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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Mixed Heritage: or Why our Government is so Messy-Looking.

I keep running across articles and polls and whatnot where people run off at the mouth about how a two party system “is bad” or how third parties “are useless” and on and on and so forth, and I thought I’d take today’s slot as an opportunity to offer up a different way of thinking about the problem.

Two party politics is a consequence of a winner-takes-all system.

In a proportional government (which the United States is not - Israel is though) parties are allocated seats in the house based on what percentage of the vote they accrued in the election. The system for selecting a president depends on the nation - In Israel's case (though it's not nearly this clean or simple in application, of course) the president's party needs to obtain a coalition of other parties, which "lend" the leading party their votes. So long as the coalition represents 51% of the nation, the president remains president. When he can no longer maintain the coalition, a new election is held at the first available opportunity.

In a winner-takes all system, however, you have complications. since you require 51% of the vote to get any power at all, your vote is better spent on one big party than on supporting minor third parties which will (as they prove year, after year, after year) accomplish nothing at all. Third parties can serve to occasionally lure votes away from the party they are most similar to (thereby theoretically forcing those parties to adjust their platforms to lure the lost votes back home), but in practice this mostly just results in the party least similar to the third party winning the election.

One could easily argue, in fact, that the easiest way to mop up the problems in the U.S. electoral system would be to eliminate third parties.

However, I think that this is a simple-minded and hackneyed approach to things. Yes, third parties often serve as nothing more than a protest vote, but protest votes are important, and people have a right to cast them. I would rather switch to a proportional representation system than narrow down to two parties... most notably because a two-party system tends towards polarizing the nation into two groups that hate each other irrationally.

But proportional systems have their own flaws. Which individuals hold each position is determined by the party, not by the people, and who has a job is important. When you take the power to punish culpable individuals out of the hands of the electorate, corruption becomes a very real and very significant problem. Israel is rife with it, and I think it’s fair to say that they’ve got it worse than we do.

There may be no easy solution. I’ll give it more thought, but I suspect that no democratic system of government is perfect. Perfection is something you seek, not something you obtain, and besides, no system of government is the right government for all things.

On a very local scale, for instance, communism works! Russian peasants living under the Tzar lived in communes, and the system was incredibly effective on a small scale. It shielded people from death should their own crops fail (as tended to happen in the unforgiving soil of Russia), and guilt and shame were ample motivators when you knew everyone you were failing when you failed.

It simply doesn’t work on the macro scale, because on the macro scale you don’t know everyone, and guilt, shame, personal trust and loyalty start to matter less and less the farther you get away from the people you ostensibly govern.

Democracy itself fails on the macro scale. It isn’t possible for everyone in a community the size of the United States to vote on every single issue, even if you concentrate those issues very locally. Instead, we elect sets of representatives. One set for local concerns, one for State concerns, and one for National concerns, and we tell them to vote for us, and they keep getting our vote so long as we feel they’re doing the job fairly well. This isn’t democracy, it’s a Republic.

But we do want to vote personally on certain things, so our ballots are long, and new taxes and amendments and whatnot come before our eyes personally for review. This part of our annual routine is democracy in the actual.

Welfare is a little bit of socialism, along with Medicare and Social Security. All these things just happen to be necessary, as well, so we find other words to describe their origins, or attribute them to “liberalism” in general.

Our government works as well as it does because it is a mutt. It is a mixed breed, and the mixed heritage goes back so many forks in the family tree it’s almost dizzying.

I will personally promise you (for what it’s worth) that there has never been a government (not one that lasted five minutes) that was only one “kind” of government. It just doesn’t work. Even the Feudal system needed the Church to remain semi-stable, and the church was (theoretically, if not always in practice) a meritocracy. People need different things at different times, and they need it delivered in different ways.

Being a mutt is okay. You’re not as pretty, but you’re lots less likely to die of weird, inbred genetic disorders.

That’s my ten cents for the day.


Marcus Tullius Tiro said...

Very nice post, and it's reminded me of a number of topics that I'd like to write about, time permitting; the role of 3rd parties is especially interesting, I think.

I've been reading some interesting stuff on the stability provided by the fact that the electoral college essentially excludes third parties, etc.


Marcus Tullius Tiro said...

Another thought -- as far as I know, many of the world's other democracies are parliamentary systems, partly due to the fact that many of them are based off the Westminster model.

Any idea what countries, if any, have a US style system? And why?


Maxwell Evans said...

it depends on what you mean by a U.S. type system, but none come to mind off-hand in my thinking. When you get right down to it though, most functional democracies are unique in their workings. It is part and parcel with the basic principle of democracy: designing your own government. If all democracies were the same, there would be a strong case to be made for none of them actually being democracies at all. (and let's face it, Europe is really mostly all one country at this point, they even admitted it by making the EU and a new currency named the "euro" that's good everywhere, even in France.)

Marcus Tullius Tiro said...

Except for Britain, of course.


Maxwell Evans said...

Point. But considering that Britain's role in Europe has been (for centuries) to periodically invade France for the hell of it... Maybe they're Europe's Texas.