` Democratic tragedy — imaginary family values

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Imagine a country with a big chunk of disputed territory on its border, a developing economy, and a state-sponsored religion. The inhabitants of this country, a quarrelsome lot, divide into three factions:

  • 40 percent of the population are Wolves; they have, as their highest priority, attracting foreign investment. To the extent consistent with that first goal, they are willing to take a hard-line stance on territorial issues. They would rather weaken the state religious bodies than strengthen them.
  • 35 percent of the population are Hawks, and are hard-liners on territory first. They are also willing to increase the power of the state religion. Attracting foreign investment is really not on their agenda.
  • 25 percent of the population are Lions, who are most concerned with bringing the country closer to a theocracy. Their second interest is attracting foreign investment. Territorial issues come last.

This is what we in the poli-sci world called “circular preference”. If our hypothetical country is democratically run, which faction will seize the supreme executive power which derives from a mandate from the masses? That all depends on what kind of democracy it has, and how cynical the politicians are.

  • If the head of government is elected in a “first-past-the-post” system, where you just need a plurality to win, then the Wolves are favored to win. Certainly, any party with the Lions’ agenda will be a perpetual loser, so Lions will be supplicants to the Wolf- and Hawk-dominated parties; the leaders of those parties will have to try to figure out how to attract Lion votes in a way that does not alienate their primary constituents.
  • If elections require an absolute majority to win, and a runoff election in the event that nobody gets an absolute majority, then the Wolves are in a strong position, but a Wolf who really wants to attract foreign investment may vote for the Lion candidate in the first round of balloting, in the hope that the runoff election is Wolf vs. Lion rather than Wolf vs. Hawk.
  • If the country has a legislature elected by proportional representation, and that legislature elects the head of government, then the Lions are no longer supplicants, but kingmakers.
  • If the country’s head of government is appointed by the head of state, and the legislature has to pass a vote of no confidence to dissolve the government, then the Wolves, once again, are favored; the Wolf executive just needs to keep playing the Lions and Wolves off against each other well enough to keep them both from forming a coalition.

As you can see, once there are three parties (or three powerful political factions), any system of “democratic” decision-making has to put scare quotes around “democratic”, because the outcome of the decision-making process really depends on the particular “rules of the game” and how well the players can manipulate the rules. This insight was formalized by Kenneth Arrow in his famous dictator theorem.

As Hegel said, tragedy is not right against wrong, but right against right. Or perhaps, in this case, right against right against right.

It may be obvious at this point that the country foremost in my mind as I compose this posting is not Israel, but Canada. Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to have a constitution where, if the normal operations of democratic institutions fail, the system falls back, as it were, to monarchy.

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  1. flexitec flooring on 12/12/2014 11:44 a.m. #

    Democratic tragedy — imaginary family values


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