Extremism in Defense of Proportionality Is No Vice? Or Something Like That

Matt Yglesias has a post defending Israel’s electoral system from blame for the rise of Avigdor Lieberman. And I’ll give him one cheer for that claim: Israel’s electorate is in the mood to vote for right-wing parties, and if it had a different electoral system that preference would be expressed differently, but it would still be expressed.

But beyond that I don’t think he’s making much of a point, and he’s basically ignoring all the arguments against proportional representation, particularly with low thresholds for representation. To whit:

- In a first-past-the-post system, the various components of a broad coalition pretty much have to hash out their differences before facing the voters looking for a mandate. That’s supposed to mean you know who you’re voting for. Whereas in proportional rep, you don’t know what you get until the post-election jockeying is over.

- Which, in turn, means voters have to vote very strategically – and the strategic calculus can be highly volatile. In this election, for example, the left, fearing a right-wing government, piled into Kadima, propelling it to victory and eviscerating Labor and Meretz. On the right, there was more fragmentation in part because of a feud between Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu and greater confidence of a general right-wing victory. The result is that Kadima is (marginally) the largest party but can’t form a “natural” coalition. In what sense is this an expression of the “will of the people” on the assumption that that is what Yglesias would like to see expressed?

- Moreover, coalition government means incoherent policy and incompetent administration. You need Shas in the coalition; that means giving Shas control of the Education Ministry or the Interior Ministry; that means not merely giving them one or another policy decision that they demand but control over budgets and patronage and so forth that have more far-reaching consequences. Wouldn’t it be better just to campaign on, say, not drafting yeshivah students or not permitting civil marriage and then delivering on that promise if you win, without handing over chunks of the government to people who do not govern in the national interest?

- Finally, there’s the question of whether you want to express the will of the people or have a system that best promotes/protects the people’s interests. If the latter, you have to pay attention to how the electoral system itself shapes opinion. And a proportional rep system encourages voters – and politicians – to channel their energies to narrow constituencies, particularly when you have an electorate that is already divided. Why, for example, do Haredi voters mostly vote for the religious parties? Because proportional rep means that’s the way to get the most power for their narrow constituencies. Why do Arab voters mostly vote for the Arab parties? There are many reasons, but one is that the electoral system makes it “free” for the major parties to ignore their needs and interests – which was not the case, for example, when there was direct election of the Prime Minister (which created other problems in part because that reform was grafted on to the existing proportional rep parliamentary system).

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with first-past-the-post systems. Among other things, they can encourage regionalism (as happens today in Canada, happened when Ireland was part of the UK, and to some extent happened in the Southern United States) – but you can get powerful regionalist forces in proportional rep systems as well (see, e.g., Belgium, Italy). Yglesias thinks they tend to polarize politics, but I don’t see much evidence of that, and the conventional wisdom is the precise opposite: they force both parties to fight over the ground in the center. That’s certainly what you’ve seen typically in British politics (in spite of the fact that they have a persistent non-regionalist third party, something that theoretically shouldn’t happen) and in American politics. I’m trying to think what might make Yglesias think that in a 2-party first-past-the-post system you’d expect most elections to be “base-mobilizing” elections. The only recent election I can think of that supports that view is America’s 2004 election. Is he generalizing from that one data point?

The real thing I think Yglesias objects to – and I understand this objection – is a feature that typically accompanies first-past-the-post systems (parliamentary or otherwise), namely: other institutional structures that frustrate democracy by giving minority interests extra weight or a form of veto. Examples would be: the United State Senate; the House of Lords; and the wide variance in population size of Japanese electoral districts. The common thread is the greater weight given to rural (landed) interests versus urban (commercial) interests. I can entirely understand why Yglesias would object to these restraints on democracy – both for reasons of policy and reasons of principle. But there are trade-offs in everything, and the generally-agreed tradeoff here is that proportional rep gives you more fragmented and/or more extreme parties, neither being something most people looking to design a political system want.

UPDATE: It’s worth noting, for what it’s worth, that Avigdor Lieberman strongly favors Israel moving to more of a Presidential system (a Franco-Russian style constitution) from the existing pure parliamentary model. I have no idea if that supports Yglesias’s point or not, but it’s a fact.