The best kittens, technology, and video games blog in the world.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How much democracy in your democracy?

Dewey by angela n. from flickr (CC-BY)

As elections in both UK and Poland get closer, I want to write a bit about some severe flaws in modern Western-style representative democracy. Unfortunately it's very difficult to hold a meaningful discussion about such subjects, as far too many things get collectively labelled "democracy".

This is not at all unreasonable, as they tend to cluster together. So rule of law, constitutional limits on government powers, freedom of speech and press, ability to run business independent of government connections, high standards of living, low corruption, regular elections, existence of multiple political parties, and even bicameral Parliaments tend to be present all at once in the same set of countries, or to be absent all at once in others.

Yet, there's nothing causal about this, and this is largely a historical accident. Many people are under impression that the kind of governments we have are a result of long careful thinking, or many experimentations with different government design - and nothing could be further from truth - it's all one big historical accident.

History lesson

Between death of Julius Caesar and establishment of United States, there was only one large country which could be even vaguely described as "democratic" - the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. And like most things in history, it all happened by accident - after the main line of Piast kings went extinct in Poland in 1370, Polish lords figured out that instead of electing a new dynasty, they will be approving every new king one by one.

Normally it would bother the king a lot, as most kings had been obsessed with making sure their children inherit their realm, but Jagiellons weren't that terribly bothered as they had still been guaranteed succession in Lithuania, and Polish lords could be relied on to elect someone from the Jagiellon family if they wanted to keep the Polish-Lithuanian union going. The only thing they had to agree to were fairly modest limitations on their powers - limitations that would get larger and larger with each next generation, and power was shifted further downwards from big lords to wider nobility.

By the time of death of the last Jagiellon in 1572, the system was something like this:
  • There was a bicameral Parliament - upper house Senate (Senat) consisting of major lords and bishops
  • Lower house House of Representatives (Izba Poselska) consisting of representatives of various districts elected freely by all noblemen living in a given district.
  • King was elected for life by all noblemen.
  • All legislation had to be approved by both houses of parliament and the king.
  • No war could be waged without approval of the Parliament.
  • All taxes and tariffs required approval of the Parliament.
  • Before the coronation, the king had to take an oath to uphold basic constitutional right.
  • Polish "nobility" (szlachta) was a very wide social class - comprising of about 10% of population, and in some parts of the Commonwealth as much as 30% (of that only males could vote, not surprisingly) - this is far more than even in most of 19th century republics, the main different being that in Poland this status was hereditary while in most 19th century republics it was based on wealth.
  • There was no slavery as such, but there was very harsh serfdom system in some regions.
  • While Catholic Church still had semi-official status, unprecedented levels of freedom of religion was guaranteed.

This is essentially identical to American system of government as founding fathers made it, and very very close to American system of government as it exists today. Modern American system of government, and also those of other democratic countries - is based on such accidents from a half millennium ago, similar accidents from British history, more accidents from 19th century conflicts between demising landed aristocracy and growing bourgeoisie, and on top of that those due to 20th century's rise of social democratic welfare state.

Is this the only way to organize a democratic state? Not at all! Even a very quick look at Athenian democracy, Roman Republic, and Medieval Republic of Venice - three particularly notable historical example - show how ridiculously vast is the range of possible democratic models. According to some ranks there are 80 or so countries which are reasonably "democratic", but nearly every single one of them a tiny variant of essentially a single political system, with neither theory nor experimentation to show that it's any better than the alternatives, and even outliers like Switzerland are not that terribly far off.

How democratic are Western democracies?

Sarah Palin Political Effigy & Kissy by Laiane from flickr (CC-NC-SA)

It's not terribly difficult to make up some ad hoc stories explaining why this particular historical accidents just "happen" to be the best system possible - every political system, every feature of social organization, essentially everything anyone has ever done had plenty of apologists of this kind.

But can we actually measure it? Yes we can. Let's start with one very simple metric - what percentage of votes did the ruling coalition get. Surely we should expect at least 50%, right? And we would prefer if policies set had support of reasonably solid majority, let's say 55%-60%, instead of the country being governed by what is essentially a rounding error?

Not so! Even without considering tactical voting, electoral systems tend to be ridiculously flawed, and in many countries it is actually completely common for well placed minority to be able to hold control over the government.

Going down the list according to Democracy Index score, ruling coalitions in the top democracies had such shares of popular vote:

So skipping the Swiss, of 20 supposedly "most democratic" countries in the world - governments of only 7 got majority of votes - and this doesn't even account for tactical voting - as I'm sure plenty of Americans would rather vote Green or Teabag, but the system essentially forced them to choose between the two leading parties or staying at home, so all these numbers seriously overestimate actual support for governments.

And even in spite of this overestimation, three governments are so far from majority of votes - UK, Denmark, and Canada - that their inclusion among "democracies" is highly dubious. OK, current situation in Denmark seems to be unusual, but no government in United Kingdom received majority of votes since 1931. And it isn't terribly likely to change - unless a miracle happens in the next elections and in the hung Parliament Liberal Democrats push a Parliamentary reform through.

