Anti-capitalism won’t solve our climate crisis

From the Usborne Book of the Future

In an op-ed published by the New York Times, Benjamin Y. Fong argues that anthropogenic climate change is ultimately caused by capitalism:

The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.

What is capitalism? In ordinary usage, “capitalism” denotes an economic system with private ownership and market exchange. As the above passage makes clear, however, for the purposes of Fong’s argument, capitalism is any economic system where decisions about production tend to be made on the basis of profitability. Thus, the term “capitalism” as used here encompasses market socialism as well as social democratic and laissez-faire varieties of capitalism. Fong’s concern is evidently the profit motive, not private ownership or alienated labour.

The power of the profit motive, Fong argues, is why it is pointless to pin our hopes for climate sanity on replacing the current crop of top decision makers with a smarter, more conscious breed of technocrat. Behind this delusion is the assumption that the members of the business elite are stupid, whereas in fact they are just responding rationally to the incentives that capitalism presents them with. As long as the incentive to pursue profit at the expense of sustainability remain, swapping out individual members of the elite won’t help at all.

So far, this seems at least roughly correct. But Fong’s conclusion that the profit motive must not be allowed to guide business decisions depends on the assumption that the incentive to pursue profit must necessarily be the incentive to pursue profit at the expense of sustainability. This assumption is false. Unsustainable activities can be made unprofitable by pricing negative externalities where possible and filling in any gaps with regulations. Rather than suppressing the profit motive, we can harness it to promote desirable systemic goals — including sustainability. Of course, this is proving to be a tremendous political challenge. But Fong’s argument requires that bringing this strategy through to completion would be a greater political challenge than abolishing capitalism altogether, which is absurd.

What if we had a magic wand that could instantly abolish the profit motive, though? Would using it help us avert climate catastrophe? No. A sustainable economy is impossible without rational economic planning. Rational economic planning is impossible without economic accounting. And take it from Trotsky: “Economic accounting is unthinkable without market relations.” If we want to achieve a sustainable economy, abolishing the profit motive is worse than unnecessary and insufficient — it is counterproductive.


Proportionality, local representation and the Liberal leadership race

Four Prints of an Election, plate 2: Canvassing for Votes, engraved by Charles Grignion 1757, published 1758 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

In recent weeks, the upcoming referendum on electoral reform has become a central issue in the BC Liberal leadership race. Diane Watts, for example, has gone so far as to declare that defeating proportional representation — not winning the premiership — is her top political priority.

At first glance, this may seem odd. But uniquely among BC’s political parties, the Liberal coalition — the latest iteration of a longstanding alliance between federal Liberals and Conservatives united against the CCF and NDP — owes its very existence to the current plurality voting system. Under proportional representation, the members of this coalition would likely go their separate ways again, dividing into at least two independent parties analogous to the federal Liberals and Conservatives. And disrupting the well-established traditional form of cooperation between anti-NDP forces could threaten the practice of cooperation against the NDP; there would be no guarantee against the newly independent parties seeking new alliances with the Greens or NDP. So while the current electoral system has allowed the anti-NDP coalition to survive the destruction of individual parties, reform of that system threatens the survival of the coalition itself.

Considering the threat that electoral reform poses, then, it is not surprising that candidates for the Liberal leadership have come out against it so strongly. However, the general public is unlikely to care about existential threats to this or that political organization. They are more likely to care about the quality of representation. For this reason, Liberals make their public case against proportional representation on the grounds that it ostensibly threatens the quality of representation.

An interview with leadership candidate Andrew Wilkinson, published by the Alaska Highway News, provides an example of this kind of argument. Unfortunately, it is evident from Wilkinson’s remarks that he is either a careless speaker or he is badly misinformed about the electoral systems he’s opposing. This makes him an ineffective advocate for the status quo and a poor choice to defend the Liberal coalition.

“[Proportional representation] will mean a dramatic reduction in representation if the NDP and Greens are successful in pushing it through,” Wilkinson said.

“The most likely model for proportional representation will be for much larger ridings with multiple members. If you take the population in Northeast B.C., you’re talking about one riding essentially for all of Northeast B.C, and that would involve voting for multiple members and then other members being selected from party lists.

“So, the local representation is almost entirely lost for the Peace Country,” he said.

Wilkinson seems to be conflating two different systems of proportional representation: single transferable vote (STV) and mixed member proportional (MMP). Under STV, all single-member districts are replaced with larger multi-member districts; seats are filled by preferential ballot according to a formula that generates roughly proportional outcomes in each district. There is no separate class of members elected from party lists. MMP, on the other hand, retains single-member districts where seats are filled by plurality — the candidate with the most votes wins. Proportionality is achieved by topping up party standings with seats in large multi-member districts.

