Miscellany: Voting and democracy

Voting and democracy

If voting made any difference it would be illegal, London Mayor, Ken Livingstone once said – sometime before he was elected as an independent against staunch opposition from Tony Blair.

Yet in a curiously post-modern reality it is arguable that it is actually the different outcome of voting which determines how it is regarded.

The late Tory, Quinton Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) once ranted about the dangers of an “elected dictatorship”. By this he meant the dangers of electing Labour Governments and them using their power to change things he didn’t like.

Mark Latham weighed in on the 7.30 Report last night with “the people are always right in a democracy”. A curious insight given that Herr Hitler managed to come to power by a democratic vote. This was helped along the way by yet another monumental miscalculation by Stalin, who forbade the German Communists from co-operating with the Social Democrats (styling them “social fascists”). While the consequences were more horrific the core tactical insight is about on a par with those of the Greens in Australia and Ralph Nader.

The fact is that Tories always regard majorities won by those who want to change things they love and need as illegitimate. This is when they talk loudest about the need for checks and balance and the theory that “the rule of law” – not democracy – is the most important characteristic of our society.

Latter-day Tories are, of course, more likely to regard the “market” rather than the rule of law as the most important thing to defend.

The conservative philosopher, John Gray, explored this phenomenon in his book False Dawn, when he pointed out that the public could never be persuaded to vote for the full market, economic rationalist mantra. It was – as he said – not in their interests.

Instead, the mantra and its underlying agenda become submerged in populist rhetoric which miraculously no longer reflects the views of the mob but becomes, instead, a much-needed articulation of the wishes of the decent, forgotten ordinary people.

The FT in Australia

Speaking of John Gray, it is ironic that the most telling criticisms of the economic rationalist consensus often come not from the left but from traditional conservatives and the economics profession itself.

The major assault on the concept of individuals constantly seeking to rationally maximize utility has come from the behavioral economists such as the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Basically they have demonstrated that the fundamental behavioural assumptions underlying the neo-liberal consensus are just plain wrong.

In Australia Ross Gittins has spelt out the theories and their implications in his wonderful Ronald Henderson Oration. The usefulness of behavioral economics was also illustrated in a column this week by the Financial Times’ Philip Coggan, which analysed Blair-Bush decisions on Iraq through a Kahneman prism.

Now the FT is published in Australia you can get it in Sydney normal times for a daily in the morning and by lunchtime in the city in Melbourne. While the FT has dumbed down a tad from its glory days it is still probably the best newspaper in the world.

…..and Coggan is one of its best columnists. A couple of times a week he provides an iconoclastic but impeccably researched analysis of some technical aspect of investing and economics.

And if you can’t wait until midday FT.com is a cheaper, and quicker, alternative to the printed FT’s $4 a day.

La Trioli

ABC 774’s Virginia Trioli MC’d the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards this week. Resplendent – amidst the always rather scruffy writing contingent – in a backless gown, Virginia launched the night with a very laboured joke about the Mitcham Freeway tolls, ending with a thudderingly awful pun on the book title, For Whom the Bell Tolls .

Now artists and writers – like tennis players – are sometimes a bit feral when it comes to thanking sponsors and supporters. But the vast majority of the audience seemed to feel that the Victorian Government’s commitment of $180,000 to the awards could have generated some thanks and appreciation from the MC. Nobody – as at the infamous NSW Premier’s literary awards – actually threw their bread rolls at the speaker but a few choked on them instead.

Acting Premier, John Thwaites, promptly started his speech by pointing out that Virginia seemed to have decided that jokes about the Coalition were out – perhaps because Coalition control of the Senate might have some serious implications for the ABC. This didn’t draw bread rolls but did bring very prolonged applause.

Melbourne’s Lord Mayor

Residents of other parts of Australia may not be aware but Melbourne has a Chinese-born Lord Mayor, John So.

Since being elected he has been subjected to an ongoing barrage of ridicule from The Age’s Jonathan Green about his pronunciation of English. Jonathan is often very funny – but sadly not when he imitates 19th century Bulletin social and racial attitudes. Now Lord Mayoral candidate, Peter Sheppard, has also seized on the issue and said that John ought not be re-elected because of his accent.

Fortunately, the attacks will probably only increase John’s already excellent chances of being re-elected, although the taste they leave is a bit tart. But, last week we couldn’t help thinking about Messrs Green and Sheppard when Cr So participated in the Melbourne International Arts Festival Poetic Sunset Series by reading a Cantonese version of a wonderful Tang poem. He also provided a perfectly comprehensible explanation in English of the poem’s meaning and why it was important to him. (Note: NT has an involvement in both MIAF and the Victorian Writers Centre which co-hosted the event)

Sadly neither Messrs Green nor Sheppard were there, so the rest of us missed a wonderful opportunity to compare their Chinese pronunciation – whether Cantonese or Mandarin – with John’s.