Published: 16:37, April 1, 2021 | Updated: 20:36, June 4, 2023
Transforming the mal-functioning voting democracy to equilibrium democracy
By Robert S.K. Lee

What kind of constitutional arrangement is best suited for realising citizen’s rights to participate in public governance? This article examines the inherent problems of the current voting democracy, while the next will explore equilibrium democracy as the best viable alternative.


Voting democracy to achieve “government by consent of the people”?

Under the liberal constitutional paradigm, the power to govern, or to control officials, is said to be based on the aggregated desires, or “consent”, of the people. This goal is purportedly achieved by interposing voting democracy between the people and the government.

It is naturally assumed that, under voting democracy, a vote cast by a voter accurately reflects his desire (or his wish, interest, preference, or “right”, which reflects his “value or dignity”). By adding the votes cast by each voter on each candidate, a coherent consensus will emerge. Such consensus leads to constitutional consequences:

1) It gives coherent mandate to the winning party to legitimise its rule;

2) It makes voting democracy moral. Since individual desires reflect our “value and dignity”, the voting acts, and voting democracy are moral;

3) It reflects voters’ true desires, which can be translated into public policies by the winning party to serve the people;

4) It promotes good governance, social cohesion and avoids social polarization.

Since voting democracy “rationally and morally” reflects peoples’ “value and dignity”, it amounts to a universal arbiter for judging the rights and wrongs of public issues, whether locally or in foreign countries. It demarcates “non-democratic” governments as “authoritarian”, and justifies “liberal imperialism”.

But voting democracy faces fundamental flaws. The key defect, discovered by Kenneth Arrow, is the possibility of circular preferences generated by any voting procedure. Fairness and logicality cannot co-exist in the structure of voting democracy. No fair voting system can avoid incoherence in the resulting “social consensus”, or, if the voting result is “coherent”, the risk of unfairness in the voting process cannot be excluded:

1) Voting mechanism cannot reliably generate coherent “social consensus” to legitimize the “elected winner”.

2) Individual desires are amoral, and tend to be immoral. The acts of voting are inevitably tainted by irrationality and irresponsibility.

3) Voting democracy is vulnerable to manipulation. It can be hijacked by minority interest groups (the Olson logic of collective action); or manipulated through agenda control or strategic voting to change the result of voting. If voting cannot accurately aggregate individual desires into social desires, voters’ true desires cannot be reflected in public policies.

4) Party politics under voting democracy tends to result in meagre governance and in polarization. The accumulated social imbalances may trigger social unrest and even military coups.

Faith in voting democracy is demonstrated by making critical efforts to improve it, not by forming defensive circles. The following official statement reveals the anxiety of modern liberals: “We face a world of rising nationalism, receding democracy… Together, we will demonstrate not only that democracies can still deliver for our people, but that democracy is essential to meeting the challenges of our time.” (Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. March 2021, The White House) If the real causes for the decline of voting democracy are inherent, structural, logical and moral in nature, it is futile to focus on the peripheral, or external, causes.

A The inherent failings of voting democracy

A1 Individual desires are interactive and dynamic, not isolated and static

Desired - based voting democracy purports to aggregate individual desires into collective desire, or “social preference”, and the party which advocates that “social preference” is mandated to govern the community. If a majority of the voters prefer candidate A to B, and B to C, then the society prefers A to B and to C. The key problem is that both the magnitude and direction of individual desires on social issues are not static or isolated, but are interactive.

The magnitude and direction of individual desires in interaction cannot be accurately crystallised in static votes. Each individual voter, by casting his vote, can only “snapshot” a moment in that continuing interacting process. These snapshots cannot be added up to reveal the interactive social consensus. Social consensus does not come from adding votes, as assumed in voting democracy.

Interaction of desires can be roughly likened to the traffic flow in a city. The state of “social consensus” generated by interaction of desires can be compared to the state of optimal traffic flow: when everyone can maximise his driving speed to maximise his freedom of movement. That optimal state depends not on the isolated driving of each driver, but on the interaction of all their driving in that particular environment. Cooperative interactions are promoted by a duty-oriented culture but hindered by a right-based culture.

The incoherence of social consensus in voting democracy

Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow has vigorously demonstrated, in his “General Possibility Theorem” (Social Choice and Individual Values (SCIV), 2nd ed, Yale University Press, 1963), the incoherence of relevant aggregated results. It is impossible to exclude the possibility of paradox of voting (cycle in preference order: A>B>C>A) in any minimally fair and rational voting or aggregating procedure.

The rational requirement is that of transitivity of preferences. That is, if society prefers A to B, and B to C (A>B, B>C), then the social consensus is that A should win. An obvious fairness requirement is that no voter can dictate that social consensus. Voting reveals the social ordering of preferences among the available candidates but not the voters’ intensity of preferences, which are bound to be subjective and incomparable.