Even if Wilkinson is confused about the particulars of these systems, he might have a point about local representation suffering under alternative systems. In practice, representatives elected under STV tend to carve up districts among themselves and focus on one locality or other, meaning that constituents will still get the local representation they’re used to under FPTP even if the MLA is not formally linked with their community in the familiar way. Still, perhaps there are advantages to retaining that formal link. This question merits further examination; in the meantime, Wilkinson’s conclusions are too hasty even if the underlying concern is valid.

What about MMP? In my view, this is more likely to be the system put to voters in the referendum, and it is completely benign from the point of view of local representation. The only reason local representation would suffer is if the single-member districts were increased in size so that the total number of seats in the legislature can remain the same as it is now after the party list seats are added. This problem is not unique to MMP; local representation would suffer in exactly the same way if the size of single-member increased under FPTP. The problem isn’t proportionality, it’s the size of single-member districts. If we are prepared to accept an increase in the size of the legislature, the single-member districts can remain exactly the same size as they are now. So if Wilkinson’s concern is local representation, he should be advocating for keeping single-member districts the same size they are now whether or not proportional representation is adopted. If he also wants to argue against proportional representation, he will need to find a different argument.

Why should political parties be democratic?

Members of cabinet join hundreds of delegates to hear Bowinn Ma address the BC NDP’s 2017 convention

Some writers have argued that political parties only need to be democratic to the extent that internal democracy is necessary to promote democracy at the level of the state; they further contend that because there is in principle no reason why democracy in the state cannot best be promoted by oligarchical or even dictatorial party structures, the idea that intraparty democracy can help reinvigorate the public political culture is misguided if not counterproductive.

There are reasons to think that both of these propositions are false, a handful of which I summarize here.

1. Democracy is intrinsically valuable. If democracy is intrinsically valuable, there should be a defeasible presumption in favour of democratic organization, capable of being overridden by competing values. Critics of intraparty democracy must establish that the defeaters for this presumption actually obtain; it is not enough for them to show that intraparty democracy’s benefits for the overall political system have been overstated.

2. Democracy in political parties contributes to democratic enculturation, especially among young people and among immigrants for whom political parties may be their first encounter with political participation in Canada.

3. Democracy in political parties supports a democratic political culture by expressing a commitment to democratic and egalitarian values. This is part of the reason why, in Germany, parties are forbidden by law to organize themselves according to anything like the Führerprinzip.

4. Democracy in political parties encourages the articulation of distinct political values that are present among members of the general public, but which the general public does not have the time or inclination to advance in the political world.

5. Democracy in political parties helps ensure that party elites remain true to the purposes for which the party has been found, reducing the likelihood of capture by an excessively self-interested clique.

6. Democracy in political parties encourages member participation. Member participation reduces parties’ dependency on paid labour. And reducing parties’ dependency on paid labour makes parties less susceptible to the influence of large donors.

What, then, are some of the reasons not to practice democracy in political parties? Arguments tend to cite two main factors: damage to the quality of political representation, and the excessive costs in time, money and labour required by democratic processes.

The mechanism by which intraparty democracy may damage the quality of representation should be familiar. The subset of the population that belongs to political parties is not representative of the population from which they are drawn. To the extent that a party’s elected officeholders are beholden to the authority of the party membership, they will be less able to respond to the influence of those whom they represent.

The potential for this conflict of interests is real, and it imposes constraints on the structure and legitimate scope of intraparty democracy; the legitimacy of intraparty democracy itself depends in part on its ability to resolve the conflict. Parties cannot simply reproduce the institutions of municipal, provincial or national democracy to yield a maximally democratic outcome. Whatever the justification for intraparty democracy, we cannot assume that the institutions of intraparty democracy will bear much resemblance to the institutions of state democracy.

Concerns regarding the costs of democratic process are also well-founded; if democracy proves to be too sluggish, too wasteful, and too burdensome, people are bound to lose confidence in its superiority over the alternatives. Of course, this is true of democracy in any context, including municipal, provincial and national politics, not just the governance of political parties. It imposes constraints on the design of intraparty democracy, but it does not discredit the practice of intraparty democracy as such.

