A representative body

Representative democracy is based on the notion that “we the people” are too busy to decide on detailed matters of state. Instead we appoint a body that is representative of the people in order to deliberate on such matters. There are many theoretical ways the appointment of this representative body could be achieved. In theory it could be achieved with quite reasonable fidelity using some form of a lottery. However traditionally we use elections. Elections create an incentive to be popular as well as an incentive to perform which may be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your perspective and the task the body is required to undertake. I suspect that elections also bias the system towards people that are good at talking rather than people that are good at listening. We essentially use a lottery system to appoint jurors to a jury and we generally hope that they are good at listening and that they make decisions that are right rather than popular. I can see merit in having parliaments that are more like juries.

In a party based electoral system the extent to which an election is representative of the voters intentions is sometimes measured using the Gallagher Index. A low Gallagher Index is more representative than a high Gallagher Index. In 2007 the Gallagher index for the Australian House of Representatives was over 10. New Zealand generally does much better on this score.

The chart below shows how many seats the various parties won in the respective elections versus how many they would have won if seats were determined by the overall popular vote. It is slightly out in so far as it assumes that independents are a party group which is obviously not the case. However it isn’t out by much.

Obviously the Australian Greens would in the short term be a big winner from any shift towards a more representative House of Representatives. The ALP would be a loser.

Achieving a representative House of Representatives could be done with a quite minor reform. All we would need to do is have some candidates appointed from party lists in addition to candidates being elected directly in geographic electorates. The list candidates would top up each parties allocation to make the house more representative. I’m not a fan of The Greens but I’d still support such a reform. Some people support strong majority government but I’m not one of them. Generally I prefer my governments weak and fragile.

I can’t imagine any respectable form of government that does not include some notion of representative democracy. Like capitalism it may not produce perfect results but it is better than the alternatives.

17 thoughts on “A representative body

  1. “I can’t imagine any respectable form of government.”

    Yeah, neither can I.

    “Like capitalism it may not produce perfect results”

    What capitalism?

    Democracy: The God That Failed

    Democracy has nothing to do with Freedom. Nothing.

  2. Terje: “too busy to decide on detailed matters”
    A direct democracy would just mean people would pick a popular figure or political party and have their votes go the same way by default (and possibly change it on few issues where they disagree). So this doesn’t really work as a criticism of direct democracy. There’d still be at least an elected head of government, so there’d still be a notion of representative democracy.

    Michael & Steve: Democracy is very important for preserving freedom. The people with nukes should have a monopoly and be democratically elected, and nukes are absolutely necessary for the preservation of freedom. The government then has the right to tax us but only to the extent necessary for the services they must have a monopoly over (which are the ones we can rightfully demand from them). Democratic government with taxation is a necessary evil (like having to shoot someone in a war). How the taxation should work is another matter (I think income tax is way too invasive).

  3. I’m in favour of more direct democracy. In particular I think there should be a means for citizens to initiate the repeal of any given law.

    So long as we have government I think democracy is pretty key to freedom. I’m interested in ways to make democracy more representative and government more accountable. Obviously I’m also interested in ways to appropriately limit the power of government. I don’t think democracy is the key reason we suffer from big government. However the structure of our democracy is an issue.

  4. “I’m in favour of more direct democracy. In particular I think there should be a means for citizens to initiate the repeal of any given law.”

    My concern with more direct forms of democracy is how to avoid the tyranny of the mob, such as that seen in Athens?

    I agree though – government is an evil necessary to ensure liberty, and a democratic system is the best way to keep the government from confiscating liberty. Obviously, history has shown that democratic systems have usually failed dismally at this, but they have generally done a better job for longer than other forms of political organisation.

    The ‘creamy middle’ to me is a constitutional republic where the rule of law severely curtails what the government can do. This is best coupled with an educated and armed population. Unfortunately, the United States has demonstrated that even this isnt enough when a population becomes complacent, seeking to inflict government on others to further their own agendas.

    As for a more direct form of democracy in the house of reps, I dont really see the merit in it. The senate is already a more direct democracy, albeit on a state level rather than a national. There is a good argument for both the relatively direct democratic system of the senate, and the more geographically representative system in the house of reps.

