Libertarians and Proportional Representation

As I have mentioned before, I follow debates within libertarianism rather closely (it’s one of my main scholarly interests – I’m not a libertarian myself). A hot topic within libertarianism is always the role of political activism: should one vote? should one stand for election? et cetera. Some hold that one should attempt to change what one can change (better to be tortured six days a week instead of seven, and so on) through politics, while others believe that one should give up on politics and attempt to withdraw as much as possible from the sphere of the state as possible, maybe while trying to change hearts and minds outside of the political parties.

However, the fact that some libertarians have given up on party politics might also be a result of the American political system (I am mostly familiar with American libertarianism). Since the US has the rather absurd first-past-the-post system, it is extremely difficult for any party besides the Republicans and Democrats to gain any real power. Since congressmen are chosen in one-person districts only the party who gets the most votes receives representation for that district. Thus, one does not have to have the support of the majority to get elected, which, in fact, makes the American system a system of minority rule. To me, this is a very unfair system. The only way for political groups outside of the establishment (Republicans and Democrats) to get any power is to attempt to “capture” one of the major parties or to threaten to “steal” votes from the party that is politically closest unless the bigger party agrees to change or adjust their policies (the latter is, of course, a dangerous strategy, as people who voted for Ralph Nader had to experience in 2000).

Proportional representation, on the other hand, is based on larger electoral districts, which makes Congress a more accurate reflection of the political opinions of the people. In addition, most people do not have to risk throwing their vote away, since every minority may get some representation (possibly there might be some small threshold like 4 or 5% of the total votes in the country to gain representation). If a district is to choose, for instance, six congressmen instead of one, a “pure” libertarian candidate might have a chance of getting elected. This might not give the Libertarian party a majority at once, but it would give the party a platform in Congress and the possibility to make important speeches and to reach the public. Perhaps they may even get the power to negotiate over the budget and lawmaking with the ruling party (or coalition). Surely this kind of power would be better than no power at all (unless you are a libertarian of the uncompromising give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death kind).

Yet, I very rarely hear a libertarian make a serious plea for proportional representation in the US. I can only speculate about the reasons for this (since I have not heard any libertarian make a case against it either). One reason might be that they are certain that proportional representation will also let more greens, socialists, and the like into Congress, and that they are prepared to live with political isolation as long as greens, socialists (and other left-of-Democrat groups) also remain isolated. Another reason might be that they feel confident that they will be able to “capture” the Republican party in the future, by getting more and more candidates like Ron Paul. Both of those reasons – and I do not know if they are the true reasons – do, however, display a certain degree of insecurity and lack of confidence, since they seem to presuppose that the Libertarian party would not easily be able to defeat, for instance, a Socialist party in open debate (with real Congress seats at stake).

Now, the fact that I, a non-libertarian, think that proportional representation is fairer than the American two-party system, perhaps means that a libertarian should not support PR. Because why would I support a voting system that I believe would give more power to my “enemies”? Perhaps I am insidiously leaning on the surveys which claim that Americans are in general more left-wing than the present politicians, and that PR would only open up the floodgates for those leftists (imagine a Congress consisting of 30% Sanders-“socialists”, 30% Democrats, 30% Republicans, and 10% other parties). Besides the point that this seems to doom American libertarians to perpetual irrelevance (if they believe those statistics on the views of the American people), I can only say that if you can find a country where the same kind of transition to PR would mostly favor (democratic) right-wing parties, I will support that transition too (in fact, this is basically what happened in Sweden when the two-chamber system was abolished in 1970) . This is a matter of a general principle of fair representation. Who the representatives are is totally irrelevant.

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