So. A defensible model of intraparty democracy must depend for its justification — and for its principles of design — on rationales other than a fallacious equivalency between the democratic nature of the whole state with the democratic nature of its constituent parts; it must resolve — or at least ameliorate — problematic tensions between member control and responsiveness to the public; and it must not come with excessive costs in time, money and labour. We can now say in a bit more detail what the shape of intraparty democracy should be. This will be the subject of a future post.

Response to Evan Solomon on Singh and the House of Commons

Jagmeet Singh addressing supporters in Vancouver a month after his leadership win

At Maclean’s, Evan Solomon has a column criticizing Jagmeet Singh for his decision not to run for Parliament until the next scheduled general election. Solomon argues that the decision is likely not in Singh’s or the NDP’s best interest, and may even be against the best interests of Canadian democracy itself. This argument is not, in my view, particularly successful, and Solomon’s hyperbolic conclusions about “fundamental contempt for Parliament” are unwarranted.

Solomon introduces his critique by clarifying his view of what is at stake in the decision not to run until 2019. According to Solomon, two years without a seat means “two years without holding the Prime Minister to account in question period”, and “without personally working on key legislation like the legalization of pot, the budget, [and] sending Canadian troops into harm’s way”.

This passage should already give readers pause. The budget and the marijuana bill are government bills; the leader of the NDP would not personally work on those bills regardless of whether he has a seat in the Commons. Decisions on “sending Canadian troops into harm’s way” do not normally involve opposition MPs either; those decisions rest with the government, not Parliament. With those concerns laid to rest, we’re left with worries about “two years without holding the Prime Minister to account in question period”. But if the implication is that the Prime Minister will not be held to account in question period for two years, that is clearly false. The NDP has many experienced MPs in Ottawa who are capable of holding the Prime Minister to account in question period. So Solomon must mean merely that Jagmeet Singh will not personally hold the Prime Minister to account in question period. Perhaps that is less than ideal. But it is not clear to me that it ought to “elicit gasps”, as Solomon apparently thinks it should. On balance, given the circumstances, it may even be wise.

Some commentators, Solomon points out, have concluded from Thomas Mulcair’s failure in the last election to consolidate the NDP’s gains from 2011 that Parliament is a waste of time. He rightly notes that this is a weak conclusion. Yes, Mulcair was a strong performer in question period, and yes, he lost the election very badly. It does not follow that his performance in Parliament didn’t do him any good. There are other variables to consider; overall, Solomon suggests that Mulcair benefited from the time he spent in the Commons but was sunk by a poor campaign.

Solomon is less effective in responding to the argument that there is precedent for leaders enjoying electoral success without entering Parliament immediately. As some of Singh’s supporters point out, Alexa McDonough and Jack Layton were not elected to the House of Commons until eighteen months after winning the party leadership. Tommy Douglas waited nearly as long, although this was only partly voluntary — having been elected to the leadership in August 1961, he ran for but failed to win a seat in the June 1962 general election; he would eventually enter Parliament after winning a by-election in late October of that year). These precedents should give only cold comfort, Solomon argues. After all, none ending up anywhere near forming government. Even Layton, who came closest, took seven years to achieve his remarkable breakthrough — a breakthrough which, in any event, turned out to be ephemeral.

I think this response is based on an uncharitable interpretation of what precedent is meant to show. As I read it, precedent is cited merely to show that it is neither necessary nor sufficient for a leader to enter Parliament immediately to enjoy electoral success; after all, there have been relatively successful leaders who did not already have a seat (or immediately go on to get one), and unsuccessful leaders who did already have a seat (or immediately went on to get one). Not having a seat is not an insuperable liability, and under certain circumstances, not being tied to a seat may be an advantage. Solomon, however, seems to be interpreting the argument to mean that not having a seat is some kind of silver bullet. His point that Layton struggled to achieve any significant gains for his party is effective against the latter interpretation but not the former — unless he can show that Layton and the rest would have struggled less or won bigger if they had entered Parliament without delay. Because he makes no attempt to do this, his argument can be dismissed.

Solomon then addresses a supposed parallel between Singh and Trudeau. After becoming the leader of the Liberal Party, Trudeau’s attendance record in the House suffered as he prioritized profile- and party-building activities outside Ottawa, yet he secured a decisive victory in 2015 and record high approval ratings. But this parallel quickly breaks down, Solomon argues, because Trudeau had already proven himself by winning a seat in Parliament; this “showed he was ready to fight to win his own place in politics.” Does this really set Trudeau apart from Singh, though? The implication that Singh has not demonstrated that he’s ready to fight to win his own place in politics is frankly laughable given his background in provincial politics.

