Pitfalls of Proportional Representation Outweigh its Benefits

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Appeared in the Toronto Star, 15 November 2004
More than 1,500 written submissions to the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia have been published on the Internet. Most criticize the present, so- called plurality or first-past-the post system used to elect members of the legislative assembly.

This system gives the seat in the parliament to the candidate who has received the most votes in the riding.

The main criticism of the plurality system is that it has allowed governments to be formed by parties that have received much less than half of all the votes cast, mainly because the rest of the votes were split among competing parties.

The system polarizes politics, and right- and left-wing governments often succeed each other and disrupt the continuity of government programs.

Because under the plurality system smaller parties often gain fewer seats than is indicated by the proportion of the votes they receive, most of the submissions to the Assembly consider this system to be unfair.

They believe the plurality system encourages voter apathy and prevents minority views from being heard.

To eliminate this unfairness, most submissions recommend the adoption of an electoral system that basically ensures that the seats in the Legislature given to individual parties reflect the proportion of the total popular vote that party received.

There are variants on this basic model of proportional representation that fix the shortcomings that the experiences of other countries have shown to exist, but they do not alter the basic outcome.

Another criticism of the present plurality system — that it prevents minority views from being heard — is invalid.

When I was a federal MP I spent much time listening to the minority views of my constituents, be it in private meetings, political gatherings, parliamentary committee hearings or through emails, letters and phone-calls.

These views were discussed during the design of party platforms, in party caucuses, and on the floor of the House of Commons.

The views these constituents expressed all boiled down to demands for more government spending, changes in regulations, or lower and different taxes.

All of these demands have merit. They reflect the Canadian values of compassion and the sincere desire to alleviate human suffering, to create a fair society and a livable, sustainable environment.

The problem with most such policy proposals is that they are not in the general public interest. Politicians reach this judgment not because they lack compassion, but because society has only limited resources.

They learn this fact soon after entering Parliament or the Legislature when civil servants confront a politician’s demands for new spending initiatives with the hard facts about existing taxes and spending.

Taxes cannot simply be raised to finance new initiatives because Canadians want to keep most of their earnings for private consumption and savings for their retirement.
They punish tax-increasing governments at the ballot box.

To find room for new initiatives while tax revenues are held constant means that other spending programs have to be cut or eliminated.

The hard fact is that health care, education, and social insurance programs absorb most tax revenues while other valuable programs take up the rest.

The fundamental job of all governments in the world is to decide how the country’s limited resources are divided among the many competing uses. The plurality and proportional systems for selecting legislators in democracies make these decisions in different arenas.

Decisions over taxes, regulation, and spending under the plurality system take place within parties, elected caucuses, and cabinet.

Under the proportional system, they are made in Parliament.
Under both systems, governments would maximize the well-being of all Canadians. Unfortunately, these ideal conditions do not exist in the real world.

As it turns out, therefore, the tax and spending decisions under the two systems are different.

Under proportional voting systems, countries often get pizza parliaments, so called because a seating map of the legislature resembles a pizza cut into many pieces.
In pizza parliaments, even the largest parties rarely have enough seats to form a government and are forced into alliances with smaller parties.

Such alliances give great leverage to small parties, which demand legislation and regulation for the benefit of their members in return for voting with the government.

As a result, some taxes, regulation, and spending programs that under the present plurality system are rejected, are adopted under the proportional system, not because they have become socially more desirable, but as a result of the new electoral system.

An empirical study published recently in the prestigious American Economic Review by Torsten Persson and Guido Tabellini lends strong support for this view.

Countries with proportional representation electoral systems have higher spending and levels of regulation than parliaments elected under the plurality system.

The switch from the present to the proportional system has the strong support of the NDP and the Green party because it would give them more seats in the Commons and more leverage to get their ideologically preferred policies enacted.

Canadians who do not share these ideological views should therefore oppose the adoption of the proportional voting system.

They should also oppose it on the grounds that the resultant larger size of government reduces economic growth in the longer run, as many studies have proven.

When that happens, the absolute living standards of their children and grandchildren will be adversely affected, and the ability of the government to finance existing social programs will be endangered.

Canadians who are impressed by the arguments for proportional voting systems should remember that its advocates are not giving us the whole picture.

Like ideologues of all stripes, they criticize the existing system without considering its benefits while presenting a utopian view of their preferred alternative without considering its shortcomings.

Canadians should not let themselves be misled by this technique.

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