Thoughts on economics and liberty

Notes – arguments against proportional representation #1

I've been reading up a number of sources re: proportional representation, which is a never-ending source of diversion from substantive issues with some Indians. It keeps them busy even as the country burns. I guess everyone is entitled to speculate. Just like Lokpal was a speculative "solution" which had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the causes of corruption, so also PR is an all-time-favourite speculative topic with some who believe that changing India's electoral system can solve India's problems.

I won't remind people about what I've written in BFN – for I've repeated it so many times now (although I'm not sure Shailesh has cared to read BFN yet). But let me say that there is at least one thing on which I agree even with Laski, who wrote that improvement in public life should be made "by the elevation of the popular standard of intelli­gence and the reform of the economic system, than by making men choose in proportion to the neatly graded volume of opinion."

He meant that the economic system should become socialist, while I mean that the economic system should become capitalist. But both of us agree that neat gradations of opinion have little to do with any substantive outcome in society. [Source:Kapur, cited below]

But it gets worse. PR is not just outcome-neutral. It makes things significantly worse. 

For the next few blog posts (or as convenient) I'll publish extracts from various texts/ articles on electoral systems. I've yet to come across any thinker who thinks from first principles. Books on political science wander off into a list of "pros and cons" instead of asking which system is compatible with the defence of our liberty (and indeed, few ask whether we should have democracy at all, and if so, what should be its purpose). Articles on economic analysis of systems never ask basic questions, anyway. They provide secondary analysis of incentives.

It is up to us to ask basic questions, which I've asked here. I've shown in that blog post that after a constitution (which tightly circumscribes governments) has been established, we need merely to elect a (kind of) dictator for the duration of the government (three/four/five years). The dictator would implement and enforce laws to defend liberty.  Of course, some discretion will be needed, but basically we need a very strong, decisive, neutral and non-interfering government

Hobbes was the founder of classical liberal theory – for good reason. He showed why we need  a strong state. The Mahabharata, which first articulated the social contract, also supported a strong government (king) that was agile and decisive. And Chanakya would have firmly voted in favour of  a strong state.

So what we need is a STRONG – but MINIMALIST – state. If at all we need democracy (and I agree that we do need it, despite its many – rather significant – demerits), we need to pick that system which gives us the STRONGEST, most decisive government. Achieving a minimalist government can only be achieved by direct participation in politics by classical liberals.

Let me jot down some notes first, starting with this blog post. I'll consolidate my position into a single article later.

I'm not going to debate this issue at this stage. So those keen to debate, please wait! Your patience is much appreciated.


This is from A.C. Kapur's Principles of Political Science (S.Chand, 1957, p.364-65):

The system of proportional representation has failed to improve the standard of public life because it breeds small parties and groups which make impossible to obtain coherent public opinion. Multiple party system implies weak government, and weak government ultimately means irresponsible government. Irresponsible government coupled with incoherent public opinion is a sectional government which en­courages corruption, jobbery, nepotism and all other evils inherent therein. Proportional representation has in fact, been an effiective agent of ministerial instability. It makes impossible the broad large majorities on which effective government is based, and turns every government into a precarious combination of group representatives, liable at any time to be withdrawn by their patrons. When every party is ensured representation vested interests help in creating new parties.
But the worst side of proportional representation is that it destroys the national character of the legislature and makes it an arena of divergent sectional interests. All issues deliberated upon in the legis­lature are discussed not with reference to their bearing on the general well-being of the nation, but from the point of view of a particular group or interest. In this way legislation is paralysed as group legislation inevitably tends to increase class legislation.
The areas for election, under all schemes of proportional repre­sentation, must be multiple-member constituencies. Multiple-member constituencies intensify the complexity of choice and increase the power of the parties, and particularly the central council of parties. When the party leaders settle the lists of names, they can demand un­conditional allegiance from the successful candidates. The result is that the attention of the members is directed and concentrated always to the party machine than to the constituency. The intimate contact between the voter and his representative is, thus, eliminated. A good electoral system should enable the candidates to be known to the electors in a genuine way, and after elections the representatives must remain closely connected with their constituents so that a personal relation develops between them. But the system of proportional re­presentation "destroys any prospect of personal relations between the member and his constituents ; he would simply become an item in a list, voted for almost entirely on party grounds." Further, the campaign becomes less intensive, and more extensive, that is, "it does not occupy itself with the cultivation of the individual voter by personal appeals, but in the institution of monster demonstrations, like processions, in which the mechanical apparatus for making a noise -or creating a diversion is predominant." Nor does the system provide for by-elections. A bye-election is the barometer of public opinion.If no opportunity is provided for the expression and realisation of changes in the public opinion the legislature loses its representative character.
The system of proportional representation is sufficiently com­plicated and beyond the comprehension of an average voter. For example, in the Hare system counting and recounting of votes is a complex and tedious problem with the intricacies of preferences and transferring of votes. Moreover, it places voters at the mercy of the counting authorities. In the List system there is an additional danger of corruption. Prospective candidates are tempted to use unfair and corrupt methods to get their names included in the party list. It also helps to increase the influence of party bosses and encourages party manoeuvring. The group managers arrange the original lists in such a way as to secure majority for their own nominees.
On these grounds the bulk of competent opinion is opposed to the introduction of proportional representation.' Laski says that its alleged better representation of national opinion is doubtful. He does not agree with the opinion that in a single-member constituency the minority remains unrepresented while in the proportional system. this danger is adequately met. Laski fully agrees with Dr. Finer that the "horizon of a minority is not limited by the boundaries of a cons­tituency." Political decisions are not made by an arithmetical process of counting votes. "More urgent is the weighing of influences that take place in the law-making process. And minority views may find adequate institutions therein for the expression of their opinions and desires." The late Professor Esmien, an eminent French jurist, condemns outright the system of proportional representation. He says, "To establish the system of proportional representation is to convert the remedy supplied by the bicameral system into a veritable poison; it is to organise disorder, and emasculate the legislative power; it is to render cabinets unstable, destroy their homogeneity, make parliamentary government impossible."

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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3 thoughts on “Notes – arguments against proportional representation #1
  1. Munish Raizada

    In a sense, Indian political landscape continues to witness a “PR” system unofficially, where regional parties with a few seats team up with a major party to cobble up a “Coalition” Govt” at the Center, much against the wishes and aspirations of people/voters.