As the column wraps up, things get a little weird. Solomon quotes pollster Frank Graves noting “the profound difference between choosing not to spend more time in the House and not being in the House because you aren’t a member.” The latter, we’re supposed to believe, is much worse. But a few paragraphs later, Solomon warns that Singh is opening himself to the kind of attack Layton levelled against Michael Ignatieff in 2011: “You know, most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.” It was a good line, but Solomon is surely overreaching when he suggests that it was a killing blow for Ignatieff’s career. More seriously, however, he seems to be contradicting the point that the quote from Graves was meant to support. The problem that Layton was calling attention to in the 2011 debate was Ignatieff’s failure to show up in the House of Commons, given that he was a member of that House. Had Ignatieff not been a member of the House of Commons, he could hardly have been criticized for not attending. When he’s quoting Graves, Solomon thinks it’s basically OK not to show up in the House as long as you’re an MP. But that’s exactly the behaviour that exposed Ignatieff to Layton’s attack, and Solomon also thinks that Ignatieff thereby committed political suicide. I’m not sure how to resolve this apparent contradiction in Solomon’s column.

Political promises and proportional representation

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 5.09.31 PMWhat have you got yourself into, Pippin?

Opponents of proportional representation sometimes argue that multiparty government (which is the norm under PR) leads to greater political cynicism and less accountability, because it encourages parties to make promises that they’re guaranteed not to be able to keep. The NDP’s compromise with the Greens on the minimum wage issue provides a good example of this dynamic (even though we have a single party minority government at the moment, not a multiparty coalition). The NDP needs the Greens to stay in power, and the Greens demanded that the NDP abandon its minimum wage commitment. This may leave people who voted for the NDP in part because of its minimum wage commitment wondering why they bothered.

There’s something to this criticism, but campaign promises get broken all the time under the current system. Sometimes breaking a promise may turn out to be the best course of action, all things considered (I think this is true of the minimum wage promise, and I blame the Greens), and sometimes this is because the promise never should have been made in the first place.

In fact, I’m skeptical about the value of the kind of political promise at issue here. What’s distinctive about a promise is that it gives the promisor normally overriding reasons to perform the promised action, even if performance would seem to conflict with the dictates of prudence, custom, self-interest*, or most kinds of competing claims. If a promise did not normally override these other considerations, it would be redundant. So the kind of political promise at issue involves a party creating overriding reasons for itself to potentially violate the dictates of prudence, custom, self-interest, or most kinds of competing claims.

Put this way, it doesn’t seem like the practice of making political promises is something we should value, let alone design our institutions around. We want governing parties to make prudent decisions in keeping with custom and to impartially adjudicate competing legitimate claims, and insofar as parties meet this ideal, we want their interest to be promoted. Of course we also want to hold parties accountable. But parties needn’t be held accountable for promises. Rather, they can be held accountable for performance. Assessments of performance are sensitive to the contextual considerations that must be ignored in order to keep a promise. And it is not clear that that proportional representation makes this any more difficult than it is right now.

*The kind of self-interest I have in mind is legitimate self-interest, i.e. self-interest within the bounds of morality and justice. The pursuit of self-interest outside those bounds is always overridden by moral reasons, without the need for promises.

Response to Jean Swanson: What if taxing the rich isn’t enough?

bHFM2uKIllustration by Clifford Harper. Nothing to do with the topic except insofar as Harper’s vision also includes the eradication of poverty

Yesterday the Georgia Straight published an urgent call to action for the eradication of poverty penned by veteran activist (and recent city council candidate) Jean Swanson. As Swanson’s story of her experience with this year’s Welfare Food Challenge illustrates vividly, social assistance rates in BC remain totally inadequate; new provincial government’s recent $100 increase to the monthly rate came with an explicit acknowledgement that the province has a long way to go to meet its obligations to people living in poverty. To this end, the premier named a Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (Shane Simpson) with a mandate to develop a poverty reduction strategy for BC. The minister will be supported in this task by an advisory committee named last month.

Given this province’s dismal history of neglect and abuse of the poor, Swanson’s enthusiasm for these initial steps is understandably restrained. She writes:

I hope it’s using this committee to build support for actually ending poverty, not entrenching it or reducing it a little bit. I hope it’s not using the committee to stall on taking the obvious actions we desperately need. I hope it’s not going to be afraid to tax the rich to get some money to raise welfare rates and build thousands of units of social housing.  

