Sarah Fine’s democratic argument against the right to exclude


According to political philosopher Sarah Fine (see also here), restrictions on international migration are difficult to justify on democratic grounds. Her argument, as I understand it, goes something like this.

1. To exclude a person from immigrating is to govern them.
2. Excluded migrants do not have a say over the policies that exclude them.
3. Excluded migrants are governed without having a say in how they are governed. (from 1 & 2)
4. Government authority is legitimate only when it is exercised over people who have a say in how they are governed.
5. Governments may not legitimately exercise their authority to exclude migrants. (from 3 & 4)

While I share Fine’s skepticism about the right of states to exclude migrants, I worry that this argument has the seemingly perverse consequence of justifying internal restrictions on migration even as it rules out restrictions on international migration. Why? Consider this alternative formulation.

6. A government is legitimate if and only if the people over whom that government exercises authority have a say in how they are governed.
7. Exclusion involves governing the excluded.
8. A government must either (option A) give the excluded a say in the policies that result in their exclusion or (option B) it must stop excluding people. (from 6 & 7)
9. Option A is impractical with respect to international migrants.
10. Therefore governments must adopt Option B with respect to international migrants. (from 8 & 9)

A problem with this argument, as I see it, is that option A is not impractical with respect to internal migrants. Canada, for example, is a democracy. If Canada were to adopt internal migration controls, then, people who wish to move about within Canada would have a say in the policies that restrict their ability to do so. This means that imposing internal migration controls would count as a legitimate use of government authority, by the criterion spelled out in premise 6. As it happens, internal migration controls are forbidden by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Fine’s view implies that this is purely a matter of constitutional law, not moral right or political justice—there are no normative grounds for including mobility rights in the Charter, or for states that are not bound by any similar documents to respect internal mobility rights. I find this difficult to believe.

One might object that Fine is not assuming a criterion of legitimacy anywhere near as weak as the one in premise 6. No one who embraces liberal democracy would accept the people having a say as a sufficient condition of legitimacy. And if having a say is not a sufficient condition for legitimacy, then the permissibility of internal migration controls would no longer follow from the fact that the people on whom those controls are imposed have a say in how they are governed.

But it seems to me that the ostensible advantage of Fine’s democratic argument is precisely that it yields a strong conclusion (states may not exclude migrants) with an especially weak assumption about the constraints governments must operate within. By comparison, other arguments for open borders (or at least a presumption against the right to exclude) must depend on much stronger and hence more controversial claims about human rights, the nature of justice, the conditions of legitimacy, and the relative moral standing of “insiders” and “outsiders”, whereas Fine’s argument, if successful, would command the assent of anyone who accepts a basic precept of democracy—whatever else they may disagree about.

If Fine’s criterion of legitimacy is interpreted merely as a necessary but not sufficient condition of legitimacy, however, her argument loses this advantage. As soon as it’s suggested that internal migration controls might be permissible on democratic grounds, Fine could add that the right to move about freely within the borders of a country where one has a say in how they are governed is a further necessary condition for legitimacy. But this would make her democratic argument dependent on stronger and hence more controversial claims about humans rights, etc. after all.

Separately, I wonder how plausible it is that giving people a say is even a necessary condition. While there is certainly some relationship between the status of being governed by a given entity and the right to a say in how one is governed by that entity, it’s not clear to me that the latter always follows from the former. I think permanent residents and even temporary workers ought to have the ability to vote in at least some elections, but it’s hard to believe this is true of tourists—even though tourists are also being governed. If tourists don’t have the right to a say, then being governed is not a sufficient condition for having a right to a say, and giving all of the governed a say is not a necessary condition for legitimacy, so Fine’s argument would fail.

A saving move might be to say that although giving the governed a say is necessary for legitimacy, the governed may have their say indirectly, through their own governments and those governments’ participation in processes and institutions of international governance. This might salvage the plausibility of the claim that giving people a say is a necessary condition for legitimacy, but it’s not at all clear to me how it would, on its own, establish a general presumption against the right to exclude. Migrants from countries that satisfy a minimum standard of democracy would have their indirect say in how they’re governed by the destination country, and so it would be permissible to exclude them or deny them voting rights during their stay. On the other hand, migrants from non-democracies could not be excluded, and would have to be granted voting rights during their stay. Although this conclusion has some appeal, especially if we believe that the global migration regime ought to be ordered to prioritize the interests of the poor and oppressed, it does not amount to a prescription for open borders.


