An argument for AV involving Schumpeter and Spiderman

October 8, 2010

I’ve been doing my best to give myself an education in economics recently by reading anything I can on the subject, and am currently ploughing my way through Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, although ‘ploughing’ implies faster progress than has actually been the case. One of Schumpeter’s arguments – or, perhaps, talking points – about democracy focuses around the relative mental effort expended by the demos on those things over which they have little influence, and hence little responsibility.

This is broadly accurate, as anyone who’s ever tried organising anything by committee can tell you. People expend far less effort on anything for which responsibility is shared. The best way of making sure that something is done is by making it someone’s responsibility; depending on the reliability of that person, of course. Schumpeter seems to claim that something similar applies to democracy: because the relative responsibility of the individual with regard to society is very low, the individual spends relatively little of their mental energies on learning about politics and politicians, allowing themselves to be guided far more by emotion and intuition than in other areas of life. This is an astonishing insight, given that the psychological research that actually proved this point didn’t happen for another 60 years.

Schumpeter provides an explanatory framework for those results – one which is intuitively plausible. We can cash this out as the proposition that the greater the responsibility one has for a given outcome, the greater the level of mental effort one is likely to expend on affecting it.

It should be relatively obvious as to how this relates to electoral reform, but I’ll map it out with an example just in case. I’ll use the 2010 result from Islington South & Finsbury:

Labour Emily Thornberry 18,407
Liberal Democrat Bridget Fox 14,838
Conservative Antonia Cox 8,449
Green James Humphreys 710
UKIP Rose-Marie McDonald 701
English Democrats John Dodds 301
Animals Count Richard Deboo 149

It’s clear that there were only two parties whose results are relevant; other votes had no chance to affect the outcome. The total votes cast were 43,555. Of these, 33,245 were ‘relevant’ in this sense. If someone had voted at random in this election, it would’ve had a 0.763 chance of affecting the outcome. Or, a 0.237 chance of being irrelevant.

It’s a bit presumptuous to assume that everyone voting under AV will use all their preferences when they vote. To be conservative about this, let’s assume that only half the voters for each eliminated candidate did so, and distribute them evenly between the two candidates.

Round 1:

Animals Count (149) eliminated. Lab 18444, LD 14875.

Round 2:

English Democrats (301) eliminated. Lab 18519, LD 14950.

Round 3:

UKIP eliminated (701). Lab 18694, LD 15125.

Round 4:

Greens eliminated (710). Lab 18871, LD 15302.

Round 5:

Conservatives eliminated (8449). Lab 20893, LD 17414. Lab wins.

In this version of the contest, 38307 votes were ‘relevant’, meaning that a person voting randomly would’ve had a 0.88 chance of affecting the outcome – an increase of 0.117. Even under very conservative assumptions, AV produced an increase in the probability of any given individual voter affecting the outcome of 12%. This is a direct increase of the influence of an individual over the outcome of the election; in essence, increasing their power over the process of electing a representative.

And, as Peter Parker nearly knows, with greater power comes greater responsibility. AV will produce an increase in political engagement across the population, because it will give everyone greater responsibility for the outcome. This increase will be probabilistic in nature and is based on the assumptions given above, but nonetheless is intuitively plausible. It takes a (slightly) greater mental effort to rank candidates in order than it does to put a cross in a box.


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