Are elections a means to avoid difficult collective decisions about how we want to be governed? Some rough thoughts inspired by Michael Sandel.

I am scribbling down these thoughts following a lecture at Goethe University by Michael Sandel on Democracies’ Discontents in which he encouraged his audience to engage in public philosophy, so here goes…

There were two important but disconnected points in the lecture, which inspired a chain of thoughts for me on the nature of elections as an avoidance mechanism.

Sandel’s first point, one that (at least to me) was novel and interesting, is that markets are valued in liberal pluralist societies because they obviate the need for us as a society to have difficult public conversations about what we value and how it should be rewarded. We can pretend that we are neutral with regard to competing conceptions of the good by leaving it up to the market to decide what is valuable and distributing rewards.

His second point, also important but much more obvious, was on the problem of unequal representation in modern democratic systems. In particular, he highlighted the lack of working-class politicians, and politicians without a university degree, noting how the US Senate does not contain a single senator without a university degree.

Together the two points stimulated for me the thought that elections may also function in the way that Sandel describes markets, as a means for avoiding difficult public conversations/decisions about how we want to be governed. This is perhaps a slightly obtuse link, so let me elaborate.

In his book on the principles of representative government, Bernard Manin, describes elections as an aristocratic-democratic compromise. They are aristocratic because we choose a representative for their difference; they are intended to select the best of us to govern. However, they are democratic because we all get to individually decide upon the criteria that constitutes who is best. Your idea of what characteristics make the best governors may be quite different from mine and we both get to put our own conception into practice when we vote.

This starts to sound quite a lot like Sandel’s description of markets. So we might wonder if elections are valued in liberal pluralist societies because they obviate the need for us to reach difficult collective agreements about what constitutes a good governor.

But what is the relationship of this to unequal representation? Well, there is a second issue related to the disjuncture between decisions about individual candidates and decisions about the collective characteristics of the group of governors. Sandel’s concern about unequal representation is not about our choice of individual candidates (I expect he has no problem that people vote for a university-educated candidate) but a compositional issue (it is a problem that we are governed by only university-educated candidates).

However, most modern electoral systems, particularly the ones in Anglophone countries, do not provide any means for influencing the overall composition of representative institutions. Elections are intended to select individual candidates. A very common finding in political science is that a high-level of education is one, if not the most, important criteria for what most people consider to be a good representative. People, on the whole, will vote for university educated candidates over those with less formal education. And the effect of these votes for individual candidates is to produce a parliament, a congress or a senate stocked full of university educated candidates, even though most people might prefer a more diverse composition of representatives. As such, it is not clear through what mechanism elections could address the issue of unequal representation since they provide no way to determine the composition of the parliament.

It would be possible to change the compositional balance of parliaments through cross-party agreements to restrict the field of candidates in certain districts – for example, parties agreeing they will all field only candidates without a university degree in some districts. However, it is pragmatically highly unlikely that such an agreement would be reached. In addition, it would violate the democratic part of Manin’s compromise by imposing upon the voters particular criteria for their individual candidates.

On this interpretation, elections to some extent preclude necessary and important collective decisions about what we think are the right criteria for deciding both the individuals and institutions that govern us. In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that people as unsuitable for office as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson can get elected.  

6 June 2023

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