What is “Majority Rule” and is it a good idea?

A rumination on why I think “democracy” has to mean more than “majority rules” or “the favorite wins”—even when only a single candidate or proposal is being chosen.

The possibility of Condorcet “cycles” infecting the preference-rankings of groups is pretty well known by now—especially since Arrow’s impossibility theorem. The idea is that a group entirely composed of individuals whose preference-rankings are transitive may end up liking (as a group) A more than B, B more than C, and C more than A. This can happen because different sub-groups make up the three aggregate ratings. This (and other voting paradoxes even involving pairwise comparisons and Borda counts) have led some observers to denounce majoritarianism. Such critics consider it either an approach that can’t provide unambiguous winners when there are more than two choices, or worse, something that unambiguously provides the wrong answer.

Now, as I look at these matters, there are at least two essential characteristics of fair democratic choosings. First, they are egalitarian in this way: they must, to use the old Benthamite language, “count each vote as one and none as more than one.” That is, they cannot countenance weightings of most kinds, whether they are considered to follow from any rankings (cardinal or ordinal) of the voters or from any external assessments regarding the value of this or that vote or voter. Second, they are egalitarian in another way: the authority granted winners of elections must, in some rational manner, reflect ratios involving both the number of eligible voters and number of votes received. (I will not take up this latter requirement in this OP.)

While simple majoritarianism seems to share both of those desiderata, I take it that the latter (my own view) can’t rightly be characterized as a majoritarian position itself because it does not accept what is commonly known as “the majority criterion.” What is that? It simply requires that If there exists a majority that ranks a single candidate higher than all other candidates, that highest-rated candidate must win. As will be seen, there are good reasons for those with sound democratic principles not to join with majoritarians on this matter. In any case, the (let’s call it) “Egalitarian Proportional Democracy” I’m pushing for here shares with majoritarians the views that political actions and offices must be taken and distributed on the basis of the number of voters who want or don’t want something, rather than on how much they want them (as well as on the other matter that I’m not planning to discuss here). But surely that doesn’t tell us very much. Can at least the egalitarian portion of my description of Egalitarian Proportional Democracy be fleshed out? Let me try.

Suppose eight people are having a party and are trying to decide what soda to bring. [Based on an FMM comment, I add here the assumption that, for whatever reason, it would be a major hassle for there to be more than one choice of soda at the party.] And let there be four possible choices: Cola, Lemon-Lime, Orange and Root Beer. There’s no unanimity among the revelers, so, being the good (small-d) democrats they are, they think that the majority ought to have its way and plan a vote to decide the matter. Here is the result when they are asked to give their favorite (here designated with ‘X’):

          A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H
Cola   X  X  X
L-L                  X  X
Orange                     X  X
RB                                    X

As can be seen, while Cola receives a plurality of the vote, no flavor gets a majority. One member therefore suggests a run-off with the first and tied-for-second contenders only, leaving off RB all together since it did so poorly. Here are the results of this run-off election (with ‘A’ indicating an abstention):

           A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H

C         X  X  X                    A
L-L                    X  X            A
O                               X  X   A

This vote didn’t help: there has been no movement at all because voter H absolutely loathes all the flavors except RB and refuses to pick any of the others as a passable choice for the party.

The revelers aren’t completely stuck though, because there are other voting possibilities. Let us suppose that, like me, this group has no truck whatever with the inter-personal assessments of preference intensities required for cardinal ordering, and that they are also skeptical of ordinal rankings to the extent that those assume similar “distances” between preferences. They think, that is, that there could be a huge divide between one person’s 1st and 2nd choices, and hardly any at all between another ranker’s 1st and 2nd picks.

Fortunately, two members of this group have been regularly assaulted by emails from voting reform organizations: one, from a group that pushes Approval Voting (“AV”), and another that favors Score Voting (“SC”). Those two discuss the matter with the other six party planners and the SC advocate is able to convince everyone that they can exclude all the questionable preference weights by using the following scale:

FAVORITE……………………………………………………………………4 PTS
GOOD ENOUGH (WOULD DRINK IT IF AVAILABLE)………………….3 PTS
PASSABLE (NEVER HAD BUT WD TRY IT IN A PINCH)……………..2 PTS
NOT OK (NEVER HAD & WON’T TRY EVEN IF THIRSTY)…………..1 PTS
REALLY DISLIKE………………………………………………………….. 0 PTS