Three more governments - Spain, New Zealand, and Australia - are still in highly dubious low 40s, and like with UK and Canada this seems to be the norm. So in one third of top 20 "democracies" governments rule thanks to quirks of electoral systems, not thanks to actual popular support - before tactical voting is even accounted for!

I haven't studied all 20 systems in detail, so this might be a serious oversimplification, but it seems to me that we could divide them into 3 groups:
  • Most of continental Europe has proportional representation with mild distortions due to electoral system and low levels of tactical voting - typically government support in high 40s / low 50s
  • UK and its former dominions tend to have first-past-the-post or otherwise highly distorting systems, but moderate level of tactical voting - typical government support in high 30s / low 40s - but once you account for tactical voting often even less
  • USA - first-past-the-post with very high distortions (including routine active manipulation of voting system via gerrymandering etc.) and very high level of tactical voting - typical government support in high 40s / low 50s - but this is mostly illusion thanks to very successful exclusion of third parties, and real support is much lower (not that parliamentary majority in USA matters that much, but presidential elections are about equally distorted)

In other words top democracies are either borderline democratic "rule of the rounding error" of continental Europe, or simply not democratic at all in the British and American world. And in case you think I'm exaggerating about United States - polls show only 23% or so of voters approve of what Congress is doing. I wouldn't be surprised if even Chinese Communist Party and Hugo Chávez had far more support than that.

So if voters have so little influence, what good is Western-style representative democracy? Yes, it correlates with many good things like civil liberties, and general welfare, but which way does the causation go if there is any at all? And shouldn't countries with less voter control like UK and US be far worse off than those with more voter control like Iceland or the Netherlands? Or maybe they actually are... I'll leave that for another post.


Jamie said...

Speaking as a Canadian, not getting majority support is a feature of a multi-party government.

The 5 major parties in the 2008 election split the popular vote approx 35/25/20/10/5, preventing the Conservatives from simply pushing through whatever new laws they'd like (as is occasionally the case in the US when the Senate/House both have a majority of one party).

Sure, we occasionally get oddities such as the NDP getting fewer seats than the Bloc despite having almost 2x the popular vote, but all told it's not that bad of a system.

Quickshot said...

Interesting the UK based democracies tend to all have particular distortions to them. I guess they copied from the homeland in part.

taw said...

Jamie: What kind of democratic legitimacy has a government which is supported by only one third of the people?

This Bloc getting far more seats while far fewer votes than NDP and/or PC thing is not a one off oddity but it happened every single time since 1993 when Bloc first took part in elections.

It seems to be that elections in Canada are about as bad as in UK.

Quickshot: They're all first-past-the-post, but without politicians being in control of redistricting and other American style manipulations, so third parties are still present.

UK based democracies also seem to experiment with single transferable vote / instant runoff quite often - which is somewhat less distorting than FPTP but more so than proportional representation. Elections for Mayor of London are held this way for example.

It's quite possible UK might move to STV/IR instead of to proportionality in case of hung parliament (intrade rates that at 60%-ish). Of course if Tories win (30%-ish by Intrade), Democracy in UK is over.

Xianhang Zhang said...

A quick visualization of your data shows a clump of 3 points at 35 - 37%, a big gap and then the main clump at 43 - 51%, then a few who are in the 53 - 60% range.

An alternative explanation of the data is that democratic systems will tend towards a state in which there's always a good chance of the incumbent being overthrown. If that's the case, then every incumbent should be close to the minimum threshold of what it takes to be elected and it would explain the big gap between the 33% necessary to win in a 3 party system and the 50% for a 2 party system.

Can you think of many counter-examples of true democratic systems with one party in power for more than 4 or 5 elections? Singapore is really the only example I can come up with. Australia came close during the Howard years but I don't think they made it to 5.

taw said...

Singapore isn't terribly democratic. (Democracy Index lists it as non-democratic "Hybrid regime")

There are some better examples.

LDP ruled Japan from 1955 to 1993. (13 elections)

Social Democratic Party ruled Sweden 1936-1976 (10 elections).

There's also Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico which ruled for 70 years, but Mexico isn't that terribly democratic either.

Sebastian said...

Interesting read.

Voter turnout and how easy or hard the election systems make it to vote is another thing to consider when deciding how legitimate governments are.

For example whether elections are held on weekdays (like in the US) or weekends (Sweden, and yes I'm Swedish and probably biased) affects the turnout.

This chart gives an overview of international turnout:

Sebastian said...

Sorry, seems I cropped the url.

wordsandpictures said...

The Republic of Ireland was formerly part of the UK, but shifted to a system of proportional representation unlike many other former dominions. Note that UK citizens resident in the Republic can vote in the parliamentary elections, and vice versa as well.

taw said...

Sebastian: Turnout should only matter if some groups of voters vote more often than others. If 10% of voters voted, but it was totally random, the results wouldn't be any different.

wordsandpictures: You are correct, Ireland clusters with continental Europe, not with UK and its other dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand).