So, What is Democracy Anyway? | Peter Emerson | TEDxVienna


Translator: Veronica Quaedvlieg
Reviewer: TED Translators admin British democratic leadership. Chinese democratic centralism. German Democratic Republic, GDR. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,
North Korea. So what is democracy? Most people think it is majority of rule. So in parliaments and referendums, nearly every decision is taken
by a majority vote. And even if by only a margin of 50% + 1, the winner gets everything
and the loser gets nothing. Is this fair? Or wise? Majority rule, after all, was a part of the problem
in Northern Ireland and, for example in the Balkans, where all the wars in the former Yugoslavia
started with a referendum. Majority voting, in fact, is one of the most inaccurate measures
of collective opinion, not least because of the logic: that if you have a multi-option debate, then to take only a two-option vote is, well, unwise if not crazy. Brexit. It was a multi-option debate,
or should have been. The UK in the EU, the EEA,
the Customs Union or the WTO. But we only had one majority vote – in the EU, yes or no? –
and it lost, by a small margin. But majority votes
on the other three options would probably have lost as well. I’m going to talk about decision-making, voting in decision-making. First, majority voting,
and then preferential voting. My mum was an English Catholic, a member of the minority you might say. Dad was an Irish Protestant, the same. I was conceived in Ireland,
born in England, I live in Belfast,
a minority of about one. And I was often asked: “Are you Protestant or Catholic?” Neither. “Are you British or Irish?” Both. But democracy is majority voting,
and in conflict zones, people ask these terrible
closed questions: Are you Serb or Croat? Sunni or Shia? Arab or Jew? Hutu or Tutsi? But it’s the same in ordinary politics: Are you for or against? Left wing or right? Communist or capitalist? And because of the relationship between the Northern Ireland conflict
and the Cold War, I first went to Moscow in 1984. And with majority voting,
it often enables the leader, political leader,
to choose the question. As in Brexit and in many cases, the question is the answer,
but not in Brexit. But on other occasions, I’m afraid, the majority vote does not identify
the collective will, does not identify the majority will. As often as not, it identifies
only the will of he, it’s normally a he,
who wrote the question. Like Napoleon; he had three referendums, and he was the only candidate and,
by the way, he won. Lenin did not even get a majority at all; he only got the largest minority. He nevertheless
called himself a ‘bolshevik’ the word means member of the majority, ‘bolshinstvo’, and the others in the smaller minority, ‘menshinstvo’, he called the ‘mensheviks’. Next came Hitler with 88, 98 and 99%. Despite this appalling history,
people still use majority voting. Like in Iran,
and they voted for socialism. Yeah! 99%, brilliant! Then they voted for capitalism,
99%, brilliant! Then they voted for neither, 99%! Crazy. I’m now going to talk
about preferential voting, and in a pluralist democracy,
any contentious debate should allow for more than two options under debate. There are, after all,
more than two ways of drafting a constitution,
drawing up a budget, and so on. Secondly, you cannot get
the collective will if people don’t express
their individual wills, if people say only what they don’t want, if they vote only ‘no’. As some of them did in Brexit. But if everyone states what they do want, – in the EU, the EEA, whatever – then it should be possible to identify
the best, the most popular option. And it would be possible if people expressed
their opinions accurately, and that means by using their preferences; more of this in a moment. But how should preferences be analysed? Consider nine people choosing
a barrel of drink on the basis of three options: Ale, Beer or Cider; A, B or C? Let us assume 4 people think
that ale is delicious, that’s their first preference, cider is ok, but they are not
too fond of beer that’s their third preference. Three people think beer is the best,
and cider and ale. And two people have preferences
cider, beer and ale. So overall, it seems that,
opinions on ale are very divided, on beer a bit mixed, and maybe C best represents
the collective will. Well, in plurality voting all the information in the grey
is just ignored, and the winner is ale with a score of 4. And a two-round system is a bit like the Austrian presidential elections. (Laughter) (Applause) So if nothing gets 50% in the first round, there’s second round between
the two leading options, in which case it’s A and B, and in which case Beer wins
with a score of 5. A points system is a bit
like the Eurovision song contest, so a first preference gets 3 points,
a second gets 2, and a third gets 1, and you add up the totals
and the winner is now cider. So the outcome,
the totally democratic choice, is either A or B or C. Brilliant. Once upon a time, many years ago,
in a far distant land, there was a totally unelected,
democratic, British, House of Lords. In 2003 a few of the Lords decided
that it should be elected, and some of the others said no, no, no, it should be appointed, the status quo, and a few said, what about a compromise? And they finished up with five options
on the table: all elected, 80/20, 50/50,
20/80 or all appointed. So a hypothetical Lord J, whose first preference was all elected,
so that would get 5 points, would probably have a second
preference of B, and so on. Whereas Lady K,
whose first preference is 50/50, might have a second preference
of D and a third of B and so on. Or Lady L, who has a second preference
of B, and A, and so on. If somebody has an illogical set
of preferences, with two peaks, he has probably been bribed,
threatened or seduced. (Laughter) But if everybody does have
a logical set of preferences, then the collective will,
and we just collect all the points, the collective will always
also be logical, and in this particular graph, the result is 62% elected, 38% appointed. Just to finish the fairy story, the ancient Lords believed
in ancient majority voting, so they took five majority votes,
and lost all of them. Brexit, as we were saying,
was also a multi-option debate, but we only had the one referendum
on staying in the EU, yes or no? But as I mentioned, any referendum
on any of the other three would also be ‘no’, probably
by a much larger margin. And if we had had multi-option voting, then ‘remain in the eu’ would
almost certainly have been the winner. Preferential points voting
has a couple of other advantages. If you vote for only 1 option,
it gets 1 point. If you vote for 2 options
it gets 2 points, and 1 for your second preference. So in a 4-option debate, if you want
your favourite to get all 4 points, you have to cast your preferences, but nobody votes ‘no’. Success depends upon getting
a good number of high preferences, a few middle ones perhaps, but a very small number
of low preferences. So here’s the second advantage: the protagonist is incentivised
to talk nicely with their opponents. Preferential voting is accurate,
it is also non-majoritarian. It identifies the option
with the highest average preference, and an average of course
involves everybody who votes, not just a majority of them. If this were adopted as
the international democratic norm, there would be no further justification
for majority rule, anywhere. Democracy should be inclusive. The parliament should
represent all the people, and the government should
represent the entire parliament. This is not what we practice,
but it is what we preach to Northern Ireland, Bosnia,
Iraq, Kenya, Syria, Ukraine, etcetera. To conclude, majority voting is divisive, majority rule can be a cause of conflict. Bizarrely, hardly anybody
in academia or the media, like the BBC, ever critique
majority decision-making. By all means have a majority vote
if the vote is not serious. OK. But if it is serious, then any vote
should be multi-optional, like it was in New Zealand in 1992,
when an independent commission drew up a 5-option referendum
and the people voted and, surprise surprise; they chose a compromise. Brilliant! So what is democracy? In 1931, when Mahatma Gandhi
came to England for the first time, he was asked on arrival, “What do you think
of English civilisation?” And he said it would be
a very good thing. And democracy would be good
if it were inclusive. If everybody was involved or represented in drawing up the short list of options,
and then voting, and then implementing
whatever decisions achieved a high level of consensus support. This would require preferential
points voting in decision-making, and all-party power-sharing. Thank you. (Applause)