The AV supporter is on board with undertaking a new vote that would use this scale, but only if the assignments of 4, 3, or 2 points are counted as “Approvals”—meaning that the voter can “live with” the choice. This is agreed upon as well, and the third vote is taken. For ease of counting, I represent the approvals here with an “(A)”:

           A        B      C       D       E       F       G       H     TOT.     Apps
C      4(A)   4(A)   4(A)   2(A)   2(A)   1        0        0      17        5
L-L     2(A)   2(A)   2(A)  4(A)   4(A)  2(A)  2(A)     0      18        7
O       3(A)   2(A)     0     3(A)   3(A)  4(A)  4(A)     0       19       6
RB     3(A)    0        0      0        1      3(A)  2(A)     4(A)   13       4

As can be seen, while the Plurality victor was Cola, the SC winner is Orange and the AV winner is L-L!

Perhaps it will seem that this embarrassment of “winners” is the result of the weirdness of there being so many “never tried it” votes with respect to what seem like common carbonated drinks. But it is important to realize that an attitude of “I really don’t know much about her (or it).…” toward political a political candidate or proposal isn’t unusual at all. Look at the results above again, but this time, think of it as a political election for a representative, with each coming from a different Party. (Perhaps replace “Cola” with “Corporatist”; “L-L” with “Liberal”; “Orange” with “Outsider” and “RB” with “Republican”.) This may make it clearer that there can be a large number of decisions in which the assignment of one or two points (approval or disapproval) will largely be a function of the varying amounts of risk that voters are willing to take. Some people will be OK with this or that relatively unknown candidate or proposal; others will not be willing to take any chances.

Keeping all this in mind, which “winner” will the authentic egalitarian support in this election? The Corporatist, because he is the favorite of the largest number of voters? The Outsider, who got the highest score? Or the Liberal, who most voters found to be minimally acceptable? In my view it is the number of approving voters that the sensible democrat must take to matter most. Just as we ought not to be stuck at parties with nothing we can stand to drink, we ought not to be stuck with ruler/representative A when more people among us can stand candidate B. On this view, if it is to be used to determine what “the people” do or don’t want, majoritarian/egalitarian-style aggregation should be understood as the counting of approvals, where each person’s approval is given the same weight as everyone else’s, regardless of how enthusiastic or tepid it is. That tack definitely seems more conducive to stable regimes than one in which candidates that a ton of the populace don’t approve of get to take office.

That is my current take on the matter. I recognize that I have here avoided all of the complicated issues surrounding strategic voting and how that is likely to affect results (if you’re curious, see the Wikipedia article on “Approval Voting.”) Anyhow, I look forward to comments to get a better handle on this. Thanks.

282 thoughts on “What is “Majority Rule” and is it a good idea?

  1. Allan Miller, Maybe we should have a referendum on whether we should have another referendum. You might like what the Irish citizen’s assembly came up with on recommendations for a fairer referendum. Here

  2. Alan Fox: The UK claims to solve that with a civil service. Politicians have the big ideas and the career civil servants are entrusted to implement the policies. The US system seems to lack that idea of impartial public service. (Not that my impressions of how the US functions carry much weight, never having set foot there.)

    We do have impartial public service, and at best our system functions like yours, with the division of labor between politicians and public servants. Unfortunately the US at present has a vicious and instinctive contempt of public service, especially on the extreme Right. President Trump has called for “draining the swamp”, i.e. eliminating career public servants throughout much of the federal government. The government shut-down from last month was very much about attacking them as it was forcing the Democrats to capitulate. Though I know many people who are proud to work for the public good in the Departments of State, Justice, EPA, etc. we have this peculiarly American hostility to “the government” and corresponding lionization of “business”.

  3. Alan Fox: Rather let us have philosopher kings? Am I seeing a hint of condescension towards the proles?

    A side-note, just to avoid certain misunderstandings: Plato’s suggestion that we need philosopher-kings depends on the idea that philosophers are truly virtuous because they have perceived the Good. So he’s not saying, “give political authority to people with PhDs in philosophy” but “give political authority to those who are genuinely virtuous”. That’s coupled with a further assumption, also crucial to Plato, that people who are genuinely virtuous are those whose souls are guided by reason and not by appetite or spiritedness (assertiveness or aggressiveness).

    So the thought comes to this: the only way we could have a harmonious and stable society, without constant conflict and strife, is if the people who had political authority were only guided by virtue and were not motivated by a desire for money or glory.

