Often, when politicians break their promises the voters politely look the other way. After all, they understand that such promises are not to be taken seriously. Occasionally, however, a commitment comes back to haunt the candidate that abandons it, and Justin Trudeau’s guarantee that last year’s vote “will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system” may be among them. While it was always going to be difficult to pivot away from such a clear pledge, the Liberals’ response to the report submitted by the all-party committee they themselves created was particularly inelegant, as the responsible minister insulted its authors, mocked their use of mathematics, and did little to dispel the notion that the entire exercise was a sham.
If this particular promise is stickier than usual, it is in part because much of Canada’s political class is convinced that the current “first-past-the-post” system is undemocratic. Under it, parties can form majority governments with under 40% of the vote, and regional parties can win far more seats than their national counterparts despite similar levels of support. Proportional representation, it is said, would be fairer and better represent “the will of the people.”
The first problem with this argument is that “proportional representation” is not a single system. In fact, the countless ways in which an electoral system can be made more proportional vary tremendously. How many electoral districts is the country be divided into? How many representatives are elected per district? Are the people who occupy a party’s seats chosen by the voters or the parties themselves? Will all candidates be elected using a proportional system, or only some? What threshold must a party reach to win representation? What calculation method is used to apportion seats? To advocate proportional representation without suggesting what kind is to advocate ordering dinner without suggesting a restaurant: an unhelpful, pointless waste of time.
The second – and more serious – problem is that the effort to have the legislature reflect “the will of the people” is an exercise in futility, because no such thing exists. Consider that individuals have rational, ordinal preferences: if you prefer chocolate to vanilla and hazelnut to chocolate, then you necessarily prefer hazelnut to vanilla. Group choices, however, are largely a function of how the options are submitted to them. It is entirely possible – even likely – that friends deciding what to eat might vote for pizza over Indian, Indian over Chinese and Chinese over pizza. If an individual expressed such preferences, we would question their sanity. But in a group, each person votes according to their unique tastes, which produces a seemingly absurd result. It’s true that in a one-off vote between Indian and pizza there will be a clear winner, but only because other options have been artificially excluded. When you contemplate the size of the Canadian electorate and the number of choices on the menu – especially in a highly proportional system that encourages the formation of smaller parties – it becomes clear that “the will of the people” is a meaningless concept.
While there are many other arguments against democratic decision-making, it is true that if political power must exist, democracy is the least bad system. This blog’s mission is to convince you that that kind of power ought to be eliminated – or, at least, significantly reduced. But, in the meantime, let’s please have no more talk about how a vague, undefined system can better capture a non-existent concept.