imaginary family values presents

yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


Democratic tragedy

7 December 2008

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:

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.

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.