Friday, September 22, 2006

Rule of the Median, not the Majority

Matthew Shugart makes the important point that proportional representation empowers the centre of the polity. (He does not point out, although it is equally true and equally in PR's favour, that it simultaneously allows the extremes to articulate why the centre should change.) To a lesser extent, this is the merit of democracy more generally.

The majority is a scary, violent thing -- but the middle is not. The most attractive face is the median face. While the median position may not be the best, in the abstract, it will be the least divisive one to take. Since the median voter is not an actual person, but a statistical abstraction, her rule is the least tyrannical rule.

Indeed, after much thought on the subject, I prefer the rule of the median voter even to the rule of the Pithlord. The Pithlord is trying to be a pundit -- he is trying to say interesting things. Interesting things must, of necessity, be wrong more often than uninteresting things. And it is through dull language that we must be ruled.

The language of democratic rule cannot be one of pith, or of substance, but of careful verbosity. For all the talk of the "soundbite" era, as Kinsley pointed out, memorable one-liners by politicians are most often career-enders: "Money and the ethnic vote"; "Maritimers should compare their situation to that of Bangladesh"; "An election campaign is no time to discuss important matters of public policy"; "Why should I sell your wheat?" The favourably received one-liners ("Just watch me"; "I paid for this microphone"; "There you go again") are moronic family sit-com fodder. Clinton -- by all accounts a brilliant man -- only memorable utterance was the question of what the meaning of is is.

That's fine. A peaceful kingdom is not ruled by clear thought. Pity the nation when prose stylists -- Trotskys or Churchills -- come to power.

And it is also fine when we are ruled by a decision rule as excruciatingly dull as the empowerment of the median voter. Someday such a person may absorb a confused and watered down version of the conceptual revolutions of a generation ago -- of environmentalism, of feminism, of public choice theory and sociobiology. It is the confusion and watering-down that saves us from the totalitarian nightmare all lucid thinkers would impose on us.

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