Extremism is a red herring in the electoral reform debate

Self-operating_napkin_(Rube_Goldberg_cartoon_with_caption)There’s a simpler way to do things

A common argument from opponents of proportional representation (the principle that a party’s share of the seats in the legislature should be the same as its share of the popular vote) is that any form of PR will make it easier for parties with dangerous extremist views to get representatives elected. Partly because of such concerns, no form of PR being considered in BC will award compensatory seats to any party that receives less than 5% of the popular vote.

Nevertheless, some critics feel that there’s a high enough chance of 5% of BC voters voting for an actual Nazi party that we had better stick with our current non-proportional system. This amounts to the claim that the probability of an actual Nazi party acquiring political power in BC is sufficiently high that rigging the entire electoral system specifically to keep Nazis out of the legislature—regardless of the collateral damage—is a prudent, measured, proportionate response.

Well, it’s not. In fact the whole extremism issue is a red herring.

Let’s assume the following:

1. All things being equal, PR tends to make it easier for extremists to get elected.
2. More than 5% of the electorate would cast ballots for a hypothetical Nazi party in the event that BC adopts a system of PR with compensatory seats.
3. A liberal democratic society is under no moral obligation to tolerate, let alone empower organizations that pose a credible threat to its liberal democratic character.

This last assumption implies that it is morally permissible for a liberal democracy to use legal means to exclude Nazis from the political process, while the first two suggest that it would be prudent to do so.

Even with these assumptions, however, the conclusion that preserving our non-proportional electoral system is the best way to fight the extremist threat doesn’t follow. To reach this conclusion, supporters of FPTP must go further than suggesting an effective response to the risk of Nazis in the legislature; they must provide grounds for rejecting alternatives. And there’s at least one far simpler way to keep Nazis out of the legislature: ban Nazi parties from contesting elections. This solution is compatible with any kind of electoral system, including all forms of PR. And because extremists can be excluded from electoral politics at least as effectively and simply under PR as they are under FPTP, concerns about extremists in electoral politics are irrelevant to the debate over PR as such.

What grounds might supporters of FPTP give for rejecting this solution? One objection might be that the definition of what constitutes a Nazi party would either be too narrow to provide effective protection against genuine Nazi parties or so broad that it might result in some non-Nazi parties being banned as well. Whatever the merits of this objection, however, it’s not available to those who support FPTP as a means of keeping extremists out of the legislature; they already treat excluding non-Nazi parties as an unintended but acceptable consequence of their preferred mechanism for excluding Nazi parties. If unintentionally excluding non-Nazis is OK for FPTP just as long as it successfully excludes Nazis, then it should also be OK in the context of PR. And if unintentionally excluding non-Nazis is not OK, even if it is strictly necessary in order to effectively exclude Nazis, then arguments for FPTP based on the current system’s success in excluding Nazis must fail.

So much for that objection. Are there other objections with greater merit? If so, opponents of PR need to make those objections clear. If they really believe the stakes are as high as they claim, one would think they’d need no encouragement to do so.

Time to rethink the route to a basic income

Last week week, Ontario’s new social services minister announced that she will soon end the basic income pilot project launched by the previous Liberal government. This setback for the basic income movement follows Finland’s decision earlier this year to effectively abandon its admittedly questionable experiment as well. Other pilot projects are still on the drawing board elsewhere, but it will be several years before any of them are completed. And that’s assuming that these experiments will be allowed to run their course—an assumption which these recent setbacks call into question. The movement seems to be back to square one, and this strikes me as a good time to rethink its overall strategy.

I understand the movement’s strategy so far to envision the following sequence of events. First, activists raise awareness of basic income. Raising awareness leads to support for pilot projects. Pilot projects are carried through to completion and validate basic income advocates’ empirical claims, building further support for the idea. Eventually, growing support leads to full blown implementation of a basic income program.