Arrow concludes: “If we exclude the possibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility, then the only [method] of passing from individual tastes to social preferences which will be satisfactory and which will be defined for a wide range of sets of individual orderings are either imposed or dictatorial.” (SCIV, p 59)

Professor William Riker remarks:

“Kenneth Arrow published Social Choice and Individual Values in 1951. … In the late 1960s, however, a wide variety of philosophers, economists, and political scientists began to appreciate how profoundly unsettling the theorem was and how deeply it called into question some conventionally accepted notions – not only about voting, the subject of this work, but also the ontological validity of the concept of social welfare….

The essence of Arrow’s theorem is that no method of amalgamating individual judgments can simultaneously satisfy some reasonable conditions of fairness on the method and a condition of logicality on the result. In a sense this theorem is a generalization of the paradox of voting …, for the theorem is the proposition that something like the paradox is possible in any fair system of amalgamating values. Thus the theorem is called the General Possibility Theorem.” (Liberalism against Populism (LAP), pp115-116)

This incoherence is a core defect of voting democracy. Some commentators have tried unsuccessfully to solve Arrow’s theorem, and perhaps more have pretended that the problem does not exist. Some take the position that, while the logic of Arrow’s theorem is sound, in practice cycles are rare. This defence is unsatisfactory to say the least. Professor Riker points out that, inconsistent social choice, such as A>B>C>A, is meaningless. (LAP, p 136) For it is equally right (and wrong) to say that candidate A (or B, or C) is best or right or most desired by society. If a measuring device is structurally or logically defective, it is meaningless to say that in practice, it nevertheless produces “accurate” measuring results. If Arrow’s theorem remains invulnerable, voting democracy remains fatally flawed.

Brexit referendum: A practical case of unstable “social consensus”

In June 2016, the Brexit referendum approved the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. While more or less the same electorate had approved the Brexit referendum and elected the Parliament, the latter had persistently rejected Theresa May’s European Union withdrawal bill which was designed to implement the Brexit referendum result. The bill was defeated in Parliament on 15 January 2019 by 432 votes to 202 votes, by the record margin of defeat of 230 votes. On 13 March 2019, it was defeated by 391 votes to 242 votes. Then on 29 March 2019, the bill was defeated a third time, by 344 votes to 286 votes. The incoherence of public opinion may be common.

B The dubious social consent

The incoherent consensus under voting democracy is aggravated by dubious votes: that votes tend to be cast irrationally, irresponsibly, and immorally.

B1 Irrational and irresponsible voting, and over mandating

To make his voting decision rational and responsible, a voter should acquire sufficient knowledge of the impact of each election platform on society. But the structure of voting democracy makes this difficult:

(1) Under current voting democracy, competing parties will each provide one composite election platform which sets out a range of policy promises: on taxation, economics, finance, welfare, transport, housing, public order, public health, education, defence, foreign policy, and so on.

(2) It is inevitable that each voter can only be concerned with some of these policies and not others, and familiar with some of them and ignorant of others.

(3) But each voter is required to cast one entire vote, giving full mandate to the preferred party, despite the fact that he has no time or ability to understand sufficiently the impact of the ignored or unfamiliar policies on society.

There is an element of irrationality and irresponsibility in each vote cast. This element taints the mandate, causing “over-mandating” (or “mandate deficit”) to the winning candidate.

Brexit referendum: Voting on a composite topic is like “extracting an egg from an omelette”

The Brexit referendum dealt with a highly composite topic. As the article “Brexit and Parliament The Noes have it” (The Economist 19 January 2019) suggests, “Extracting the country from an intricate framework that stretched farther than anyone realised was bound to be extremely difficult and time-consuming. It also meant that Brexit would be a process, not a single event. Pascal Lamy, a French former European commissioner, likens it to taking an egg out of an omelette.” The implications of the referendum topic are too complex and intertwined to be susceptible to rational and responsible judgment.