    And just to add one last side-note on Republic: Plato actually does not think this is possible. The whole argument of Republic is one vast reductio. Very few people realize this because they get bogged down in the political details of Books II and III or the metaphysics of IV and V and don’t read all the way to the end of Book IX.

  4. Flint:
    The different constituencies between rural and urban (and suburban) make geographical districts sensible. We have ample demographic studies showing the very different political priorities and preferences along geographic lines, as well as along religious and educational lines — which are themselves geographic to some extent.

    I suppose the ideal is for the majority to be able to implement policies, but for limits and constraints beyond which the majority cannot go. Unfortunately, procedures to enforce these limits must be enforced by someone, and it’s usually the majority! The deconstruction of limits tends to be a ratchet — once a limit is violated beyond the ability of the minority to prevent, it tends to stay violated, and become a new norm.

    There are clear trade-offs here between, for example, single-member districts and regional at-large voting, between election and appointment of judges, between endless re-election and term limits. Right now, norms are being violated almost daily, permitted by those in a position to stop it except doing so would risk re-election. So term limits seem worthwhile, even at the cost of a permanent lack of relevant expertise. The re-election imperative overrides any amount of common sense, good judgment, or knowledge of history.

    Both STV and sntv are perfectly capable of reflecting shared geographical interests without anybody having to draw lines.

  5. Alan Fox: Maybe we don’t have too long to wait until Robert Mueller’s report is completed and made public. Names I’m looking to see mentioned: wikileaks, Julian Assange, Cambridge Analytica, Nigel Farrage, Robert Mercer, numerous Russians. The amount of misinformation presented to the proles is a scandal that UK govt seem to prefer not to address. Maybe Mueller will stir things up.

    There will be no public Mueller report. If you think otherwise, you have been misinformed.

  6. Between relying on selection of virtuous leaders, and endless strife, I choose strife.

    Virtue will get you elected, if you can fake it.

  7. Flint, I prefer recall and limits on campaign expenditures to term limits. But, without those–yeah, term limits are probably necessary. A lottery would almost be better than what we have now.

  8. Allan, as you say, this whole brexit mishigas is a great object lesson in the limitations of referenda. Representative democracy ican actually give a better sense of what the people want than direct democracy–especially in a parliamentary system with proportional representation.

    There’s a very good paper on this by a guy named Sherman Clark called, ”A Populist Critique of Direct Democracy.’

  9. walto:
    Flint, I prefer recall and limits on campaign expenditures to term limits. But, without those–yeah, term limits are probably necessary. A lottery would almost be better than what we have now.

    I think those approaches attack a somewhat different problem. Recalls are pretty much universally available and ignored. They are rarely attempted and even more rarely successful. Limiting campaign expenditures without limiting donations is an invitation to corruption. Limiting donations would require a conservative Supreme Court to directly reject a recent ruling – when the court majority was appointed by those who benefited from enormous donations from billionaires.

    In any case, neither recall nor expenditure limits makes a bit of difference in the face of Fear Of Losing An Election. Republicans in Congress are nearly unanimous in saying off the record they are so upset over Trump’s violation of the Constitution that they might almost consider saying so ON the record, except doing so runs too high a risk of losing an election. The only way I see around this is to ensure they can’t run again. Perhaps a permanent Congressional staff of public service, rather than each Congressman hiring his/her own, could provide the continuity of expertise. Hell, the actual bills are written by lobbyists anyway.

    On another tack here, I’m not convinced that proportional representation produces better government than single-member districts and the resulting 2-party system. Corrupt people at the top can poison either one, and Trump has taught us that you can fool enough of the people all of the time if you can lie skillfully enough. Even sensible people are suckers when someone promises them what they most want — EVEN THOUGH they know it’s not possible. Trump’s policies are most damaging to his core voters – in tariffs, in taxation, in health care – and still he doesn’t lose a single vote among them. They WANT to believe, and reality is unwelcome.

  10. Flint,

    Interesting post, which I’ll think about, thanks. The sort of recall I’ve got in mind wouldn’t require any alleged wrongdoing by the rep. Just signatures from unhappy constituents. And that’s not available everywhere. And I completely agree that, because of Buckley vs Valeo and citizens United doing anything about campaign expenditures is a pipedream. But I’m not thinking of practical politics so much as I am trying to concoct an ideal system. (Not that that’s what concerned citizens actually SHOULD be spending their time on). My thinking, though, is that an ideal democracy wouldn’t contain a term limit provision.