However, this is not the only possible sequence leading to a basic income. An alternative route would be to build towards a basic income gradually through incremental reform of existing income support programs (for example, through implementation of the Dogwood Benefit proposed by BC’s recently concluded MSP Task Force, or the federal tax credit reforms Kevin Milligan discusses here). This approach would take time, but so would running through the sequence that advocates envision currently—especially given that basic income seems to hit a brick wall at the second stage of the sequence.

Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 7.42.47 PMScreen Shot 2018-08-06 at 7.45.37 PM.png

From the Final Report of the MSP Task Force, pages 16-17

The incremental reform approach has a number of advantages. First, a modest increase in income supports would deliver significant benefits to a very large number of people—not just those who are currently receiving support payments, but those who are at risk of needing support in the future. A pilot project delivers larger benefits, but it delivers those benefits to a vanishingly small number of people. Basic income supporters feel the moral urgency of alleviating poverty; this is reason enough for them to prefer a sequence where, in the early stages, small benefits are given to very many people rather than large benefits to very few people.

A second, related advantage is that such incremental reform creates a very large political constituency that is invested in the program’s continuation, making its survival much more likely. Proponents of the truly universal variety of basic income guarantee are sensitive to this consideration; it’s one of the reasons they support a payout for every citizen and not just those in need. But the pilot project-focused approach is at odds with this reasoning; it makes it so that before a universal basic income can be implemented, a very narrowly (and arbitrarily) targeted basic income must be implemented first, in the form of a pilot project. If any kind of targeted basic income is politically vulnerable, then we should predict that pilot projects would be the most vulnerable of all. And Finland and Ontario have proven this prediction accurate.

Third, the incremental approach makes it easier—as a matter of logical necessity—to attract support for each stage of the sequence. The number of people willing to increase the maximum size of some benefit by, say, $100 a month is inevitably larger than the number who are willing to increase it by $1000, because the former group includes the latter. Moreover, once people have seen that there are attractive consequences (both moral and pragmatic) to a small increase, it should be relatively easy to convince many of them that a further small increase would also have attractive consequences. At every leg of the journey towards a full blown basic income, the number of people who can be convinced to make a small increase to benefit payments will be larger than the number who can be convinced to make a very large sudden increase.

Finally, incremental reform seems more likely to sustain the enthusiasm of basic income activists over the long term—and if basic income can be achieved at all, it can only be achieved over the long term. Most people drawn to activism need occasional victories to sustain the sense that their efforts matter. I’ve argued here that victories are much easier to achieve and sustain if the incremental reform approach is pursued, whereas the available evidence indicates that the pilot project-focused approach faces barriers that seem insurmountable. At first, incrementalism may not seem as exciting as the prospect of a single sudden, radical change. But over time, the realistic prospect of actual change tends to outshine the dimmer prospects of something more dramatic.

Previous posts on basic income

A brief response to Daniel Zamora on basic income
Responses to concerns from the left about basic income
Some remarks on basic income and social democracy
Basic income sticker shock

No, the lieutenant governor can’t stop bad laws


Some opponents of Ontario’s new government have apparently launched a deeply misguided campaign to get Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, involved in blocking the Ford government’s atrocious local government bill. Visitors to will find instructions for contacting the viceroy, as well as a form letter urging Dowdeswell not to give royal assent to the bill.

This campaign has absolutely no chance of success, because the lieutenant governor truly does not have the constitutional authority to withhold royal assent from a bill that has been passed by Ontario’s legislative assembly. Nor does she have the constitutional authority to dissolve the provincial parliament at her sole discretion, or dismiss a government that enjoys the confidence of the provincial parliament. It doesn’t matter that she has these powers “on paper”, because the rules of our constitution are for the most part not on paper. And even if she were to overstep her constitutional authority and withhold royal assent, the administrator of the government could just take over and do it instead. Make no mistake: there is absolutely nothing that the lieutenant governor can do in this situation. She is not a part of the political process; her role is to sustain the constitutional system through which the political process occurs.

Ford is a terrible premier and his government is going to pass a lot of terrible laws. This doesn’t change the fact that writing to the lieutenant governor and asking her to get involved is a complete waste of time, and pining for the days when the unelected representatives of a hereditary monarch could play a decisive role in settling contentious political issues isn’t a good look.