It’s unlikely, however, that raising taxes on the rich alone would be sufficient to fund the eradication of poverty. Nor does raising taxes on the rich alone require much in the way of political courage. After all, the rich are, by definition, a small minority of the population. Taxing the rich is the easy part. The hard part — the part that does take political courage — is getting the non-poor, non-rich part of the province on board.

For present purposes, let’s call the non-poor, non-rich part of the province the “middle class.” To eradicate poverty, the middle class must pay higher taxes. This means that actually winning the middle class to the cause of poverty eradication necessarily means winning their support for higher taxes on the middle-class. How can this be achieved? I don’t have the whole answer — no one does. But I think I do have a few suggestions on how to move forward.

First, people’s willingness to pay taxes is partly related to their perception of others’ willingness to pay taxes. That is, people are more likely to pay if they think others are paying, and they’re more likely to cheat if they think others are cheating. This means that focusing public debate about tax policy on the fact that top earners are failing to pay their fair share may have the perverse consequence of making the middle class less willing to pay their fair share.

Can this problem be solved simply by raising taxes on the rich until they are paying their fair share, and then turning our attention to the taxes paid by the middle class? I’m not so sure. The judgment that the rich do not contribute their fair share is a comparative judgment. One of the relevant comparisons that goes into making this judgment is the comparison between the top and bottom of the economic ladder. A rich person’s position is regarded as obscene in comparison to a poor person’s — what seems so objectionable is that he has so much while she has so little. Unless poverty is eradicated, then, it is not clear how any feasible level of taxation on the rich could appear to satisfy the demands of fairness. And because higher taxes on the rich are not sufficient to eradicate poverty, we would never reach the point where it seemed fair to turn our attention to the taxes paid by the middle class.

This is certainly not to say that the public debate about tax policy should ignore the rich. As I’ve argued here before, we would have good reason to raise taxes on the rich even if these taxes wouldn’t bring much new revenue. But I do think talk about taxing the rich takes up a disproportionate amount of the debate, and this is likely to weaken support for the more broad based tax measures that are needed to fund the eradication of poverty. This has to change — we need to talk more about what (and how) the middle class ought to pay.

My second suggestion is emphasizing the broadly shared benefits of a social guarantee against poverty. In the postwar era, rich countries built up welfare state institutions with broad public support, such as universal healthcare systems that protected people from income shocks due to illness or injury. As the political scientist Kathleen Thelen has argued, today’s economy exposes people across the economic spectrum to greatly increased risk of income shocks due to downsizing, displacement and obsolescence. But for the most part, welfare states have not kept up with these new risks. For much the same reason that we built universal healthcare programs, now we need to build programs that collectively provide a universal guarantee against poverty. And just as universal healthcare attracted broad support on account of broad exposure to the risk of financial ruin due to illness or injury, so can a universal guarantee against poverty.

Finally, at the risk of sounding naïve, I think we need to put the moral dimension of poverty eradication centre stage. Moral reasons are, by definition, normally overriding reasons for action. So if an action is morally required, for a morally competent agent it does not count against that action that it may be difficult, painful, expensive, or otherwise unpleasant. This means that although it can be very difficult to convince someone that an action is morally required of them, once they have been convinced they can normally be counted on to follow through regardless of whatever preferences they may have (e.g. a preference for lower taxes). As a matter of fact, eradicating poverty is morally required. The strongest reasons that count in favour of eradicating poverty are moral reasons. Those of us who already support the eradication of poverty, then, should have no hesitation in making the moral case for the eradication of poverty.

UPDATE: Trish Garner of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition has written an excellent column that reaches some similar conclusions. In particular, Garner emphasizes the moral urgency of eradicating poverty, and connects poverty eradication with the logic of legacy welfare state institutions. Her column can be found here: Welfare Rates Should Be Set to Allow for Simple Dignity

Does religious neutrality imply scientific neutrality?

The controversy over Governor General Julie Payette’s remarks to the Canadian Science Policy conference continues! Today it was reported that Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall has sent a letter to Payette in which he accuses her of suggesting that “it is simply risible some Canadians would subscribe to a view of creation that is rooted in the divine.” He then urges her “to avoid denigrating or mocking the many adherents of faiths that believe in a Creator” during any future visit to Saskatchewan.

Wall’s letter zeroes in on the portion of Payette’s remarks where she expressed dismay at the level of ignorance about scientific accounts of the origin and development of life. As I argued in my last post, there is no inherent contradiction between belief in a divine creator and belief in the claims of any of the natural sciences. Thus it cannot be true that Payette mocked or denigrated religious Canadians as such simply by virtue of mocking or denigrating those who do not accept evolutionary science. But some Canadians’ religious beliefs do directly contradict evolutionary science. Did Payette fail to accord their views the kind of respect they are entitled to expect from representatives of the state?

