There is one cookie on the table. Two siblings, hungry for chocolate chips, are eyeing it, wondering how they will split the treat. There are many approaches they can take. The stronger sibling can physically hold the other back while he eats it all himself. The richer sibling can pay off the other so he can eat it all himself. The older sibling can claim he has a right to the cookie and eat it all himself.
It’s not a perfect analogy but if the cookie represents political authority, the situations above correspond to a military dictatorship, socialism/plutocracy, and monarchy, respectively.
Eventually, however, the disadvantaged sibling may collect enough strength and confidence to demand that it be shared more “fairly”. He can appeal to a parent to settle the dispute, who will probably take the cookie away, arguing that it will spoil their dinner. He can start a physical fight, which will probably leave them both bruised and crying (leaving the parent to come in and take the cookie away anyway). Or they can agree between themselves that the cookie should be split into two pieces.
Progress! But the problem is not solved yet. Cookies are not easy to break into two perfectly equal halves. There is bound to be a larger piece and a smaller piece. In this scenario, the best strategic approach is to have one sibling cut the cookie, while the other gets to choose which piece they will take. The one doing the cutting has an incentive to try to make the two pieces as equal as possible.
So why am I talking about cookies on a blog about electoral reform? Today’s topic is on the basis of legitimacy. All governments claim to be legitimate but they can do so on very different bases. A common approach has been for a small group, a leader and his warriors, to assert their physical dominance over the rest of the population. But that basis is weak in that their legitimacy is lost as soon as another leader is able to subvert them. For that reason, it is common to transition coercive dominance into hereditary legitimacy under the principle of the divine right of kings. The population may choose to accept this insofar as it avoids civil war and bloodshed (which it sometimes doesn’t). However, one can argue that the basis of legitimacy even for a hereditary monarch remains the fact that one of his ancestors asserted physical dominance over the population at some point in the past. Logically, it is not inconceivable, therefore, for his kingdom to be conquered and an equally-(il)legitmate hereditary line be set up.
In modern times, after much blood has been spilled over centuries of revolutions and civil wars, it is an accepted principle that a government should have the consent of those it rules. Monarchies, where they have retained their position, have curbed their powers with constitutions. Even dictators need to pretend the people want them. In 1995, Iraqis took part in a “presidential election” where they got to answer yes or no to the question “Do you approve of President Saddam Hussein being the President of the Republic?” Of the 8.4 million ballots, 99.96% answered yes. In Syria, when President Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar was not crowned as a hereditary monarch. Instead, he won a presidential election with 99.7% of the vote. Spoiled ballots came in second, followed by “Against”.
For the system of splitting the (political authority) cookie to be considered fair, both siblings need to get a piece. For the stronger sibling to break off a crumb and hand it over saying “Look, you get to take part in elections.” doesn’t cut it, though. All elections are not created equal.
In Canada, we run much more legitimate elections thanks to the secret ballot, an independent electoral commission, and a free press. But we still get results where someone with less than 40% support gets 100% of the decision-making power (false majorities). The cookie can be cut more fairly than it currently is.
Direct democracy, where every citizen votes on every law, would take up too much of people’s time. For that reason, we delegate this duty to representatives. When it comes to the rules about the representatives themselves, however, in order to have a strong basis in legitimacy, founded on consent by the people instead of a conflict of interest, the optimal approach is to allow the people themselves to decide how those representatives will be chosen, through a referendum. If you leave it up to the representatives to set those rules, they will hand themselves the larger piece of the cookie because they can.
Those that say “Referendums are a pretty good way of not getting any electoral reform.” are the ones who are not willing to offer up enough concessions on their own power to make the proposal worth your while. The truth is, not having referendums are a pretty good way of concentrating more power in the hands of those who currently hold it. Without referendums, you can forget about term limits, elected senators, MPs that challenge party policies they disagree with, and voter recall.
The Lower Canada and Upper Canada rebellions in 1837 brought a fairer system of government to our land, shattering the grip of the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique with the concept of “responsible (read: elected) government”. Today, you just need to email and phone your MP (it will take more than once) and demand that you get a vote on the new system they will use to justify their legitimacy. Just by asking for a referendum, you will get a better outcome and your progeny will thank you.