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November 28, 2011 / theslowblitz

One Man, One Vote

In a democracy ‘one man, one vote’ is heralded. When I debated the right of the state to suspend labour uniouns in time of economic crises, I made the argument that no one should have more political power than another. Yet, when I left the heat of the debate, I realised that whatever might be claimed, equality in political power is not the case.

Hence I started exploring the ideas behind ‘one man, one vote’. Why is it in the first place that we have this preference, so much so that the Irish Catholics used it as a slogan in protesting for equal rights in Protestant-dominated Ireland? I began with the principle often claimed by Western democracies – liberty. Societal laws being by their nature an invasion upon liberty, yet entirely necessary for society to function smoothly, I thought the reasonable compromise between liberty and societal function was to allow each man an equal claim to another’s liberty.

When one party has more political power than another, there is oppression. Regardless people’s conceptions of their own morality, they will always consider their own interests above others. This is for three reasons. Firstly, the experiences that are used to gague the state are their own, or the experiences of people around them, who are like themselves.

Secondly, reason tends to be amenable to personal considerations; the rich would consider a fair society one where men are rewarded for their efforts, while the poor would consider a fair society one where men had equal stake, with neither party having the greater claim to the abstact good of ‘fairness’.

Thirdly, the claim may be made that it is morally right for those in power to fight tooth and nail for the preservation of their power; in a world where others’ views differ from your own, losing political power would result in the reversal your policies, policies which you enacted based on what you believed and probably still believe are morally right.

By giving every man equal political power, these infringements are reduced in degree: instead of being oppressed by your greater power, we agree as equals to sacrifice a portion of our liberties for our common good. As I would protest more strongly against a policy that infringes more strongly upon my liberty, policies that infringe less upon a population as a whole would be favoured, defending liberty. Freely choosing to surrender a portion of my liberty is also in greater agreement with the implication of choice in liberty.

The question must then be raised: Why is liberty important? Having been born and raised in Singapore, where liberty is not as highly valued, I find myself having difficulties answering this question. From a practical point of view, it is probably the case that the less my liberty is infringed upon, the less I would contest the government. For the sake of social stability then, the preservation of liberty is important.

Another argument in defense of equal political power is that it makes decisions less contestable. Whatever is agreed upon is agreed upon by the majority; the Asch conformity experiments as well as personal experience show that people are compliant with majority decisions, which again leads to social stability.

When decisions become contestable, there is cause for change, and when change is hindered by the political regime, violence inevitably results. Great disastisfaction with an unfair political process and the policies that result have led to the American Revolution, and The Troubles in Ireland and the civil conflict in Sri Lanka. Thus, to avoid the contesting of results, it is necessary to include each and every citizen, not giving more weight to any one group to avoid claims of unfairness.

Yet, is it fair to favour the majority over the political elite? Having greater contribution to the state on an individual level might be one claim to greater political power. It is an argument that the Romans seemed to have belived, and plutocracy seems to have served Rome well for several centuries. Then again, the schism between the Plebians and the Patricians have erupted in great violence on more then one occasion.

Arguments from fairness being difficult to resolve, I remain convinced that the disenfranchised, who have less to lose, are more apt to violence than the political elite, who ultimately gain the most from stability. At least from a practical standpoint, I would find myself favouring an equal decision-making process.

In an ideal society then, each man would have one vote, and no more political power than that granted to him by his vote. In reality however, some people will always have more political power than others, by the nature of their position. Those who control capital and labour will always have more bargaining power than those whose resources are minimal. Those who group together will always find their word more meaningful than those who stand alone.

It is not possible to simply ban these distorting forces; in a healthy economy for example, wealth flows to the most hardworking and talented (albeit with a preference for those who are already wealthy). To mandate equal control of capital, as communism has done, would be to prevent an economy from functioning healthily, resulting in more suffering. Thus, in our current society, we allow political inequality to exist where it may not be avoided.

When equality in political power is unattainable, what might be the next best solution? Here, I could understand why the government of the United States allows lobbying groups, or why the Singaporean government promotes a three-way discussion between the state, corporations and unions. By allowing powerful political groups to inhibit each others’ strength, their ability to infringe upon the common man’s liberty is limited. 

The obvious flaw with this arrangement is that not all groups are made equal. Uncompetitive orange farmers in California have much more to lose when trade subsidies are lifted than consumers, who only suffer a slight increase in taxes. The former lobby hard to protect their jobs, while the latter hardly notice. Given that political inequality is inevitable, and that the decisions made in an unequal political environment are likely unfair, how is the government to determine the fairness of this and any other circumstance?

It is not easy to claim that, through tariffs, we have infringed upon the individual consumers more than the we have infringed upon the orange farmers, given that the orange farmers experience far greater suffering. I could argue one way or another, but what I decide would be a matter of my opinion and not society’s opinion, which weaken’s the democratic virtue of the decision.

However, such translation is inevitable. Decisions made in an arena with unequal distribution of political power tend to be oppressive; it is up to the executive to correct for inequality. Such corrections would tend to result in more accurate representations, and strong incentives to maintain the political status quo eliminate the possibility of moving too far the other way. The incentives to maintain the political status quo are also strong however, even if this would result in more political instability in the long run. Here, I can see the seeds of an argument against democracy: a benevolent dictator would show more concern over the long run stability of his country, just as family corporations show less concern for short term profits, or so it may be said.

There are still many questions left to be answered: Why liberty? What happens when you allow a society to determine its own morality? Is democracy the best option after all? These among the many I have failed to realise. When I question the (probably naïve) conceptions I pose here, then a stronger conception might emerge. Until then, I am quite satisfied with what I have learnt of the society around me.


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