Fewer voters would be a boost for democracy

 
Jamie Whyte
A FEW days before Christmas, a by-election chose a new MP for Feltham and Heston. Voter turnout was only 29 per cent. This prompted familiar laments about public disengagement from politics. Yet the problem with British democracy is not that too few people vote but that too many do.

To see why, consider a question from banking. How many bankers should decide whether to approve a loan application? The ideal number may vary with an application’s complexity but the right answer is always “very few”.

If a loan officer’s decision required sign-off by a majority of 100 colleagues, his own judgment would have little effect on the outcome. So he would have little incentive to think hard about the application’s merits. Since this would be equally true for each of the other 100 bankers, none would bother to think hard.

This is the position of voters in a general election. Each individual’s vote makes no difference to the outcome. Even marginal constituencies are won with majorities of hundreds. If you stay home instead of voting, the same candidate will win.

Why then do so many people vote? The answer, according to the economist Geoffrey Brennan, is that people enjoy it. Voting is imagined to display democratic virtue. And, by ticking one box rather than others, people can feel themselves to be pragmatic or progressive or something else they like to be.

Enjoying such feelings is worth two hours’ travel and queuing once every five years. But it is not worth the effort of learning anything about law, economics or even the parties’ policies. Research into voters’ knowledge reveals great ignorance. Most would be as likely to vote for the best candidate if they entered the polling booth blindfolded.

In fact, blindfolds would improve voters’ performance. As Bryan Caplan shows in his Myth of the Rational Voter, voters don’t make their mistakes randomly. They are biased towards certain errors – underestimating the benefits of trade and believing prices are determined by corporate greed rather than by supply and demand, to take but two of many examples.

Hence the many foolish policies followed by democratic governments. And hence politicians’ sentimental and fatuous rhetoric. Democratic politics are just as you should expect when votes are cast by ignorant people taking advantage of a low-cost source of emotional gratification.

Democracy would work better if the number of voters were reduced to the point where each realised that his vote will matter. Something like 12 voters per constituency should be about right. If you were one of these 12 voters then, like one of 12 jurors deciding if someone should be imprisoned, you would take a serious interest in the issues. And, with 647 constituencies, a random selection of voters would mean that the national total of 7,764 voters would provide a representative cross-section of the population – another virtue missing from the current system.

Nor would anyone be disenfranchised, because everyone would be eligible for selection. Admittedly, each person’s chance of selection would be tiny. But, on the current system, the chance of any individual’s vote affecting the election result is equally tiny. The difference with this “jury” system is that those whose votes matter would know who they are. Which would give them a reason to take the job seriously.

Jamie Whyte is a senior fellow of the Cobden Centre.