  11. walto:
    Flint,

    But I’m not thinking of practical politics so much as I am trying to concoct an ideal system. (Not that that’s what concerned citizens actually SHOULD be spending their time on). My thinking, though, is that an ideal democracy wouldn’t contain a term limit provision.

    Politics is inherently practical. My earlier point, to state it perhaps more directly, is that ANY form of government will approximate the greatest good for the greatest number with guaranteed protections for all citizens, if it’s run by people dedicated to those ideals. And conversely, NO form of government will benefit more than a very few if the goal of the few is to glom onto all the power and money and guns to keep it. Yes, careful structure and sensible rules, faithfully applied, can make things easier.

    But there’s a reason the “democracies” the US has tried to plunk down across the third world have failed, and that has to do with strongly held values inconsistent with democratic principles. It’s probably human nature to place loyalties to one’s religion, one’s wealth, one’s tribe over one’s nation. One need not be corrupt to sincerely believe that if you are defeated in an election, your successor will surely do Bad Things that could have been avoided if you hadn’t been so naïve. This self-serving conviction is the rule, not the exception.

    Long ago, I read an interview with (as I recall) Kwame Nkrumah, who expressed complete bewilderment about Western political systems. He couldn’t understand how an elected president would not only NOT eliminate his political rivals, but would voluntarily give up power after a subsequent election. WHY would he do this??? He had the army, he had the guns, he had the treasury, there was NO NEED to relinquish any of that. He certainly didn’t. Nkrumah just couldn’t figure it out.

    And Nkrumah was entirely typical of every tinpot dictator the US has had “freely elected” around the world. Just as in China today, they all had constitutions guaranteeing all the usual — the free elections, the free press, the bill of rights, a court system to set it all down in precedents. None of which lasted even through the ballot counting (Stalin said “it doesn’t matter who the people vote for, it matters who counts the votes.”). If those in power do not act in good faith toward the will of the people, well, we’ve seen the results internationally and we’re seeing it domestically today.

  12. Flint: Limiting donations would require a conservative Supreme Court to directly reject a recent ruling – when the court majority was appointed by those who benefited from enormous donations from billionaires.

    Quis custodiet…

    Kavanaugh is there for life, now. Let us pray for the health of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

  13. Flint: Long ago, I read an interview with (as I recall) Kwame Nkrumah, who expressed complete bewilderment about Western political systems. He couldn’t understand how an elected president would not only NOT eliminate his political rivals, but would voluntarily give up power after a subsequent election. WHY would he do this??? He had the army, he had the guns, he had the treasury, there was NO NEED to relinquish any of that. He certainly didn’t. Nkrumah just couldn’t figure it out.

    Who learns from history? Who learns history?

  14. Flint: And Nkrumah was entirely typical of every tinpot dictator the US has had “freely elected” around the world. Just as in China today, they all had constitutions guaranteeing all the usual — the free elections, the free press, the bill of rights, a court system to set it all down in precedents. None of which lasted even through the ballot counting (Stalin said “it doesn’t matter who the people vote for, it matters who counts the votes.”). If those in power do not act in good faith toward the will of the people, well, we’ve seen the results internationally and we’re seeing it domestically today.

    It seems dictatorship is the almost inevitable end-result of attempts at political change, from the Roman Republic to almost every struggle for freedom since.

    Someone please cheer me up and remind me of a stable and sustained democratic community.

  15. And what’s the difference between the left and the right? Imagine a circular chamber with the moderates in the centre. The extreme left and right end up next to each other.

  16. Alan Fox:
    And what’s the difference between the left and the right? Imagine a circular chamber with the moderates in the centre. The extreme left and right end up next to each other.

    Now let the diameter of the chamber go to zero and everyone is in the same seat at the center, which I interpret as meaning everyone agrees. Political controversies solved!

    Isn’t math wonderful? Just stay in the armchair and let it dictate reality. One could easily dress this result up in Kolmogorov jargon, and so get the EricMH/ASC school of political theory.

  17. Alan Fox:
    And what’s the difference between the left and the right? Imagine a circular chamber with the moderates in the centre. The extreme left and right end up next to each other.

    On some stuff they’d be close on others very far apart. It’s not the leftness and rightness that makes them touch but their certainty and disregard of means.

  18. Flint: So we are living through a free home demonstration that democracy is fragile, and that no amount of reverence and tradition and respect can survive a “leadership” lacking these things.

    Missed this before. Excellent point. You can’t rely on people’s integrity. There need to be safeguards.