On learning all the wrong lessons from Denmark

BC’s great debate on proportional representation continues, and opponents are ramping up their attacks as the vote draws closer. In the latest fearsome salvo from the No side, John Hansen warns that if we adopt PR, there is a very real danger that we may end up like… Denmark. Yes, Denmark.

Please remain calm.

Denmark. The very name of the place makes the blood run cold, doesn’t it?

Yes, Denmark may be one of the happiest countries in the world, score higher than Canada on the UN’s Human Development Index, take the third spot in the World Bank’s index on the ease of doing business (New Zealand, which also uses proportional representation, takes number one), have the lowest poverty rate in the OECD and unemployment below the OECD average, win top ranking in the Economist’s Democracy Index, be the least corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International (tied with New Zealand), and possess (according to the Heritage Foundation) “one of the world’s most attractive business environments … characterized by political, economic, and regulatory soundness.”

But on the other hand, Denmark does not allow parties that win only a minority of votes to be rewarded with a majority of seats.

I know this is hard to hear. But it’s important. Please, stop screaming just for a moment?

Thank you.

Governments in Denmark are often formed by coalitions of smaller parties. Unlike many other jurisdictions that use PR, even these coalitions are usually minority governments, forcing the parties in government to pay attention to the views of the opposition parties as well.

Deep breaths, my friend.

The worst part? Danish voters have several parties they can choose between with the expectation that their vote will actually end up mattering, as if there aren’t just two points of view worth considering on every issue. I know, I know—I haven’t heard anything so ridiculous since I met that lunatic who claimed that there are colours besides black and white.

The lesson is clear. Denmark may have a lot going for it, but the price… Recognizing diversity? Fostering freedom of choice? Encouraging collaboration? Ending minority rule?

Some prices are just too high for some of us to pay.

Mackie’s circular argument for error theory

In Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, J. L. Mackie argues against the existence of objective moral facts on the grounds that they would be “queer”—that is, the existence of moral facts would involve entities “of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe”. But on the next page, he acknowledges the importance of the realist objection that moral facts have “companions in guilt”. According to this objection, a wide range of other putative kinds of facts exhibit the same qualities that make moral facts seem to Mackie to be objectionably odd. Mackie’s response is to say that he thinks “most” of these other kinds of fact will turn out to be explainable through empirical means. Regarding the others, he thinks we should adopt the same error theoretic approach he recommends for moral facts:

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 5.36.43 PMfrom Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, page 39

This seems to me like a very damaging concession. Mackie’s original problem with moral facts was that they would be “utterly different from anything else in the universe”. But now he admits that they would actually be like some things (facts about identity, maybe, or modality), and unlike others. Everything in the universe is like some things and unlike others! So if moral facts have companions in guilt, then none of these kinds of facts would be “utterly different from anything else in the universe”, so none of them would be queer in Mackie’s sense. This means that the key premise in the argument from queerness depends on the assumption that the error theory is true with respect to various other kinds of facts. And Mackie cannot defend this assumption without the assumption that the error theory is true with respect to moral facts. So the argument from queerness is circular.

BC’s referendum rules allow for an informed, confident choice

In a recent column, former BC Liberal staffer Keivan Hirji issues three complaints against the process to be used in the upcoming referendum on electoral reform. In this post I will explain these charges, and show why all three should be rejected.

Hirji’s first complaint concerns an alleged false dichotomy in the referendum question. A false dichotomy occurs when two alternatives are presented as exhausting all possible options, but other options are in fact available. The false dichotomy in this case, Hirji claims, is between support for the status quo and support for all three forms of proportional representation on the second part of the ballot. One might prefer MMP to FPTP, for example, but prefer FPTP to DMP, and the structure of the ballot does not allow for the expression of this kind of preference.

But to say that the first part of the referendum ballot presents two alternatives as exhausting all possible options simply because there are only two options on that part of the ballot is like saying that an ordinary election ballot presents three or four alternatives as exhausting all possible options simply because there are only three or four names on the ballot. Unless they include a space for write-in candidates, all ballots exclude possible alternatives. No fallacy is committed because the options on the ballot do not purport to represent all possible alternatives.

