Scotland — The limits of democracy

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.


4 thoughts on “Scotland — The limits of democracy

  1. There will always be winners and losers in a democracy – why is this vote any less just than one for raising taxes or electing a representative?

  2. Because it’s a bigger deal than raising taxes or electing a representative. It’s which country you are going to be living in.

    Don’t get me wrong, the problem exists to a greater or lesser degree in every democratic vote. But the higher the stakes, the greater the injustice.

  3. so what’s the alternative? Violence? I get your points, but the reality is everyone can’t get what they’s better they vote to decide Independence than to have a civil war to settle it.
    “”Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    • A couple of comments:

      1. Something being the lesser evil still leaves it evil

      We should not be complacent in our feelings towards something because there is no perfect alternative.

      2. But actually, there are alternatives

      Some of the answer is to just limit the scope of government because government — even democratic, well-meaning government — is inherently coercive and in some ways unjust. That’s probably not narrowly applicable to the Scotland case, where it’s hard to see a non-governmental solution to the issue of “which nation should we live in.”

      Avoiding centralization can help as well. It’s easier to move from one city in your country (or state/province/whatever) than it is to move from one country to the next. Keeping a lot of government local means that if there’s a minority who is uniquely disaffected with a policy, they can move to a neighboring area where they aren’t affected by the laws they despise.

      Seeking supermajorities can help, though, as I mentioned in the article above, it comes with a helping of status quo bias. But on some level, we can see the difference between a policy supported by 80 or 90% of a population, and one supported by 50.000001% of the population.

      Letting people put some weight on their votes is also helpful. If 51% of the population thinks, “Huh, I guess that policy sounds, on balance, pretty good,” and 49% of the population thinks, “This is the worst thing ever, it will destroy my life and happiness,” then probably it’s more harmful than good. There are existing informal ways to weight votes (just in terms of who is voting, for example: if the percentages above apply to the population as a whole, then the slim minority is more likely to turn out to vote, and the policy probably will not pass), but we could imagine other ways to give people some kind of ability to gauge vehemence, not simply a straight up/down option.

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