  19. Allan Miller: Brexit has caused me to revise my attitude towards ‘the proles’ … that’s simplistic and elitist, and completely against what I’d like my principles to be, but when I see the endless regurgitation of falsehoods spoon-fed by the tabloids, I despair.

    It’s a while since anyone expressed a pro-Brexit view to me. Maybe they’ve gone into hiding round here.

  20. Kantian Naturalist: The government shut-down from last month was very much about attacking them as it was forcing the Democrats to capitulate.

    I’ve heard that view. Counterproductive to winning hearts and minds (and votes) I would hope.

  21. Kantian Naturalist: Plato’s suggestion that we need philosopher-kings depends on the idea that philosophers are truly virtuous because they have perceived the Good.

    And presumably Plato had a view on what qualities were necessary and what teaching which enhance those qualities. How would the selection process work?

  22. BruceS: Now let the diameter of the chamber go to zero and everyone is in the same seat at the center, which I interpret as meaning everyone agrees. Political controversies solved!

    I phrased it badly (and stole it from the Glaswegian trade union activist, Jimmy Reid).

  23. Alan Fox: Missed this before. Excellent point. You can’t rely on people’s integrity. There need to be safeguards.

    Alas, the point is that we MUST rely on people’s integrity. Without it, no safeguards are meaningful. A dissident in China argued in his trial defense that the Chinese constitution guaranteed free speech. And the court replied that the Official Party Interpretation of that guarantee was, he had the freedom to praise the party in words of his own choice, but not to criticize it. I read that in Russia, if anyone is accused of a crime, the people don’t ask what he did, because that doesn’t matter. They ask who he offended.

    So I’m curious what safeguards you’d recommend, that would be safe against those in power who apply them. It is said that America is a society of laws and not of men. But, ahem, the laws are enforced and interpreted by judges. Guess what McConnell has been doing these last four years? The first two years he spent ensuring that no Obama judicial appointees reached the floor for confirmation, the last he has spent cramming hundreds of far right-wing judges through the Senate, many of whom had as their primary qualification the determination to turn back the clock according to the tenets of religious fundamentalism. And yes, these are lifetime appointments.

    When challenges to all the current government evils reach the courts, guess who hears the cases? Most of Trump’s damage could be repaired fairly quickly, except the damage McConnell is doing will hobble that effort for at least another generation.

    I saw yesterday that in South Carolina, 51% of Republicans used to support and 45% oppose Lindsay Graham’s positions. Then Graham crammed his head up Trump’s rectum, and now he has 70% approval and only 17% disapproval. As Pogo used to say, we have met the enemy and he is us. (And as a footnote, it’s no surprise that our current Secretary of Education is opposed to public education. Corruption requires ignorance.)

  24. Flint: So I’m curious what safeguards you’d recommend, that would be safe against those in power who apply them.

    I’m sure we could come up with safeguards, caveats, limits but how to ensure such checks and balances are enforced without enabling and corrupting the enforcers, I don’t know.

  25. Flint: Guess what McConnell has been doing these last four years?

    Never liked that man, since he first came to my notice*. You seem to have plenty more to replace him.

    *Stalling on Obama’s Supreme Court nomination.

  26. Flint,

    I’m actually more comfortable making judgments about the ‘integrity’ of processes than the integrity of people. And my discomfort with platonism and skepticism about claims regarding virtue in any case make me more interested in trying to find processes that will produce democratic outcomes–whether you or I are likely to approve of them. Of course bad or corrupt rulers can ignore anything at all–required by democracy or not–if they have the power to do so. But it’s nice to know, even in those cases, what the people actually want.

  27. Mung:
    I think majority rule is good if everyone is in the majority.

    Christian List calls that a “common attitude”: 3 Common Attitudes

    3.1 Definition
    A common attitude (of
    a collective) is an attitude held by all individual members of the collective, where their holding it is a matter of common awareness. More formally, this can be captured by the following sequence of clauses:
    (1) Every member of the collective holds the attitude.
    (2) Every member believes that every other member holds the attitude.
    (3) Every member believes that every other member believes that every other member holds the attitude.
    And so on.

    Clause (1) expresses the fact that all members hold the attitude. Clauses (2), (3), (4),and so on express the fact that this is a matter of common awareness. (A subtly stronger definition omits all occurrences of the word ‘‘other’’ in clauses (2), (3), (4), and so on.) Common attitudes, especially in the form of common knowledge, have been famously studied by Lewis in his classic book on ‘‘Convention’’ (1969) and by Aumann in his paper ‘‘Agreeing to disagree’’ (Aumann 1976) (for more recent overviews, see Vanderschraaf and Sillari 2001 and Perea 2012).