B2 Immoral votes strengthen zero-sum or negative-sum games

Professor Brennan writes, “Voting is morally significant. Voting changes the quality, scope, and kind of government. The way we vote can help or harm people. Electoral outcomes can be harmful or beneficial, just or unjust. They can exploit the minority for the benefit of the majority. They can do widespread harm with little benefit for anyone. …I argue that we have moral obligations concerning how we should vote. Not just any vote is morally acceptable.” (“The Ethics of Voting”, Jason Brennan, 2011, Princeton University Press, p.1)

Brennan notes that voting can produce rules which shape society into a positive-sum game, a zero-sum game, or a negative-sum game. (p120) A society may further decay into its worse form, a “retaliatory and preemptive exploitation” game. It is the scenario of a destructive game, where everyone is forced to engage in “predatory or mutually destructive behaviour” for the justifiable aim of survival. (p122) Hobbes has exposed, powerfully, this worse form of destructive game as his “state of nature” (which Hobbes has tried hard to avoid): “In the state of nature, everyone continuously makes war with each other. Even if participating in the system of mutual violence repulses me, I cannot afford not to participate. If I refrain from violence, I will be killed, and no one will be saved in the process.” (p122)

Egoistic voting and public-spirited voting

Voting democracy has been dominated by liberal individualism, that the individual is the ultimate unit of existence, values, and “sovereignty”. There is nothing wrong to vote egoistically to realise one’s dignity.

The “egoistic view of voting” holds that “citizens rightly may choose government policies maximally favorable to themselves, regardless of what cost these programs impose upon others. On this view, citizens rightly regard government as a source of privileges and grants. Politics is a competition for prizes to be paid for by the losers. Citizens rightly seek to form majority coalitions so they can impose their will upon and exploit the minority. When voting, Peter tries to rob Paul and Paul tries to rob Peter…. On its face, this is a bizarre view, but it is quite common.” (Jason Brennan, supra, p112)

Brennan promotes the “public spirited view” of voting – each should vote for what he perceives as the common good. His formulates the common good as “Voters should vote for what they justifiably believe will best promote the common good” (p133) While this concept can accommodate a range of contrasting or opposing “conceptions of the right end of government” (Pp117-118) it may be too morally vacuous to provide existential guidance. A liberal egoist would vote for an egoistic candidate as his perceived “common good”.

Voting democracy is a neutral mechanism which amplifies the impact of voters’ moral, amoral and immoral votes, as the case may be. Voting democracy cannot be a universal norm of demarcation to justify suppressing the “non-democrats”.

C Voting democracy and social consensus are vulnerable to manipulations

Social Choice theory shows that voters’ desires and public decision procedures are both vulnerable to manipulations. Voting democracy functions more as an instrument than as a regulative norm.

In “The Rise and Decline of Nations” (Yale University Press, 1982), professor Mancur Olson re-asserts: “…large groups, at least if they are composed of rational individuals, will not act in their group interest” (p18); “Members of “small” groups have disproportionate organisation power for collective action” (p 41). “There is a systematic tendency for exploitation of the great by the small”. (The Logic of Collective Action, Harvard University Press, 1971, p 29) Under a voting democracy, it is small groups with strong sectarian or special interests, not the general body of voters, which “rule” society.

And Eamonn Butler states, in his “Public Choice – A Primer” (The Institute of Economic Affairs 2012), pp24-25:

“It shocked orthodox thinkers when Buchanan, with his co-author Gordon Tullock, applied this ‘economic’ view of human beings systematically through the institutions of government – suggesting that legislators, officials and voters all use the political process to advance their private interests, just as they do in the marketplace. Even more shocking was their conclusion that political decisions, far from being made efficiently and dispassionately in pursuit of the ‘public interest’, could well be less efficient, less rational and more vulnerable to manipulation by vested interests than the supposedly flawed market process.”

And manipulations of social choices through strategic voting and agenda control (see LAP, Chapters 6 and 7) are common, and such practices shed further doubt on the integrity of voting democracy.

The relation between voters and political candidates has led to perplexing judgments. In Bromley LBC v Greater London Council ([1983] A. C. 768, 771 CA, 813 HL), Lord Denning in the Court of Appeal held that the Labour Party was not bound by its election mansfesto to cut the fares on London's buses and tubes by 25 per cent (which necessitated ratepayers of London to contribute £69 million to pay for it). The learned judge oberves the voting process:

“Very few of the electorate read the manifesto in full. A goodly number only know of it from what they read in the newspapers or hear on television. Many know nothing whatever of what it contains. When they come to the polling booth, none of them vote for the manifesto. Certainly not for every promise or proposal in it. Some may be influenced by one proposal. Others by another. Many are not influenced by it at all. They vote for a party and not for a manifesto. I have no doubt that in this case many ratepayers voted for the labour Party even though, on this one item alone, it was against their interests. And vice versa. It seems to me that no party can or should claim a mandate and commitment for any one item in a long manifesto. When the party gets into power, it should consider any proposal or promise afresh—on its merits—without any feeling of being obliged to honour it or being committed to it....”

Lord Brandon of the House of Lords adds this:

“...It is, of course, entirely appropriate for a council, the majority of whose members have been elected after setting out a particular policy in their election manifesto, to take into account, and give considerable weight to, that circumstance when exercising their discretion in relation to that policy after they have been elected and come to power. It is, however, entirely wrong for such a majority to regard themselves as bound to exercise their discretion in relation to that policy in accordance with their election promises....”

