I’ve been reading for the past few weeks about Scotland’s independence movement, and it’s provoked a variety of thoughts, many tangential.
Available evidence suggests that whatever way the vote for Scottish independence goes, it will be a relatively close vote — which is to say, several million people will be on the losing side of it. (For whatever it’s worth, my prediction is that the independence vote will lose on a margin that is macroscopically fairly narrow, but ultimately not so narrow as to raise doubts about the legitimacy of the vote).
Most votes in a democracy are ultimately about a fairly narrow issue — a particular law or a particular politician, with the politician ultimately usually being quite close to his opponent on most issues. Votes like the Scottish Independence vote are rare, but obviously important, and they highlight quite a bit of the unjustness of democracy. What we are saying, with the Scottish independence vote, is that if about 2.66 million people vote for independence, then roughly 2.64 million people are sort of forcibly expatriated. Which seems absurd! And vice versa as well — this seems slightly less ridiculous to me, that a few tens of thousands of people in margin might prevent a secession devoutly wished by a basically identical number of people — but that’s probably just status quo bias, and to be ignored.
What gives us the right to impose our will — especially on such an enormous question — on our neighbors by virtue of their being a few more of us than them? This is a philosophical question which leads some libertarian-oriented people down the road of anarcho-capitalism. That is, the view that you should not, in fact, impose your view on your neighbors, and instead everyone can independently contract everything — essentially choosing your own laws from those willing to be provided by other parties.
I regard anarcho-capitalism as unworkable along a variety of axes. But it is at least an attempt to grapple with the question, which other political philosophies seem to basically regard as sufficiently thorny that they will just ignore it.
You can suggest that a supermajority (of whatever size) needs to be undertaken on momentous questions, but that just privileges the status quo, and it’s far from clear to me that such a bias is actually more just. If Scottish Independence needed to be voted for by, say, a 2/3rds supermajority, that would just mean that even if 3 million people wanted independence, 2.3 million of their neighbors could deny them their preferences.
It seems at least a bit likely that in the event of independence for Scotland, current Scottish residents wishing to stay with the rump UK will be allowed time to relocate to the territorial limits of the rump UK and maintain their citizenship there. Which does suggest at least a less black-and-white form of voting — do you dislike an independent Scotland to such an extent that you will deal with the costs of moving? And perhaps that idea can be extended into the problematic elements of democracy as a whole. Could we ask people to differentiate between, “This is more or less what I think, but if my neighbors think otherwise, that’s cool,” and “No, seriously, I really strongly believe this, and it is unjust if I am subjected to others’ beliefs”?
In the event that Scottish independence fails by a narrow margin, for example, could the millions of people who voted for independence be offered a similarly costly way to achieve their independence regardless of the wishes of their neighbors? Say that an area of Scotland will become independent if sufficient people from the pro-independence movement are willing to move there such that it reaches 80% pro-independence, or something?
The economics enthusiast in me wants to make it possible to pay for votes, of course — some kind of easy quantification of how much you are interested in a particular vote. I don’t think it’s workable due to the differing marginal utility of money between the rich and the poor. If an extra vote costs $100 (or whatever), then the rich can always prevail. If an extra vote costs 1% of your income (or whatever), then arguably that’s still allowing the rich past a certain level extra votes for relatively little cost (at least in terms of consumption) — and you admit the possibility at least of the rich paying the poor to buy relatively low-cost extra votes (though this always brings up my favorite way of dealing with that class of voting corruption — make it explicitly legal to do something like “offer Joe $20 for his vote,” but also have absolutely secret ballots, and allow Joe to (legally and ethically) take the money and vote his conscience regardless).
At any rate, regardless of how the Scottish independence vote goes, I will be un-convinced of the justice of that vote to the losers.