Maurice Vega

15 Responses

  1. Despite everything, despite its imperfection. I like democracy, why? Because it lets me express my voice, gives me the right to be who I am. Democracy should be representative, not oppressive. Majority isn't right, minority isn't wrong. We must practice democracy in totally tolerant and respectful actions because in the end, all the opinions matter, all the ideas are worthy.

  2. A love a lot of the spirit of this talk. We can do better than majoritarianism.

    But, there are a lot of different voting methods. Some still have notions of majoritarianism embedded within them but still work for elections with many options, most notably Condorcet methods. Unfortunately, the method discussed here, where you rank options and the ranks equate the points, also known as The Borda Count, has a couple major issues:

    1. Clones. A sort of reverse-spoiler effect where fielding a lot of similar candidates ("clones") gives that "party" an unfair advantage.

    2. Strategic voting. No method is completely immune to strategic voting, but Borda is particularly vulnerable, to the point that it can become an "anti-method" that elects candidates everyone agrees is terrible.

    A better method that preserves the ideas behind this talk is Score Voting. Every voter gives every candidate a score from within some pre-defined range. The winner is the candidate with the highest total/average. This is the basic version, but it has a lot of variants, some of which try to address some of its perceived weaknesses (though I would argue many of its criticisms are dubious). Other variants adapt it to be multi-winner or even proportional.

  3. Two important parts that seemed to be left out of this talk.
    The manipulation of the voters. If the voters were given the truth by politicians and the media they could make better decisions.
    The protection of the rights of the individual. If the voters were taught to respect the rights of the individual, there should be less desire to steal from others.

    Like the examples shown here, a Republican primary election in the USA had so many conservatives competing that the majority of the conservative vote was distributed across these candidates. This meant a non-conservative candidate won.

  4. Democracy doesn't have to be about simple majority voting – there are number of other electoral systems that produce more nuanced answers that get closer to what the populace really wants. The question is whether it is good to do what even an informed populace wants, or whether the decision taken should be simply the right one. But I do see the beauty in the former.

  5. No one said democracy was perfect – that certainly is not the case. It just happens to be the best system we have. That's why people try to migrate from non-democratic nations to democratic ones. Highly suspicious of anyone who does not believe in democracy, they are always free to migrate the other way.

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