The downside of these rulings is that, neither the voters nor the candidates need to take election promises seriously. But to many, such election bargaining and promises are the heart of voting democracy.

D Sub-standard governance; decoupling between voters and policy-making; and polarisation

The irrationality in voting will naturally injure the quality of policies and governance. In “The Myth of the Rational Voter Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies?” (Princeton University Press, 2007), Professor Bryan Caplan highlights how democracy fails, at pp2-3:

“…The central idea is that voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational – and vote accordingly. Economists and cognitive psychologists usually presume that everyone “processes information” to the best of his ability. Yet common sense tells us that emotion and ideology – not just the facts or their “processing” – powerfully sway human judgment.  Protectionist thinking is hard to uproot because it feels good. When people vote under the influence of false beliefs that feel good, democracy persistently delivers bad policies. As an old computer programming slogan goes, GIGO – Garbage in, garbage out.

Economists have long argued that voter ignorance is a predictable response to the fact that one vote doesn’t matter. Why study the issues if you can’t change the outcome? I generalize this insight: Why control your knee-jerk emotional and ideological reactions if you can’t change the outcome?

Irrational voting results in bad policies: “If we make bad choices at the polls, we get racist, sexist, and homophobic laws. Economic opportunities vanish or fail to materialize. We fight unjust and unnecessary wars. We spend trillions on ill-conceived stimulus plans and entitlement programs that do little to stimulate economies or alleviate poverty….” (The ethics of Voting, Jason Brennan, at p1.)

Professor Martin Gilens and Professor Benjamin Page have conducted a research which reveals that, under voting democracy, the electorate has negligible effect on policy formation (Perspectives on Politics, September 2014):

“Who governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless?

... 

In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

… 

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

Professor Ziblatt notes that the two-party system in the U S is partly responsible for the polarisation US society. The fatal mob riot at Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021 reflects a deep and violent division in the U.S. electorate. The Deutsche Welle (DW) website reported (7 January 2021) in the article “Capitol Hill riots: Are Western democracies under attack?”:

“Political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has spent many years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe, Latin America and now his own country, the United States. He believes that democracy is under threat worldwide. "The US is a pretty old democracy, it is a rich democracy. This should make it stable. And the fact that we are seeing the erosion of democracy in the US should be a warning sign to other countries," says Ziblatt …The level of polarization, however, is much higher in the United States than in most European countries, Ziblatt believes. "Part of this has to do with the fact that we have a two-party system. That is a zero-sum political battle. Coalition governments can take the hard edge off politics.”

Polarisation is institutional. A candidate’s platform during election is not divisible. Voters have to vote en bloc. The more composite party platforms (and politicians are equated with such platforms) are, the less likely they can facilitate rational discussions and command widespread support, the more likely they trigger ideological polarisation. If different party’s platforms can be unpacked and repacked into functional policies, the reverse is true. This would demand a shift from the old mentality that politics is all about “Who should rule?”, to the more fruitful goal of “How to optimise rational rule?

The way forward

If under a voting democracy, 1) voting results tend to be incoherent; 2) voting tends to be irresponsible, irrational, and immoral; 3) voting is vulnerable to manipulation; and policy formation is generally divorced from the voting public, and 4) governance is generally sub-standard and prone to trigger turmoils, then the desirability of voting democracy dwindles. They must be tackled, not be dodged.

Scholars such as Levitsky and Ziblatt may well have misfired by treating “authoritarian” behaviour as a main cause of declining democracy (“How Democracies Die”, Penguin Books, 2018, with “authoritarian indicators” summarised at e.g., pp 65-67). Posting external ideological “enemies” does not remove internal causes of decay. The causes of decline are not behavioural but institutional and logical. Preventing “authoritarian trends” is not sufficient to “demonstrate not only that democracies can still deliver for our people, but that democracy is essential to meeting the challenges of our time.

It is not enough just to patch up the declining voting democracy. It must be transformed to one which is 1) capable of unbundling composite issues into functional policies, 2) capable of capturing the equilibrium of interacting desires on policies, 3) propelled by critical rationality, not emotions, and 4) guided by a deep moral sense of humanity: “We live because of others, and we must live for others”.  

The writer is a senior counsel who joined the Hong Kong Legal Department (the Department of Justice after mid-1997) as a public prosecutor in the mid-1980s, and stayed in public service for over 20 years. He maintains a deep interest in classical Chinese philosophy and Popperian critical rationalism. He has compiled books on the philosophy of science and on legal topics, and given jurisprudential lectures at various tertiary institutions.