It is reasonable to expect the state to maintain strict neutrality on specifically religious matters. However, it is not reasonable to expect the state to maintain strict neutrality on all matters with which religions may be concerned. For example, a religion may preach that witches are servants of a supremely evil entity, but the state’s duty of neutrality is not violated if it prohibits the stoning of witches. The freedom to kill goes beyond the limits of any reasonable conception of religious liberty. To show that the state has violated liberal norms of religious neutrality, then, it is not sufficient to show that this or that conflict between state and religion has been resolved in the state’s favour.

This should come as welcome news to Brad Wall, because if it were not the case, he would be implicated in a far more profound violation of those norms. After all, evolutionary science is part of the public school curriculum. It is also taught in publicly funded postsecondary institutions. Even if a student sincerely believes in Young Earth Creationism as a matter of religious faith, they can expect to receive a failing grade for giving Young Earth Creationist answers to evolutionary science questions. If religious neutrality is violated any time a conflict between state and religion is resolved in the state’s favour, then the government of Saskatchewan violates religious neutrality any time it permits evolutionary science to be taught in public schools.

The state’s duty to maintain neutrality on religious matters does not extend to maintaining neutrality on matters of public safety, human rights, or scientific fact. The claim that natural processes are not sufficient to explain the origin and development of life is a claim about scientific fact. The state and its representatives are not obligated to be neutral about the truth of scientific claims. Moreover, insofar as the state is responsible for encouraging scientific education, it is obligated not to be neutral about the truth of this claim. As it turns out, the claim is false. The state is thus obligated to treat the claim as false. Payette can be reasonably criticized for the tone in which she made this point. But she cannot be reasonably criticized for treating false scientific claims as she is obligated to treat them.

Payette spoke up for science, not scientism


In a column published in the Globe & Mail, David Mulroney accuses Governor-General Julie Payette of insulting Canadians — in particular, Canadians who profess some religious faith — by using her platform to preach scientism, “the notion that the only valid means of understanding anything and every is via science and the scientific method.” In support of this claim, Mulroney cites Payette’s remarks to the Canadian Science Policy Conference, in which she expressed dismay at the status of science in political life and in society at large. In particular, Payette singled out continuing political controversy over the reality of anthropogenic climate change, ignorance about scientific accounts of the origin and development of life, and widespread belief in non-evidence-based medical treatments that seem to be grounded in nothing more than wishful thinking.

To claim on the basis of these remarks that Payette “seems to be endorsing a form of what is commonly referred to as scientism” is overreaching. Because Payette does not explicitly endorse scientism in any form, this seeming must be based on inference. And as Mulroney immediately demonstrates, it is a very bad inference.

Mulroney notes right away that science may not answer the fundamental riddle of existence (“why there is something rather than nothing”). If this riddle has an answer, and it is not a scientific answer, then scientism is false. Moreover, Mulroney also argues that the application of scientism by states has led to moral disasters including totalitarianism and eugenics. Moral inquiry is non-scientific by nature; this means that if there are true answers as to what constitutes a moral disaster, then scientism is false. So far, so good.

But surely it is possible to believe that no informed person can doubt the reality of anthropogenic climate change, naturalistic accounts of the origin and development of life, or the inefficacy of snake oil, while also believing that there are such things as moral disasters or that there is a non-naturalistic ultimate explanation for the existence of the universe. In order to conclude that Payette endorses scientism, it must be impossible — or at least especially difficult — for her to endorse both sets of claims. But nothing in the first set of claims contradicts anything in the second. Nor is it at all clear that anything in the first set of claims makes anything in the second merely less likely to be true. So we cannot conclude on the basis of her remarks that Payette endorses any kind of scientism. To the extent that Mulroney’s complaint that Payette’s remarks insulted Canadians depends on the charge of scientism, then, his complaint should be dismissed.

Why proportionality matters

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 8.22.57 PM
Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg of the Moderate Party meets with representatives of her Labour and Green Party coalition partners in the Danish political drama Borgen

Supporters of proportional representation claim that first past the post is defective because it allows gross disproportionality between the popular vote and the distribution of seats in the legislature. As I discussed in my last post, defenders of FPTP may reply that under FPTP there is no such thing as the popular vote, because FPTP only allows for the tabulation of votes by candidate. What supporters of PR mean by “popular vote”, however, is just the share of all votes cast for candidates from each party. The existence of those numbers is undeniable. Of course those numbers are not tabulated for the purpose of determining winners, but that’s precisely why supporters of PR object to FPTP.