Hirji’s second complaint is that two of the three forms of PR on the ballot (dual member proportional and rural-urban proportional) are not in use anywhere in the world. To adopt either of these two system would be to treat the province “as a guinea pig in electoral experimentation”.

In fact, only DMP is truly untested; RUP would use two well-tried electoral systems in different regions of the province. Moreover, the phrase “guinea pig” is obviously loaded—compare Hirji’s description of the province as a lab animal with Justice Louis Brandeis’s memorable description of the members of a federation as “laboratories of democracy”. Laboratories undertake important experimental work. But notoriously, guinea pigs often suffer and die in laboratory experiments. For Brandeis, citizens are like the scientists and technicians who make use of the laboratory to make important discoveries. For Hirji, citizens are like lab animals who are used in the laboratory. Hirji’s analogy is meant to lead readers to feel that if we try out a new electoral system, we too may suffer and die like the guinea pig. However, Hirji declines to elaborate on his anticipated failure modes of proportional representation in BC. How on earth would any of these systems lead to consequences sufficiently dire as to justify the lab animal analogy? Without elaboration, this part of Hirji’s argument is nothing more than a crude appeal to readers’ fear and can thus be dismissed altogether.

Finally, Hirji complains that voters in the referendum will be forced to choose between electoral systems without knowing what the boundaries of the new electoral districts would be. Hirji compares this to choosing between vehicles without knowing any of their specifications. Again, this analogy is highly misleading.

District boundaries change all the time. They will continue to change regardless of whether voters decide that our electoral system should respect the principle of proportionality. Anyone who votes to retain first past the post is doing so without knowing what the district boundaries will look like several years down the road. By the logic of Hirji’s vehicle analogy, this means that these voters will be making a completely blind choice; not knowing the exact boundaries that single member districts will have in the future means not knowing anything about how FPTP will work in practice. That’s utterly absurd. So something must be wrong with Hirji’s analogy.

One problem is that district boundaries are not comparable to the full set of specifications for a vehicle. In fact boundaries are impossible to evaluate without also knowing the district magnitude (i.e. the number of offices to be filled) and the electoral formula. Hirji’s analogy makes more sense if district boundaries are treated as comparable to a subset of a vehicle’s specifications—they’re important, but they’re not the whole story. And if district boundaries aren’t the whole story, then voters can draw some reasonable conclusions about what would happen in the future under FPTP (e.g. majority governments formed by single parties that lack majority support) and under various kinds of PR (e.g. majority governments formed by compromise between parties that collectively won a majority of votes). Contrary to Hirji’s claims, BC voters do not have to make a blind choice.

A further problem with Hirji’s argument is that in BC, like the rest of Canada, district boundaries are drawn up by an independent, nonpartisan boundaries commission. Commissioners are mandated to set boundaries that allow for effective representation given a particular electoral formula, striving to achieve roughly equal voting power for all citizens while also taking into account the various natural communities of interest that comprise the province. The integrity of this process is unquestionable. And BC will continue to use this process whether or not we decide to change our electoral system. Even though we can’t say in advance exactly what the district boundaries will be if we stick with FPTP, we can confidently say that the boundaries will allow for effective representation. And if this is true under FPTP, it’s also true under PR. So to return to the vehicle analogy, we may not know some of the relevant specs in advance, but we do know that they’re guaranteed to meet our standards whatever we happen to choose.

Democratizing political parties: Hazan and Rahat on candidate selection

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 5.01.59 AMHazan and Rahat’s proposal, from Democracy Within Parties: Candidate Selection Methods and their Political Consequences, page 174

In previous posts, I argued that parties ought to internally democratic, but grassroots members’ perennial demand for direct, authoritative control over party policy cannot be met. Direct election of party leaders has also been a failed experiment in democratization; in practice, direct elections seem to have concentrated power in the hands of an increasingly remote central leadership. So what can parties feasibly do to improve their internal democracy?

A more promising avenue for reform has been suggested by political scientists Reuven Hazan and Gideon Rahat in their book Democracy Within Parties: Candidate Selection Methods and their Political Consequences. Selection of candidates for public office is the essential function of political parties—the thing that really sets them apart from interest groups, think tanks, industrial associations, service clubs, and other organizations of civil society. Democratizing the process of candidate selection, then, seems like the natural place to start when thinking about democratizing political parties.