    The problem with requiring a common attitude for a group to do anything is that one asshole can prevent anything from ever happening. Majority rule is much less subject to abuse and tyranny by assholes.

  28. walto: The problem with requiring a common attitude for a group to do anything is that one asshole can prevent anything from ever happening. Majority rule is much less subject to abuse and tyranny by assholes.

    I went to a Quaker college that was managed by consensus. Staff meetings could be endurance tests, but people who grow up in this environment develop ways to induce holdouts to consent.

    The benefit is it gives someone who has a genuinely moral position a lot of power, particularly if the majority wants to be expedient, rather than good.

  29. petrushka: The benefit is it gives someone who has a genuinely moral position a lot of power, particularly if the majority wants to be expedient, rather than good.

    Actually,

    The benefit is it gives someone who has a genuinely immoral position a lot of power, in spite of the majority wanting to be moral, rather than selfish.

    Fixed that for you.

    Also, “ways to induce holdouts to consent” are much more effective the more the holdout depends on daily interactions with the rest of you. In society, there are people who do not want us to spend one nickel on public schools, for ideological or for selfish reasons. As bad as school funding is when voters vote on it democratically or when it is decided by representatives, I shudder to think of what would happen if we required a 100% vote to pass any school funding.

  30. walto:
    Flint,

    I’m actually more comfortable making judgments about the ‘integrity’ of processes than the integrity of people. And my discomfort with platonism and skepticism about claims regarding virtue in any case make me more interested in trying to find processes that will produce democratic outcomes–whether you or I are likely to approve of them. Of course bad or corrupt rulers can ignore anything at all–required by democracy or not–if they have the power to do so. But it’s nice to know, even in those cases, what the people actually want.

    I suppose I can repeat that any effective government requires some confidence on the part of the people that their preferences or desires have some legitimate way to influence what that government does. Where this confidence doesn’t exist (generally for good reason), you get strongman kleptocracy in the capital, and rival gangs intimidating the people outside it. Where even good democratic processes are widely regarded as corrupt in practice, it’s impossible to govern effectively. Sometimes massive reform can work (aka revolution), but historically entirely new systems have required mass death — that is, corrupt systems will defend themselves rapidly and viciously.

  31. Flint: I suppose I can repeat that any effective government requires some confidence on the part of the people that their preferences or desires have some legitimate way to influence what that government does. Where this confidence doesn’t exist (generally for good reason), you get strongman kleptocracy in the capital, and rival gangs intimidating the people outside it. Where even good democratic processes are widely regarded as corrupt in practice, it’s impossible to govern effectively. Sometimes massive reform can work (aka revolution), but historically entirely new systems have required mass death — that is, corrupt systems will defend themselves rapidly and viciously

    No need to repeat that–i agree with it wholeheartedly.

    The Chinese and Russian systems you describe above are simply not democracies, in spite of what their constitutions may solemnly declare. But the issue of judicial review is interesting, as is the question of whether ‘high court’ decisions ought to be subject to recall.

    So you ask–‘well, what if they should be, but the guys in robes don’t care? What if they’re busy with Squee and Tobin drinking beer and just laugh at our sorry asses?’ Well, then we’ll know that we’re not in a democracy. But, be honest–how much consensus is there on what nine unelected people on a high court ought to be able to do in any case? Should recall be an option when there’s disagreement?

    It’s not like all the questions are easy, we know the answers and the fuckheads just won’t do it though everyone knows they should. At every single proposition about governance there is legitimate disagreement. I mean, Jesus, two peole here just said there shouldn’t be any government actions without unanimity of the populace!

    Anyhow, I think maybe I put myself in a (non-Rawlsian) ‘veil-of-ignorance’ on a number of issues on which you’re pretty sure you know what is right. I just point out that that seems to me an attitude that is sympathetic with guardianship–rather than a democratic attitude. But the only way to make that case is to figure out just what a proper democratic attitude really is, and that question interests me.

    But isn’t that just fiddling while Rome burns? Well, yeah–it probably is. It probably is.

  32. Well, as you’re probably aware, initially there was no intention that the US legal system at any level would be able to strike down legislation. The courts at the lowest level determine the facts and at increasingly higher levels, they become increasingly political because they face difficult fact situations where multiple inconsistent laws apply (there’s no requirement that any new legislation must be consistent with existing law).

