09 February 2010

The Most Popular or the Least Unpopular?

From a BBC article on the proposed AV referendum:
up to 40 Labour MPs are still planning to vote against the plan. The rebels believe a change to alternative vote would benefit the least unpopular, rather than the most popular, candidates and could cost Labour seats at future elections.
Of course, the larger concern of the two for them will almost certainly be the potential loss of Labour seats. Turkeys don't tend to vote for Christmas and as back-bench MPs will tend to have smaller majorities, they will tend to have more incentive to worry.

What I find more interesting is the implication that it is better to elect the most popular, rather than the least unpopular candidate. The more I think about it, the less I agree with it, because, outside politics, it isn't the way civilised people normally behave.

If I go out for a bite to eat with eight of my friends, we decide where to eat by choosing a place where we're all reasonably happy to go. We don't go to the restaurant that five people really want to go, who then gloat while the other four end up hungry and miserable because there's nothing on the menu they like. We definitely don't go to the restaurant that four people really want to go to, because three of the others wanted to go to a different restaurant and the other two wanted to go to another different restaurant.

If there is any hope of a government being a part of a civilised society, it can only be possible if it behaves in a way that civilised people behave when working in groups. Given two options:
  • The majority of those involved are delighted with the outcome, but the rest are deeply unhappy.
  • Nobody is delighted with the outcome, but everybody walks away thinking "I can live with that."

I'd rather have the second.

It touches on a quote from the contractarian libertarian philosopher Jan Narveson:
We may here propose a general formula for acceptable law. What is needed is that each individual subject to it is better off, in his own terms, from being so subjected than he would be if not so subjected to it.
I tend to agree with that; if I'm bound by a law which says that I mustn't kill others, I'm generally happy with that, because I gain more from others being bound by the same law than I lose, as should everybody else. A law banning me from expressing my opinion would be a different matter.

A system of law of the type suggested by Narveson is possible (even if unlikely) under a system where the least unpopular options succeed, but it is almost certainly impossible under a system where the most popular options succeed.

Compromise isn't exciting or dramatic, but in a situation where everybody is bound by a group decision, it's still extremely valuable.

When it comes to AV itself, I'm general supportive, but as I've said in a previous post, it's suitability will depend on the future shape of the upper house. The two things are so closely intertwined that I don't think they can be viewed separately.


AntiCitizenOne said...

I had the same idea a while ago.


Paul Lockett said...

I like the underlying principle of approval voting, where people vote for all of the people they don't want to see elected (or the ones they are reasonably happy to see elected, as the two things are essentially the same). The only real concern I have with it is that it retains the potential for tactical voting in a way that AV doesn't. For example, If there are three candidates, A, B and C, of which I really like A, I'm not bothered about B and I really dislike C, I would definitely vote not to elect C, but whether or not I vote for B would depend on what I expect the outcome to be. If I expect the main contest to be between A and B, I would vote not to elect him, but if it was between B and C, I would vote the other way.

With AV, tactical concerns wouldn't even enter my head, because the only logical way for me to vote would be A-1, B-2, C-3.

Robin Smith said...

Shall we all go out for a curry. Its a bit weird only knowing everyone via the blogsphere ?

Any offers?