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Follow the majority, except when they disagree with me

It’s really easy to make up principles of democracy to suit your opposition. It’s far harder to keep them consistent.

The opposition hasn’t relented on their claim that the government lacks a “mandate” on asset sales. The majority of New Zealanders oppose it—even the government acknowledges so—so the government shouldn’t do it. In populist politics, this claim is appealing. As a principled claim, it deserves more examination.

The Greens have shown as much already when pressed on how this applied to their support of the anti-smacking bill. As I said at the time, I think the smacking referendum question had logical issues. But empirically, it was still clear that the vast majority of Kiwis wanted the law repealed. The Greens say that it was correct to ignore this because the bill had an overwhelming majority in Parliament. This is rather farcical: essentially, direct democracy is called on only when representatives are evenly divided. I’m not a fan of direct democracy, but insofar as one likes it, that principle is very belittling of it.

Of course, there are also plenty more circumstances where Parliament’s been evenly divided, that haven’t been subject to “mandate” criticisms. So more generally, under what circumstances should the government abandon its own election policy in favour of topic-specific polls? The left has been shy on exactly what their criteria are, so it’s hard to tell. So I admit this is reading between the lines. But here’s my best effort at inference so far:

  • It’s fine when much more than 50 per cent (say, maybe 70 per cent) of Parliament supports it.
  • It’s fine when the amount of public opposition isn’t much more than 50 per cent (say, less than 60 per cent).
  • It’s fine when it doesn’t concern a long-term economic decision.
  • It’s fine when it’s not something “built up by generations of New Zealanders“, or I suppose something with a similarly long history.
  • It’s fine when the public isn’t very vocal about opposition. By “the public”, of course, I just mean political parties with lots of media time.

The weird thing about these principles is that they carve out criteria for a lack of a mandate. Conversely, to have a mandate, only one of the criteria has to hold. Logically, it is necessary to do this to avoid the inconsistencies inherent in the Greens’ and Labour’s record.

Intuitively, it’s stupid. Each of those planks implies a different principle. It’s impossible, in this framework, to devise a single consistent conception of what “mandate” means. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the left has been making up as narrow a set of exceptions as they need to, so they can harp on about democracy for this one issue.

Let me suggest a simpler principle: The government should follow the majority view when and only when it happens to agree with my view. This is convenient: you are free to oppose whatever you are opposed to. It’s also empirically true. Being in the minority has never stopped anyone from arguing that a policy shouldn’t be enacted. It certainly hasn’t stopped the Greens, who are in the minority for most of their core policies.

Of course, the problem with it is that it doesn’t sound very nice. But when would this principle ever give a different outcome?

If the fact that a view is held by a majority can’t change your view on that policy, then it’s not a very useful discriminant and it shouldn’t be used as if it is.

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