    So John Marshall took the Marbury v. Madison case, which was legally a pretty obvious slam dunk (and suspected of being a fabricated test case, though that’s not permitted), and used it to basically manufacture a new legal power, the power to declare laws null and void if they conflict with the constitution. The founders thought that the only proper cure for bad legislation was legislative, not legal.

    And over the course of time, the supreme court has solidified and protected their role as primary interpreter of the constitution, and we have another of these trade-offs. On the one hand, it turns out that there’s generally no effective legislative correction to unconstitutional laws, so the courts are necessary in practice. But on the other hand, this has rendered the supreme court a political body, deciding along straight party lines in important cases. Indeed, judicial nominations result from certain ideological litmus tests, and one of the reasons Trump retains his rock-solid support among those whose lives he is diminishing is that he nominates anti-abortion judges. For a great many people, this is the ONLY issue that matters, and if the only anti-abortion candidate were the Boston Strangler, or Jack the Ripper, they’d vote for him.

    So the pendulum has swung exactly as the founders feared, where the supreme court has become a mini-Senate except the voting pubic has no way to replace any of them. In the long run some particularly egregious decisions (that is, too far from current public sensibilities) have been overturned. Consider that the Dred Scott decision was entirely and quite clearly correct according to the actual words of the constitution, and in no way a legal error. More recently, the Obergefell decision would have been unthinkable 20 years previously, and probably unthinkable today with Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.

    But what possible procedural changes could we make (to the constitution if necessary) to prevent highly political justices from being nominated and appointed? Even if we gave them term limits, the Court would blow with the political winds even more responsively.

    Now, what I’d do is kind of nibble around the edges anyway. I’d establish reasonable term limits for all legislators in Congress and the states — and for judges, who would NOT be electec. I’d establish tight limits for gerrymandering along political as well as racial and religious lines. I’d eliminate voter registration altogether and take steps only to ensure that people only voted once. I’d declare election day a national paid holiday. I’d prohibit lobbyists from writing legislation. I’d establish progressive taxation without loopholes so that 0.1% of the population wouldn’t be sucking up 50% of the wealth, and use that money to subsidize good education — especially about how democracy works and how it can be corrupted. I’d prohibit private campaign donations, and use taxpayer money to distribute fairly to all candidates who meet some minimum criteria (say a minimum poll percentage – and the candidates wouldn’t be doing the polling).

    And I’d probably never get elected, or get ANY of this through Congress. Not without a generation of bloodshed.

  33. One of the electoral innovations introduced in revolutionary Russia was the notion of “instant recall”. If you were a delegate to your local workers’ council, you had to explain what you said and how you voted to the people who voted for you. If they didn’t like how you were doing the job, they could (and often did) turf you out on the spot and elect someone more congenial.

    It was a feature of the time that the composition of both the local soviets and the central parliament would change in composition from week to week. The result was that the makeup of the representative bodies was a very accurate reflection of what the voters wanted at any time.

    An excellent idea, in my opinion.

  34. timothya:
    One of the electoral innovations introduced in revolutionary Russia was the notion of “instant recall”. If you were a delegate to your local workers’ council, you had to explain what you said and how you voted to the people who voted for you. If they didn’t like how you were doing the job, they could (and often did) turf you out on the spot and elect someone more congenial.

    It was a feature of the time that the composition of both the local soviets and the central parliament would change in composition from week to week. The result was that the makeup of the representative bodies was a very accurate reflection of what the voters wanted at any time.

    An excellent idea, in my opinion.

    This approach is great for a small group that will basically fit in one large room. But how would this work trying to manage a city of several million people? How would you deal with those who voted for someone else, and who don’t think you’re doing such a good job? Hey, they already voted against you?

    It’s a fact of political life that processes and rules that work great when everyone knows everyone else, break down when nearly everyone is a stranger, and you’ll never even SEE more than a small percentage of them, much less get to know them.

    And even in small groups, “instant recall” militates against anything like policy continuity, which is essential if you’re going to, like, plan anything.

  35. Flint: This approach is great for a small group that will basically fit in one large room. But how would this work trying to manage a city of several million people? How would you deal with those who voted for someone else, and who don’t think you’re doing such a good job? Hey, they already voted against you?

    1. Population of Petrograd in 1917: 2.3 million
    2. Population of Moscow in 1917: 1.7 million.

    Pretty hard to fit them apples in a small room

    It’s a fact of political life that processes and rules that work great when everyone knows everyone else, break down when nearly everyone is a stranger, and you’ll never even SEE more than a small percentage of them, much less get to know them.

