The government we deserve

Last week at a new year’s party, I was discussing the rather sad state of current politics with a family friend. We chatted about various politicians, fake news and the like before my friend remarked “well, we get the government we deserve. That’s who we voted for after all.” A bit taken aback, I hesitated for a moment before emphatically responding: “No! We deserve a much better government than we get.”

This is not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment, that because we are the fools who voted for our politicians, we don’t deserve anything better. With a bit of research, I traced the quote back to 19th century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre, who apparently said “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” This attitude is poisonous for one major reason: It puts the blame for electing bad politicians on the voters, rather than faulting a convoluted, unfair election system that even an outside perspective would expect to produce bad outcomes. Consider the following barriers voters must navigate in order to choose representatives:

  • Voters must contend with a first past the post, majority rule voting system, literally the least expressive voting system possible. There is no way to express support for multiple candidates, or to say which candidates you prefer to others.
  • Our voting system has no way to express degree of preference, so the vote of someone who only mildly prefers a candidate counts the same as that of someone who loves a candidate.
  • As if this weren’t enough, we don’t even get an idealized plurality voting system voters are gerrymandered into regions designed to make their votes count even less, and face waves of voter suppression measures such as voter ID laws.
  • Finally, let’s not forget that our system was literally designed to give land explicit political influence.

Let’s not fault people acting rationally within a terrible system. Instead, we should seek reformation of the voting system itself, drawing upon new advances in information technology and mechanism design to build systems we can actually expect to lead to the society we want. This isn’t a fantasy – there are real, better options out there. Ranked choice voting. Approval voting. Quadratic voting and liquid democracy. If you haven’t heard of these, look them up.

People as a whole are great. When we work together effectively, we’re even greater. A good voting system – and by extension, good societal systems in general – incentivizes cooperation, so that my actions lead to your flourishing. Let’s build that system – the one we deserve.