But what would democratizing candidate selection actually involve? The simplest approach would just involve open nominations, local control of nomination contests, and inclusive membership rules. However, Hazan and Rahat argue that this maximally inclusive approach can have a perverse effect on intraparty democracy.

Parties are largely volunteer-run organizations, and so need to provide non-monetary incentives to attract and retain committed long-term activists. Traditionally these incentives have included opportunities for positions of power and responsibility within the party, up to and including the prospect of being selected for candidacy. A maximally inclusive candidate selection process precludes such incentives, threatening to reduce parties to a small professional core of officeholders and staff surrounded by a largely ephemeral membership that tends to dissipate almost completely between elections.

Without some degree of exclusivity, then, parties cannot possibly be loci of sustained, high quality democratic participation, independent of both the state and the broader society in which they are embedded. Parties need to strike a balance between inclusivity and exclusivity. Hazan and Rahat argue that in the context of candidate selection, this balance would best be achieved by adapting the classical concept of mixed government (i.e. a regime that incorporates features of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, so that the particular virtues of each basic regime type compensates for or corrects the defects of the others) to the nomination process.

The process Hazan and Rahat envision consists of three stages, proceeding from the most exclusive to the most inclusive. At the first stage, a screening committee would create a longlist of prospective candidates. This committee would be composed of senior party figures including retired politicians and veteran activists who do not have a direct stake in nomination contest, randomly selected rank and file members, and perhaps representatives of organized internal party factions, affiliates, and stakeholder groups. The exclusivity of the screening committee together with its balanced composition improves the conditions for serious deliberation; however, Hazan and Rahat stress that the function of the screening committee is only to rule out those candidacies that would harm the party, not to fix the outcome of the race.

The longlist would then be submitted to a nominating agency composed of party delegates elected for the purpose of amending the screening committee’s recommendations. By giving a special opportunity for influence to active party members, this second stage preserves incentives for members to commit to activism on the party’s behalf, yet it is also reasonably inclusive given that delegates responsible for the shortlist must be selected by the general membership.

At the third, maximally inclusive stage, the nominating agency’s shortlist is submitted to the whole membership in the nominating district, who have the final say on who should receive the party’s nomination. This third stage preserves incentives for party membership, creates an opportunity for member recruitment to activist roles, and maintains the benefits of mass participation (such as democratic socialization, opportunities for non-citizens to exercise political influence, and providing a counterweight to more ideologically motivated activists).

Above all, Hazan and Rahat stress that the final stage of the nomination process should be the most inclusive. In Canadian political parties, however, the final stage is the most exclusive—the party leader, a selectorate of one, has an absolute veto over the local party’s choice. In a sense, then, Canadian parties already use a kind of mixed regime, albeit one in which the mix seems to have been arranged so as to emphasize the defects and suppress the virtues of each basic regime type. But the principle is familiar enough. We just need to apply it properly.

Contested terms and equivocation in the electoral reform debate


Here’s an argument you might have seen before:

1. According to campaigners for proportional representation, my vote doesn’t count if I cast a vote for a losing candidate.
2. But in the last election, my vote for a losing candidate was counted.
3. So campaigners for proportional representation are wrong; a vote for a losing candidate still counts.

And here’s another one:

1. “No taxation without representation” is widely accepted as a fundamental democratic principle.
2. My MLA does not represent my views.
3. So the status quo violates a widely accepted fundamental democratic principle.

Both of these arguments—one which you might have heard from supporters of first past the post, the other from supporters of proportional representation—are bad. They’re bad because they both commit the fallacy of equivocation.

The fallacy of equivocation is committed when the definition of a key term shifts over the course of the argument. In the first example, this is done with the term “count”. When “count” appears in the first premise, it’s used to mean something like “matter”. In the second premise, it just means that one’s vote was included in the numerical totals of votes cast. So the first argument can be restated as follows:

1. According to campaigners for proportional representation, my vote doesn’t matter if I cast a vote for a losing candidate.
2. But in the last election, my vote for a losing candidate was included in the numerical totals of votes cast.
3. So campaigners for proportional representation are wrong; a vote for a losing candidate still matters.