    My country has operated under a consistent set of policial “processes and rules” for 120 years. I have only met personally a grand total of two political representatives. I wouldn’t say that I trust them, but I certainly know what they say and do. Personal contact might make you feel good, but it has little to do with good government.

    And even in small groups, “instant recall” militates against anything like policy continuity, which is essential if you’re going to, like, plan anything.

    Instant recall means that policy and practice is set directly by the electors, with open debate and in the clear light of day. Are you suggesting that ordinary people cannot be trusted to making good decision? Or are you suggesting that good policy is better set by lobbyists, special-interest groups and The Faceless Men of political hackery? I know which model I support, and history supports me.

  36. Flint: But what possible procedural changes could we make (to the constitution if necessary) to prevent highly political justices from being nominated and appointed? Even if we gave them term limits, the Court would blow with the political winds even more responsively.

    One way to address the need for SOME THINGS not to be messable with is to limit Constitutions to political rights, to guarantees of democracy. When judges “blow with political winds” on other stuff–as they always will and maybe should (and ought to have fixed terms in my opinion for that reason), it will be on life, liberty and property–things that nobody has ever agreed on anyhow (Locke and the Declaration notwithstanding). And those would just be standard legislative matters–not constitutional.

    timothya: Instant recall means that policy and practice is set directly by the electors, with open debate and in the clear light of day. Are you suggesting that ordinary people cannot be trusted to making good decision? Or are you suggesting that good policy is better set by lobbyists, special-interest groups and The Faceless Men of political hackery? I know which model I support, and history supports me.

    I like the idea of recall too, but I’m not sure about “instant recall.” There’s utility in continuity too, and some things can’t be done quickly or will cause a bit of pain before the good comes from them. It’s always been hard to balance the usefulness of a “professional civil service” with real democracy. (As many will remember, that’s what the BBC show “Yes, Minister” was about.) But hard or not, the balance is important. Modern democracies need experts as well as flexibility.

  37. walto: When judges “blow with political winds” on other stuff–as they always will and maybe should (and ought to have fixed terms in my opinion for that reason), it will be on life, liberty and property–things that nobody has ever agreed on anyhow (Locke and the Declaration notwithstanding).

    Seems to me an independent judiciary is not helped by politically motivated appointments. Why not a system based on merit? As well as fixed terms, what about increasing the number of court members, diluting individual bias?

  38. Alan Fox: Seems to me an independent judiciary is not helped by politically motivated appointments. Why not a system based on merit? As well as fixed terms, what about increasing the number of court members, diluting individual bias?

    The question is whether the judiciary can or ought to be ‘independent’–and if so to what issues such independence ought to be limited.

  39. walto: The question is whether the judiciary can or ought to be ‘independent’–and if so to what issues such independence ought to be limited.

    Can this topic be applied closer to home, specifically to the “moderate the moderators” squabble now occupying the moderation thread.

    What is the role of political processes in moderating an internet forum like TSZ? The moderators are its judiciary. Should they be elected by the members of the forum? Or appointed by the (benevolent?) dictator who owns the form but rules in name only, at least at TSZ if not (decisively!) at eg PS. And what is the nature and role of transparency in any proposed political process?

  40. BruceS,

    Moderation issues to moderation thread! 😝

    walto: The question is whether the judiciary can or ought to be ‘independent’–and if so to what issues such independence ought to be limited.

    Judiciary should be competent, impartial, representative, apolitical, unbiased, subject to retirement for incompetence and fitness, etc.

    No idea how to achieve that!

  41. BruceS: Can this topic be applied closer to home, specifically to the “moderate the moderators” squabble now occupying the moderation thread.

    What is the role of political processes in moderating an internet forum like TSZ?The moderators are its judiciary.Should they be elected by the members of the forum?Or appointed by the (benevolent?) dictator who owns the form but rules in name only, at least at TSZ if not (decisively!) at eg PS.And what is the nature and role of transparency in any proposed political process?

    I’m not really feeling the connection, tbh. Maybe somebody else will get it more clearly.

  42. Alan Fox:
    BruceS,

    Moderation issues to moderation thread! 😝

    Judiciary should be competent, impartial, representative, apolitical, unbiased, subject to retirement for incompetence and fitness, etc.

    No idea how to achieve that!

    How can something be apolitical and representative? Who/what is or isn’t representative is a political matter.

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