lenin and then Stalin did much the same against the Mensheviks – the Russian word for ‘majoritarianism’ is ‘bolshevism’, while ‘menshevik’ means ‘member of the minority’.
+ Trump is a contemporary example, he is anti-immigrants, anti-Mexican, anti-women… anti-everything, it seems, apart from himself.
+ And Máo Zēdōng was no different, just worse; many of his ‘enemies’ were also his own people, the rightists. Indeed, apart from outright wars, the so-called Great Leap Forward was probably the world’s worst ever instance of binary politics. In village tribunals, majority voting was used as sentences of death, and in the associated famine, some 20 or maybe 40 millions died.
So how can we identify ‘the best for the most’ – the collective wisdom, the consensus, the average opinion or at least the best compromise? After all, there are lots of electoral systems – and they vary from the very bad single-candidate elections – “Candidate X, yes or no?” – of North Korea, via the bad single-preference systems of the UK and USA, to the more inclusive and more accurate preferential systems of Nauru and Ireland. Apparently, however – bad, mediocre and good – they are all democratic; well, nearly all – not the “Yes-or-yes?” elections of the ‘D’PRK.
So too there are lots of decision-making systems; indeed, many voting procedures can be used in both elections and in decision-making.1 For the latter – decision-making – we can use binary voting – “Option X, yes or no?” – a bit like the North Koreans; or maybe “Option X or option Y?” – a bit like the Americans. Or again, we could use a knock-out system, the alternative vote, which is used in Australian elections. Or a two-round system, which is used in French elections and in some referendums, as in New Zealand and Guam. Or we could use a preferential system to see either which option gets the most top preferences, or which gets the least bottom preferences, or which gets the best average preference, or whatever.
For some extraordinary reason, while many countries have different electoral systems, nearly every country, democratic and non-democratic alike, uses only one decision-making system, the worst: majority voting. As often as not, in the US Congress, in the British House of Commons, it’s a DPRK-like “Option X, yes or no?”
The choice, then, is considerable; let us now try to choose the most inclusive and the most accurate decision-making voting procedure, so to identify ‘the best for the most’. But first, let us establish the principle: we are all different, we often have different opinions, so rather than be confined in a one-party or a two-party state, let us enjoy pluralism.2 In other words, let us rejoice in the diversity of our species; let everybody participate; let every relevant and rightful option be ‘on the table’; and then let us take a measure of everyone’s opinions.
When a doctor takes the temperature of a Covid-19 patient, she does not use a thermometer which has only two readings: ‘hot’ and ‘cold’. A more accurate measure is required, and the instrument is calibrated in degrees.
Unfortunately in politics, we use a primitive binary measure… and everything is ‘yes-or-no?’ ‘for-or-against?’ … ‘hot-or-cold?’ Well, if the ballot is binary – “do you want A or B?” – there are only two ways of submitting a full ballot: it’s either A or B, ‘hot-or-cold?’ and that’s that; not much choice there. If there are three options, A, B and C, there are 6 ways of casting all three preferences: A-B-C, A-C-B, B-A-C, B-C-A, C-A-B and C-B-A. With four options, A-B-C-D, the choice is 24. And with five, there are 120 different ways of expressing an opinion; 120 different degrees of enthusiasm for the various options: is option C much better, or just a little better, than option E, and option A, etc. 120 degrees – that’s even better than a Centigrade thermometer.
The format is as follows. A problem arises. Under the guidance of a non-voting chair, the appropriate body – LegCo or the local council – meets to resolve the matter. Any member may propose an option – let’s call the first one option A – and, as long as it complies with the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it is allowed ‘on the table’. If someone(s) don’t like option A, they don’t try to oppose or amend it; rather, they produce an alternative, a complete policy proposal, option B.3 Even if the difference is only slight, they nevertheless propose a complete package (with the relevant difference highlighted, or whatever). Every party, or every group of at least, oh, seven members, is allowed to propose one policy: so the debate starts with, let us say, five options A, B, C, D and E, five complete policy proposals.
On this basis, we meet physically or virtually, to make a collective decision, with discussion on each option limited by time or, if online, by number of words. New ideas may emerge; if all concerned agree, including the original proposer, an option may be deleted; again, if the proposer agrees, an option may be amended; if two agree, their two motions may be composited. So the number of options ‘on the table’ and computer screen4 may vary, and thus the debate may proceed.5 But there are no formal amendments, and certainly no majority votes on them.
