Big Decisions. Only a Few Are Doing the Deciding.

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Image via ABC News

Only 9% of United States citizens voted for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the presidential primary, and only approximately 30% of residents of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The remarkable thing about these numbers is that both of these decisions are incredibly impactful to virtually every single citizen of the nation, yet a shockingly small fraction of the nation participated in making these decisions. This troubles me deeply. And it should trouble you too.

With decisions like Brexit or the 2016 US presidential primary, Democratic theory tells us that for such a decision to pass, it must be held to the strictest standard of consent possible. This means that the level of consent to make a decision should correspond to the number of people impacted by the decision. Put another way, any decision that by and large only affects one person should be made by that one person, while a decision that affects everyone should be made by as many people as possible.

Why should there not be a“quorum” for elections and referenda, while the quorum is ubiquitous for voting in smaller groups, such as Congress?

The takeaway from both the primary and Brexit is that proxy voting, that is to say, representative democracy, does not meet a sufficiently high standard of consent. Imagine for a minute that, say, Congress, were responsible for nominating a presidential candidate, or that Parliament decided Brexit, rather than leaving the decision to referendum. I do not think it would be unreasonable to predict that there would be complete and utter outrage. I might even go so far as to say that many people would begin to question whether they live in a democracy even at all.

The reason for the outrage in a potential case in which decisions were made by legislative bodies alone is that the people could reasonably claim that they were left out of the decision-making process of a decision so fundamental to the existence and function of the nation itself. After all, if they do not have a stake in such fundamental decisions as choosing candidates for the highest office, or membership in the EU, then do they have any stake in their nation at all?

Even with a primary election or referendum, such as the primary or Brexit, with such a low level of consensus and participation, can we truly say that we have set the standard high enough even though both decisions are in a sense “majority rule”? I do not think so.

To be sure, in both, every citizen of age had every opportunity to participate in the decision. It would be natural to blame the lack of consensus on those who didn’t vote. “Those lazy folks couldn’t even get themselves to the polls!” you might even say.
But when you get to thinking about it, was it really enough that a much greater number of people had at least the opportunity to consent to the decision?

For one, it is perfectly rational, economically speaking, to not vote. The probability that my vote is the one that tips the election and decides the candidate who wins is extremely small, but I still have to spend money on gas and give up time working in order to vote.

I still don’t think so. Here’s why.

For one, it is perfectly rational, economically speaking, to not vote. There are deep reasons for this, but in short it is that our expected utility of voting grows infinitesimally small when the number of voters is large, while the cost of voting is basically constant. In other words, the probability that my vote is the one that tips the election and decides the candidate who wins is extremely small, but I still have to spend money on gas and give up time working in order to vote.

More to the point, sometimes when you consider yourself caught between the Scylla and the Charybdis (i.e. “between a rock and a hard place”) you can choose neither of the two or select another alternative unlikely to win. It is of no difference whether it is another alternative that you choose that loses by plurality rule or whether you choose to abstain in a decision by majority rule. In this way, by choosing not to vote, one is actually voting—one is voting for another possible alternative: abstention.

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Image via fineartamerica.com

Thus, when we are considering the standard of consent necessary to make certain decisions in a democracy, we must consider both the consenters, the dissenters, as well as the abstainers. Democratic consent, even when given by referendum, is not justified without some sense of “quorum,” that is, how many participated in making the decision. Imagine, for example, if in an entire state, only ten people showed up to the polls in November!

Why should there not be a“quorum” for elections and referenda, while the quorum is ubiquitous for voting in smaller groups, such as Congress?

My guess is for the sake of expediency. Politicians have chosen to ignore that not voting is a vote in itself for their own benefit. It is not that, by not voting or voting for unpopular alternatives, you are, at least morally, “wasting your vote.” Rather, you have been disenfranchised for the convenience of majorities.

If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree upon, it is how much they love majorities. Politicians want us to believe that any decision—even if it is morally reprehensible to some, and actually made by a rather small number of individuals—is morally justified merely because more people agreed to make the decision than disagreed.

If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree upon, it is how much they love majorities. Politicians want us to believe that any decision—even if it is morally reprehensible to some, and actually made by a rather small number of individuals—is morally justified merely because more people agreed to make the decision than disagreed.

Furthermore, politicians, left unchecked, would likely want to make many more decisions in our lives than they do now. They justify the decisions that should be made individually by the sanctity of their majorities, either by proxy, appointment, or—don’t be fooled by their tricks —even referenda.

So, maybe majority rule is not the standard bearer of democracy. We should be weary when politicians coerce us to choose between the Scylla and the Charybdis. We should demand that decisions that affect every one of us, such the Primary or Brexit, should be held to a much stricter standard of consent. Finally, we should demand that decisions that affect only ourselves should be left to ourselves, and ourselves alone.

Hans Riess recently graduated from Duke University with a degree in mathematics. He is interested in the relationship between mathematical models of choice and strategies for effective governance. 

Hans Riess graduated from Duke University with a degree in mathematics and is working towards a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He is interested in applying concepts from mathematics to theories of optimal political decision-making.

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