Defenders of FPTP may respond that the composition of the popular vote does not provide a straightforward accounting of people’s considered preferences. This is partly because many people are so-called strategic voters. But even the choices of “sincere” voters are shaped by the political environment of which the electoral system is a part. PR supporters assume that the popular vote is a closer approximation of people’s considered preferences than the resulting distribution of seats. But this assumption is unwarranted. Change in the electoral system is likely to cause change in the popular vote. And if the popular vote changes because the rules for translating votes into seats change, this suggests that the popular vote has no special claim to be the authentic expression of the people’s collective will. And if the popular vote lacks this special claim, then it is unclear why we should find disproportionality especially troubling.

In my view, this defence misconstrues the significance that supporters of PR attribute to the popular vote under FPTP. In order for the defence to work, PR supporters must be pointing to the discrepancy between the popular vote and the distribution of seats because they regard the popular vote as democratically authoritative; because the distribution of seats fails to reflect the democratically authoritative popular vote, the mechanism for translating seats into votes must be defective. But PR supporters are not committed to the view that the popular vote alone is democratically authoritative; they are only committed to the view that disproportionality is democratically defective. The challenge for the supporter of PR, then, is to supply grounds for thinking that disproportionality is a defect without attributing special democratic significance to the popular vote.

One possibility is that under any electoral system, both the popular vote and the resulting distribution of seats are democratically authoritative. If an electoral system does not take the popular vote into account in translating votes into seats, it fails to respect the popular vote’s equal democratic authority. FPTP is such an electoral system; thus, it is democratically defective, By definition, only a proportional electoral system can respect both expressions of authority. So if more democracy is better, all things being equal, then proportional representation is preferable to FPTP.

Another reason why disproportionality might be a defect is that it makes cooperation between voters much more difficult. This feature of FPTP is sometimes obscured by critics’ fondness for the argument that FPTP encourages strategic voting. The irony is that although FPTP may very well encourage strategic voting, it also makes “strategic voting” an almost useless strategy. Voters simply do not have sufficiently reliable information about each other’s intentions at the riding level (the only level that counts under FPTP) for strategic voting campaigns to work. However, voters do have sufficiently reliable information about each other’s intentions at regional, provincial or national levels for more limited kinds of strategic voting to succeed — provided that aggregate votes at the regional, provincial or national levels are electorally significant (as they are under PR). This means that under PR, people may vote strategically to ensure a breakthrough for a minor party, boost the standing of a preferred party’s prospective coalition partner, or block an especially disliked party from gaining ground. If the possibility of this kind of cooperation between voters translates into more popular self-government rather than less, then PR is again preferable to FPTP.

Finally, disproportionality might be a defect because it gives voters fewer choices. Defenders of FPTP have argued that this can be a virtue, because disproportionality encourages the formation of ideologically moderate and inclusive big-tent parties. But supporters of PR may respond that the need to form multiparty coalitions in order to win power under PR encourages ideologically moderate and inclusive governments, mitigating the advantage claimed by FPTP. If PR and FPTP both encourage moderate, inclusive coalitions (albeit by different mechanisms), then the fact that PR offers voters more choices can act as a tie-breaker.

At this point, FPTP’s defenders can ask why more voter choice is all that important if it just leads to the same kind of compromises we see in the big-tent parties under FPTP. One reason is that more voter choice means more, smaller political parties. Smaller political parties are likely to be more internally democratic. More internally democratic political parties operating under the discipline imposed by the necessity of interparty coalition-building create more opportunities for meaningful political participation. Increased opportunities for meaningful political participation will improve the quality of our democracy. So, if PR increases voter choice, PR is likely to improve the quality of our democracy.

So as it turns out, one can make a case for proportional representation without mistakenly assuming that the composition of the popular vote is unaffected by the electoral system or that the popular vote is a uniquely authentic expression of the will of the electorate. Concern for proportionality is justified as long as the popular vote has some normative significance. It is further supported by other considerations such as the value of a wider array of choices for voters and a better climate for informed decision-making. And although they are not conclusive, these reasons are at least sufficient to establish a presumption in favour of proportionality. It is therefore incumbent upon defenders of the status quo to provide equally compelling reasons to prefer a system that allows such extreme disproportionality as FPTP.

Why not proportional representation?