  5. My preferred minarchy would have counties limited to public lands, with time-share government, meaning that if you chose to be a local citizen, then you would do some community service (such as firefighting or road patrol or militia training) and only then would you have the right to directly vote on all laws. Counties would send delegates to conferences with other counties, but these would not be able to bind their member counties.
    No need for an upper house, in this system. We also wouldn’t have any professional politicians, though the best-performing volunteers might become permanent coaches, a talented bureaucracy. You might get ambassadors from these.

  6. Democracy is entirely to do with freedom.

    Bad democracy leads to less freedom.

    I think we should have an elected executive President and a unicameral Parliament elected by Hare Clarke proportional representation, CIR to strike down laws, Presidential veto and this should be constitutionally set in stone.

    Basically I want the Senate* to remain and be more representative, do away with the quasi electoral college that is the house of reps, directly elect the Government, and have strong checks on legislative processes.

    I think most libertarians and indeed Australian republicans and small d democrats would endorse this if not the intention of it.

    *States? We should have a lot more States so the makeup of the remaining chamber wouldn’t actually matter.

  7. I’d quite like to see senators appointed via a lottery system instead of via elections. I think this would make them very representative but also quite immune to populism. They would be like a jury that finds legislation innocent or guilty.

  8. If we’re just talking small changes to the present system, then have an elected Regent to incorporate the Monarch and the Governor-general into one office, and limit the Regal powers to making inquiries- an elected ombudsman, who investigates public complaints against representatives. Have some Federal police in his office so that they can investigate politicians gone bad. The Regent cannot make laws or set policy, but can insure that parliamentarians are not corrupt, and do represent the people. (If the Feds do uncover proof that a pollie has lied, or is corrupt, the Regent could revoke the commission , causing a by-election for the seat of that ex-member.)
    Any reserve powers are only activated if the High Court agrees with the Regent’s decision. The Regent goes to the electorate in conjunction with any General Election, so the public can vote on the Regent’s performance.
    And the Regent would confirm the appointment of State Governors, who would be miniature Regents for their State.

  9. I think the system we have at the moment has the potential to work quite well. What is lacking is constraints on the powers of government to interfere in people’s private business.

    Talking about micro-reforms, I’d be more inclined to strip and limit the powers of government. If I could do one thing, it would be to introduce a ’10th ammendment’ clause. If I got two wishes, I would take to Section 51 with gusto (esp. 51:26 which I find particularly offensive).

    Until the government gets out of the business of managing people’s livestyles and choices, the actual method of appointing governments is somewhat meaningless.

  10. it would be to introduce a ‘10th ammendment’ clause. If I got two wishes, I would take to Section 51 with gusto

    Care to outline what this means with some more detail.

  11. Sorry, I was pressed for time before. I seem to have forgot to mention that I was talking about constitutional reform.

    The 10th ammendment clause would be something along the lines of the US 10th ammendment:

    “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

    In terms of Section 51 of the Australian constitution, I’d remove 51: 1, 3, 5, 8, 9, 21, 22, 23, 23A, 26, 30, 32, 33, 34, 35, and 37.

    I think that a constitutionally limited republic is the best system, but it boots nothing if the constitution invests the Federal government with practically limitless powers.

  12. I believe the only way you can structure a polity so as to allow freedom to those who desire it is to have a federation of semi autonomous states. As is done (somewhat) in America where the death penalty gun nuts live in the southern states, the bleeding heart interventionist liberals in New England, the separatists/survivalists in the mountain states, the polygamists in Utah, and the dope smoking, androgynous, air heads in sunny California. (did I miss anyone?)

    I think you’re fighting a losing battle in considering ways to engineer a better democratic system when the welfare interventionist mindset is just unfortunately in the numerical ascendancy.

    After saying that, I think your party list idea TerjeP is a good one, but why keep the cause of the problem in the first place to wit: geographical representation?

    Why not complete proportional representation?


  13. Philip – capitalism isn’t perfect because the beer isn’t free. 😉

    In terms of federalist systems I think the EU is structurally better than the USA. The EU has free movement of goods, capital and people. They have a common currency. There are no centralised tax powers or common army. Most things done by government are done by the nation state governments. What drags down the EU is the socialism of the individual nation states which is a cultural, political and historical legacy.

  14. Terje – Based on what you describe, I wouldnt say that the EU is ‘better’ – I’d say that it is ‘useless’.

    Common markets and common currency (through an uncorrupt gold standard) I think are fairly normal libertarian ideals. The only ‘advantage’ you list is free labour movement, and even this can be achieved without creating a new level of supra-national bunglers.

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