I’ve just been listening to a spirited discussion about compulsory voting, which operates in Australia – as it does in thirty-one other countries, among them Belgium (I think the earliest system, in operation since 1892), Bolivia, Fiji, Gabon and Liechtenstein.
The chief argument in favour seems to be that citizens should play a part in deciding who runs their country – which would be an unexceptional argument if it weren’t the case that a large number of voters who are completely uninterested in politics have no idea of the merits or even the general attitudes of the candidates, and virtually waste their voting papers. Interrupting their work or indeed pleasure time to make them attend the poll is simply a waste of time and energy. Another argument is that in countries without compulsory voting millions and millions of pounds or dollars are spent by political parties on advertising - the dollars spent during an American election would run Greece for a thousand years! And in any event, almost as much money is spent on advertising in countries which have compulsory voting.
Of course it’s also true that many of us vote emotionally rather than rationally – we vote Tory because our parents always voted Tory, or we vote Labour for the same reason; or because we like the look and sound of a party leader, or what he says irrespective of the merits of the argument). So compulsory voting is no more likely to result in a genuinely intelligent result than a ‘free ‘ system when perhaps only 50% of the people trouble themselves to choose a candidate.
There’s actually little doubt that democracy is a fraud and a waste of time – but nevertheless probably the least worst system. The democratic countries usually muddle through to some more or less adequate solution. In most European countries at present this means a Government without an overall majority, and so at best has to act moderately, and at worst is in the hands of some loon – in New South Wales, for instance, the Prime Minister is in the hands of an extreme right-wing any-gay cleric and a selection of loons who call themselves (hold on to your hats) The Shooters and Fishers’ Party. Not quite as lunatic and not in the same universe as the gun-lovers club in the US, the NRA, with it seems every politician safely in their pockets. Now there is the argument that democracy and wealth are irreconcilable.