Arrows’ Impossibility Theorem is a very interesting mathematical result that has serious implications for preference aggregation – the act of capturing the choices of the members of a group. To understand the implication of this theorem, we first need to realise that there is more than one way to hold an election. This should be evident from the diversity in electoral systems in different institutions around the world.
The most common system that we in Pakistan are familiar with is the one where each voter simply votes for their most preferred choice and the person who gets the most votes wins. But this is not the only way to conduct an election. Other procedures may include mechanisms wherein everyone ranks their preferences and assigns them a score – the winner then could possibly be the person with highest score. There are many possible variants on this procedure. (This procedure is obviously attractive to third parties trying to break into a two-party system).
There could also be procedures wherein voters give their least preferred options and thus move towards an outcome based on the elimination of everyone’s least favoured outcome.
The interesting implication of the existence of multiple aggregation mechanisms is that a group of people could end up with completely different outcomes based solely on which election mechanism is used.
So, which one is the best? That’s where the aforementioned Impossibility Theorem steps in to deliver some bad news – there is none. Essentially, it states that if we want our voting outcome to have certain basic, and fairly reasonably, characteristics, there is no voting system that can deliver it to us. Whatever your voting system, there will be some set of preferences that it will fail to capture.
Thus far, we have not spoken about the impact of the structure of a government on voting outcomes but it should be apparent that it is there. For example, due to the Electoral College in the US, Donald Trump managed to win the election even though he got fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Similarly, in the recent elections in the UK due to the parliamentary structure, the difference in vote share between the Conservatives and Labour was a little over 2 percent, while the difference in seats was over 8 percent.
Furthermore, we have so far been assuming that voters vote their conscience and do not vote tactically. This is not always true. It is possible for voters to vote against their preferences due to a multitude of reasons – most obvious, perhaps, being the unlikelihood of their preferred candidate’s success.
Another thing we have not accounted for is asymmetric information and uncertainty, wherein voters don’t know everything there is to know about the candidates and even candidates are uncertain about the true state of world affairs.
Given all of the above facts, one thing is clear – the act of using elections as a procedure for determining answers to important questions is far from flawless. In fact, for a long time, many people in Pakistan have been using arguments such as asymmetric information (in the shape of illiteracy of voters) as an argument against democracy itself.
So, what is the big deal about democracy? Why has democracy become a scale along which countries are measured? Furthermore, why is it that First World countries consider it as one of their most prized values with many arguing the existence of a link between economic growth and prosperity, and democracy?
The answer lies in the fact that there is much more to democracy than the ritual election of office holders. The fundamental difference between a democracy and an autocracy or an oligarchy is supposed to be the existence of institutions and laws guided by principles rather than the whims and influence of an individual or special interest group. Ideally, a democratic society is one which aims to enfranchise the public and provide as level a playing field as possible. This essentially entails the existence of a functioning system of law and order through effective policing and courts. It also means providing access to education and other areas of development so as not to be exclusionary.
Since the main purpose of democracy is to act as a bulwark against the establishment of a ruling elite that exploits its position for personal gain at the cost of society, the establishment of a process of accountability of office holders is imperative.
And this is where we land ourselves in trouble with the democratic system in Pakistan. The basic questions that arise in our democratic setup go along the lines of whether institutions start to function more rigidly on rules and principles so as to serve the people under our democratic governments or whether they remain/become tools to be exploited by a select few. If it is the latter, then the democratic setup has little purpose.
Moving to our most recent headline grabber. It appears that the Prime Minister is teetering on the verge of disqualification because of financial corruption. Many educated and principled people in the country see the case as an assault on the democratic process. One needs to ask what exactly the democratic process entails. Is it simply monarchy by election, or is there more to it?
A question one might ask is whether, under the democratic process, the state institutions should have carried out investigations into the misuse of public funds as soon as the Panama Papers story broke? One might also ask if certain groups or individuals in the ‘democratic’ government have taken hold of state institutions and are exploiting them for the benefit of vested interests. One might even ask whether the ‘democratic’ government is intentionally lying to the public on certain issues, again for the betterment of a particular clique.
Even if we are to accept the theory that there is indeed some grand conspiracy behind the Panama Papers case where autocratic forces are targeting a democratically elected Nawaz Sharif, we need to ask whether the confrontation is between a democratic force and autocratic one, or whether it is simply between two opposing autocratic forces.
Thus, the arguments that Nawaz Sharif should be allowed to continue to serve as Prime Minister despite his alleged guilt, or that the process of investigation into accusations against the Prime Minister should not be carried out so as to protect ‘democracy’ require that we protect democracy essentially by gutting it. People making these arguments need to think about whether they are demanding the protection of democracy, or simply the ritual of election-holding – because there is a significant difference. Do they want democracy or do they simply have a preference among the autocrats?
At the very least, the situation is troubling. Does one benefit democracy by demolishing notions of accountability?
As a side note, let me also address a tangentially related argument that always creeps up in these discussions. On why it is that politicians are the targets of such accountability drives and not the other cliques in the country that too have their share of misdeeds. The answer is simply that in a democratic setup, that is where the buck stops. If elected officials are genuinely concerned about the survival of democracy in the country, they need to stop playing power politics and develop non-partisan, independent institutions that can act against powerful groups in the country. To do this, they need to ensure that there are no skeletons in their closets that may come tumbling out the minute these independent institutions take an interest in their affairs.