“Proportional representation” (PR) refers to a family of electoral systems for parliamentary elections that tend to result in each party receiving a share of seats that at least roughly matches the proportion of all votes cast for that party’s candidates. Proponents of PR tend to take it for granted that proportionality is a desirable goal, and point to the disproportionality of election results under the system currently used for provincial and federal elections in Canada (usually called “first past the post” or FPTP for short). Defenders of the status quo, on the other hand, tend to deny that there is anything objectionable about the lack of proportionality under FPTP.

Defences of FPTP against the charge of disproportionality can be divided into two types. According to the first type, disproportionality is a virtue of FPTP. On this view, disproportionality creates an incentive to build large, inclusive and ideologically moderate parties. Furthermore, the system’s tendency to result in single-party majority governments improves accountability, while its tendency to translate small swings in the party vote into large shifts in party standings makes it easier for voters to get rid of governing parties they don’t like.

The second type of defence — my focus in this post — is simply to deny the salience of disproportionality altogether. At its most extreme, this kind of argument denies that proportionality is conceptually coherent in the context of FPTP. A more moderate approach is to accept the concept of disproportionality but deny its relevance to the evaluation of FPTP.

An example of this second type of defence was recently provided by Brian Marlatt, a former candidate for the Progressive Canadian Party. Marlatt points out that general elections under FPTP take the form of a large number of local elections. Each of these local elections chooses a single winner according to a plurality formula (i.e. the candidate with the most votes wins); there is no separate national election in which votes are cast for parties. The share of the vote captured by each party nationally may provide an interesting piece of trivia, but there is no unfairness in disregarding numbers to which the system does not purport to assign any importance whatsoever.

A similar argument is given by political journalist Dale Smith in his book The Unbroken Machine. Smith argues that critics of FPTP simply do not understand how it works. If they did, they would see that there is no problem with disproportionality between parties’ shares of seats and votes. Under FPTP, elections are about the voters in a riding choosing one representative to send to the capital; they are not about the overall composition of the legislature. Pointing to the disproportionality of election results under FPTP only reveals critics’ ignorance.

One can argue that there is an inherent illogic in the way we look at proportional representation (PR) schemes. For one, it seeks to apply a result that doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation. In the case of a federal election, what is being voted on is who will represent each constituency in the House of Commons. No matter that people might feel they’re voting for the party, or the leader, or whatever other consideration they might have in mind, the ballot they are casting is for the representative in that seat in the House of Commons. Saying that seats need to be apportioned otherwise would indicate that the votes being cast were to determine the composition of the House of Commons in an overall cohesive manner rather than to determine its population of individual MPs. (p. 54)

The defences given by Marlatt and Smith are very puzzling; faced with criticism of FPTP, they simply reply that elections in Canada operate according to the principles of FPTP. This may be a compelling argument against the charge that FPTP fails on its own terms, by promising but not delivering proportional results. But is this the essence of the case for PR? Obviously not. By taking the desirability of proportionality for granted, advocates of PR sometimes seem to assume that FPTP shares the goal of proportionality and is just very bad at delivering it. But this is not an essential feature of the pro-PR position. The only thing that’s essential to the pro-PR position is the belief that representation ought to be proportional. And if a person thinks that representation ought to be proportional, there is no reason why learning that FPTP does not aim at proportionality should make them any more likely to support the status quo. For Marlatt and Smith’s arguments to work, they must provide reasons independent of the constitutive rules of FPTP why a good electoral system needn’t be proportional.

Instead of defending disproportionality directly, both Marlatt and Smith take aim at the measures needed to ensure proportionality. Both writers share the concern that PR systems give too much power to political parties, which are not directly accountable to voters, at the expense of individual politicians, which are. Moreover, PR may increase the centralization of power within parties. Smith worries that under a mixed-member proportional system (MMP, the kind of PR most often prescribed by Canadian reformers), party leaders will have a free hand in selecting people to fill the party list seats, weakening the power of the rank and file in the riding associations.

It’s true that an MMP system could be designed with these flaws. But as Smith makes clear in his own call for reform of the status quo, so can FPTP (an issue I discussed previously here). And these flaws are not essential to MMP; an MMP system could be designed to avoid them (by means of regional list nominations and open list voting, for example). In other words, Smith is comparing the worst possible implementation of MMP with the best possible implementation of FPTP. It should be little surprise — and of even less interest — if MMP comes up short in this kind of comparison. At most, these criticisms can only serve as a caution against viewing PR as a political panacea. They are not effective against the more reasonable view that that PR is simply likely to be an improvement.