And this argument is obviously invalid; the second premise is a complete non sequitur and does not support the conclusion. The pro-PR campaigners cited in the first premise might be wrong that votes cast for losing candidates do not matter; the claim would have to be argued in any case. However, this argument does not provide good reason to believe that the pro-PR campaigners are wrong.

The second argument also commits the fallacy of equivocation, although perhaps in a less obvious way. The error is less obvious because political representation is a complex concept. On Hanna Pitkin’s highly influential account, for example, there are four basic views of political representation: formalistic, symbolic, descriptive and substantive. Descriptive representation requires resemblance between the representative and the represented (e.g. in terms of their political views), and this appears to the sense invoked in the second premise. However, it’s not clear that descriptive representation is the kind of representation demanded by the slogan “no taxation without representation”. In fact this slogan is often interpreted as a demand for formalistic or substantive rather than descriptive representation. So the argument can be restated as follows:

1. “No taxation without [formalistic or substantive] representation” is widely accepted as a fundamental democratic principle.
2. I do not have descriptive representation.
3. So the status quo violates a widely accepted fundamental democratic principle.

Again, once the ambiguity of a key term is resolved, the conclusion no longer follows from the premises. Of course, one might argue that “No taxation without [descriptive] representation” is a fundamental democratic principle. If one were prepared to do so, this argument could be made against the status quo:

1. No taxation without descriptive representation is a fundamental democratic principle.
2. I do not have descriptive representation.
3. So the status quo violates a fundamental democratic principle.

And this argument is logically valid. But the appeal of the original (fallacious) version of the argument is that it invokes a principle that practically everyone already endorses. The revised (valid) version lacks this virtue.

Fallacious arguments might convince someone, but they ought to convince no one. This is reason enough to avoid making them. But it’s not the only reason.

In this referendum, only one side can come out the winner. But ideally, both sides will come out of it feeling that the debate leading up to the vote itself involved a meaningful exploration of the political values at stake, thus conferring legitimacy on the result whatever it happens to be. Both of the examples of fallacious arguments in this post represent missed opportunities for this kind of exploration—in the first case, a missed opportunity for supporters of the status quo to explain what they believe makes votes matter, and in the second, for supporters of proportional representation to explain why it’s important to have representatives who reflect their views. It’s not every day that basic principles of our democracy are brought under this level of scrutiny. Let’s make the most of it.

Critical comments concerning Cullen’s contest

Last week, Nathan Cullen announced a contest in which his constituents will compete to have their ideas for a new law turned into a private member’s bill and introduced in parliament during the fall sitting. Cullen envisions the contest as a means of fighting cynicism about politics by demonstrating that voters can have real influence over their MPs. However, if this is the aim, then the contest is a poorly conceived instrument by which to pursue it.

As it happens, voters are already entitled to send MPs their ideas for laws. And obviously MPs should, as a matter of course, turn great ideas into private member’s bills—at least insofar as a reasonable ordering of priorities allows (after all, MPs have other responsibilities). This is supposed to be standard operating procedure for representative democracy, not a radical departure from it.

Although Cullen describes the contest as a unique demonstration of trust in voters, there is already plenty of trust to go around. We trust the public to select good representatives, and part of what makes a good representative is being judiciously responsive to the public between elections. This means we also trust the public to form and communicate views and preferences that tend to be worthy of response.

Ordinarily, Cullen would act as gatekeeper, deciding whether or not an idea from his constituents is, all things considered, worth turning into a private member’s bill. This contest does not do away with the gatekeeper; it merely replaces an elected and accountable gatekeeper with “a volunteer panel of local business, faith, cultural and ethnic leaders”. What makes this contest remarkable, then, is not the trust it puts in voters but rather the mistrust it puts in representatives.

By portraying the opportunity for “real influence” as an exceptional event, Cullen encourages the perception that under ordinary conditions, voters have no real influence. And by removing himself from the process of evaluating the public’s suggestions for new laws and calling this “real influence”, Cullen encourages the perception that MPs are obstacles to—rather than facilitators of—democratic engagement. All this should be expected to feed voters’ cynicism rather than fight it.