If, at the end of the day, there is a verbal consensus on just the one option, there need be no vote at all. If however there are still a few options ‘on the table’ – and this is more likely in any legislative chamber – the chair will draw up a (short) list of about five options. When all agree that this represents the debate, the chair may call for a preference vote. Hopefully, every participant will cast all five preferences, so to express the degree of enthusiasm with which she regards each option in relation to the other options. In so doing, each recognises the validity of each option and the aspirations of his colleagues. And each implies that, if the consensus is in favour of that which is actually her 5th preference, that she will nevertheless accept this outcome.
In the count,
+ he who casts just 1 preference gets just 1 point for his favourite option;
+ she who casts 2 preferences gets 2 points for her favourite (and her 2nd choice gets 1 point); and so on; so
+ he who casts all 5 preferences gets 5 points for his favourite option (his 2nd choice gets 4 points, etc.).
The difference is always 1 point. A voter’s (x)th preference, if cast, always gets 1 point more than her (x+1)th preference, regardless of whether or not she has cast that (x+1)th preference.
The option with the most points is the winner. If everyone does cast all five preferences, and if the level of support is greater than a pre-determined threshold, this outcome will represent the participants’ average opinion, either their best compromise or, if the level of support is even higher, their collective wisdom. This voting procedure – the Modified Borda Count, MBC – was first mooted over 800 years ago by Ramón Llull; it was analysed and refined by Jean-Charles de Borda in 1774; and modernised into an app. just a few years ago: www.debordavote.org
The MBC is inclusive, robust and, above all, accurate. It is therefore more democratic than any majority vote. It is also non-majoritarian; as noted, it can identify the option with the highest average preference, and an average, of course, involves every voter, not just a majority of them. If, therefore, the MBC were adopted as the international democratic norm, there would be no further justification for single-party or even two/three/four-party-coalition majority rule; instead, every democracy (and not just Switzerland plus a few conflict zones) could enjoy all-party governments of national unity. No longer, then, would the world suffer from societies polarised into two factions, like Hong Kong’s yellow and blue, like the USA’s Democrats and Republicans, like England’s pro- or anti-Brexit. And no longer would we suffer the consequences of all-powerful singletons like Bolsonaro, Johnson, Modi and Trump – all so similar to another all-powerful singleton, Xi.
The Swiss, long since advocates of the citizens’ initiatives and referendums, have recently started to use multi-option voting in decision-making, but not yet in their parliament. New Zealand’s first multi-option referendum was in 1894. The Danish Parliament often uses plurality voting, but usually on only three options. So while nearly every democracy criticises North Korea for its elections – “Candidate X, yes-or-yes?” – we fail to see the log in our own eyes and we continue to use “Option X, yes-or-no?” in our decision-making, both in parliaments and in referendums.
In the history of our species, democracy is still quite young, and some electoral systems along with nearly all decision-making is often still quite primitive. And let us also remember that one of the world’s first multi-option votes was taken in China in 1197, in the Jin Dynasty, 金朝, the Jurchens. So today, in this age of cybernetics, pluralism is definitely possible. Maybe a major step on the road to a full democracy is to introduce electronic preference voting into our legislatures. But before that happens, civic society must itself adopt preferential decision-making; as I say, the app. exists; we just need to use it.
Director, the de Borda Institute
N.B. As many people know, the word referendum comes from the Latin; but it’s a gerund, not a noun; so the English plural is not ‘referenda', as many think, but ‘referendums’.
1 But not, of course, if they cater for PR (proportional representation).
2 In a two-party state, as in the USA, both parties seek the support of the median voter, and sometimes, the two parties are both very similar. Indeed, “What’s the difference?” asked Mikhail Gorbachev. There again, what was the main difference between capitalism and communism? Each was a creed based on greed.
3 This is similar to what happens in a German ‘constructive vote of no confidence’ as they call it. If you don’t like the existing government, then (for heaven’s sake) suggest a workable alternative! So instead of “A, yes-or-no?” it’s a little better, “A or B?”
4 And maybe too, on complicated topics, on a dedicated web-page.
5 Whereas, in a majoritarian debate, everything is constantly brought back to the original motion.
Our referendum blog references: