How I learned to stop worrying and love electoral politics


ASI bloggers spent a decent wodge of time blogging about how democracy is silly or irrelevant or bad. I'm probably the worst here. But I have to say that I had a great time following the election, which was instantly hugely exciting and shocking and interesting after the truly unbelievable 10pm exit poll.

My experience has led me to perhaps a more sanguine view on this central institution of modern developed society.

Democracies don't make that much difference to policy—possibly because technocrats rule anyway. Democracies potentially lead to less violent transfers of power. Democracies may make people happy through recognising people's fundamental equality. Democracies may make people feel like they're having a say. And democracy is a fantastic spectator sport.

1. Democracies and non-democracies that are otherwise similar have quite similar policies, except that non-democracies may have more progressive tax schedules. (pdf)

2. It feels likely that democracies minimise the costs of power transitions. I'm not absolutely sure about this one, because I can't find any good papers (please send them my way). If you can vote people out, you don't need to fight them out.

The problem is that democracies tend to be systematically different to non-democracies in loads of ways (e.g. Western Educated Industrialised and Rich as well as Democratic). Just looking at how power changed hands in 1700s France and how it does now might not be enough. Ditto comparing France now with, say, Algeria.

And I can at least imagine transition mechanisms that would make monarchies even more flexible than democracies, if changing all the king's advisors counts as a transition as well as changing the man himself. But let's chalk this one down anyway.

3. When you drill down, lots of people value democracy for more than its supposed benefits for picking policy. People think that fundamental equality of humans/citizens is very important, and this is an important way of recognising it. If lots of people care about it then it probably makes them all a bit happier and more satisfied with their lives which is good. Obviously I'd need to see evidence to be sure, but again it seems an under-researched topic.

4. This is slightly different to the above. Voters are very unlikely to make a difference; it's about 10m to one in swing states in the USA; and the closest ever parliamentary election was decided by two votes, but then redone anyway for a gap of hundreds. No single vote ever makes a difference to the direct outcome.

But it's quite reasonable to view a vote as being 'a say', even if it's not necessarily heard in policy. And if this siphons off popular dissent and makes people identify more with their government and society it might make people more satisfied with their lives, which is good.

5. This is really how I changed during this election: it was so exciting. I didn't really go into the election caring about who won, except that I hoped the Lib Dems held up and UKIP didn't get too many seats—I didn't vote or even spoil like last time.

But as it turned out I got caught up in it all and had a great time cheering and booing. Think how many people are made happier by sports—and politics is like a sport which really matters in measurable ways!

I never really got het up about democracy, but I've decided I'm a whole lot more comfortable with the whole thing.