Don't get me wrong, I think New Zealand's political system is about as good as you could hope for. I'm very happy to be living in a 'liberal democracy'. But it's the first of those two words that's the important one. Democracy is only valuable to the extent that it tends to produce and preserve a liberal society. Call me 'elitist', but there's nothing intrinsically virtuous about majority verdicts. I'd much prefer a wise and benevolent dictator (were such a creature ever to exist) to ignorant mob-rule.
Maverick Philosopher has an excellent post on the principle of 'one man, one vote'. In an ideal system, the opinions of those who are more intelligent and well-informed would count for more than those who haven't got a clue.
The problem, however, is that there is no obvious criterion that one could employ to segregate those who are worthy of voting from those who are not. [...] Once we exclude educational credentials, sex, race, property-ownership, and age as criteria, what do we have left? Nothing that I can see apart from the standard criteria of voter eligibility. ‘One man, one vote’ though certainly a flawed principle, may be the best we can do.
Why not require would-be voters to pass a basic competency test before they vote? Or perhaps weigh their votes according to how well they do in it? It shouldn't contain anything overly difficult - just some basic questions to assess whether they actually understand each party's policies. Perhaps it could even include further questions about the likely effects of some of those policies (so long as the appropriate experts are in unanimous agreement over the facts - obviously this would be inappropriate for scientifically controversial issues!).
Of course, any such restrictions would run a huge risk of abuse (there's already accusations that Republicans are trying to disenfranchise black voters). But perhaps ways could be found to protect against this. For example, the test questions (and perhaps even the answers) should be openly available and accessible to everyone who wishes to see them. And the questions themselves might require approval from a non-partisan committee of experts in the appropriate fields. And so forth.
The point would not be to exclude anybody, but rather, to make sure that the voters are as well-informed as possible. It should be organised so that anyone who wants to ace the test can do so easily enough. But those who cannot be bothered to learn even the most basic facts about what is at stake, should have less influence in deciding the outcome of the election.
Successful democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. I think New Zealand isn't bad in that respect, fortunately for us. But most Americans, by contrast, are woefully ignorant:
When people are asked whether they favor Bush’s policy of repealing the estate tax, two-thirds say yes — even though the estate tax affects only the wealthiest one or two per cent of the population. Ninety-eight per cent of Americans do not leave estates large enough for the tax to kick in. But people have some notion — Bartels refers to it as “unenlightened self-interest” — that they will be better off if the tax is repealed. What is most remarkable about this opinion is that it is unconstrained by other beliefs. Repeal is supported by sixty-six per cent of people who believe that the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent decades, and that this is a bad thing. And it’s supported by sixty-eight per cent of people who say that the rich pay too little in taxes. Most Americans simply do not make a connection between tax policy and the over-all economic condition of the country.
Majikthise, commenting on the same article, argues that the average (American) voter simply lacks political beliefs entirely:
Maybe it's unfair to say that the average voter lacks political beliefs. Some will insist that the average voter has beliefs, just not the kind that are stable, well-supported by evidence, or mutually consistent. These are beliefs that flicker into existence when a pollster asks for an opinion but subside just as rapidly, leaving no behavioral residue. They shift shape depending on the phrasing of the question or the color of the interlocutors tie.
These ephemeral mental events wouldn't count as beliefs if their ostensible object were anything other than politics. Imagine a guy with a very tenuous conceptual grasp of weather-related issues. The weather just doesn't affect him in any predictable way. He's as likely to bundle up when it's cold as when it's hot. He's as likely to say that galoshes go with tank tops as with rain slickers. He opens his umbrella at random. When asked point blank, he will sometimes affirm that it is raining. Sometimes he's right. Every so often, he'll toss off phrases like "It's not the heat, it's the humidity," but he looks at you blankly if you ask him what he means. We would hesitate to say that this guy has any beliefs about weather at all.
Brian Leiter has an extremely disturbing post exposing the nascent fascism in Bush's America. There's something seriously wrong with American democracy at the moment. But perhaps it should come as no surprise that incompetent voters would elect incompetent leaders.
Whether anything can be done about this situation, I'm not sure. The 'competency test' approach I've advocated here is probably hopelessly idealistic, impractical, and perhaps downright dangerous. Maybe all we can do is weather the storm and hope for the best.
P.S. Can anyone explain why it is that the winning candidate in a state is awarded all of the votes? That doesn't make the slightest bit of sense to me.
Update: The Lazy Logician also suggests we test voters (though some of his details differ from my proposal), which White Poet Warlord then picks up on and discusses in more detail. See also E.G., and my sequel post (in response to comments): Civil Freedom vs. Political Power