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MMP 102: A Tired Rehashing of Identity Politics

I have a feeling this entry is going to make me look rather sexist and racist. I want to assure you that this is not the case. I have nothing against white men. Some of my best friends know white men. For all intents and purposes, I am a white man myself. And yet for some reason I remain unconvinced that all of our politicians should be white men. Furthermore, I find it odd that the people who disagree with me are so often the people who advocate for strong free markets.

Why do free markets work better than centralized communism? I think one of the primary factors has to do with information. It takes a lot of information to run an economy effectively, and even the smartest bureaucrats can't keep all that information (or even all the important information) in their pointy heads. In fact, bureaucracies don't even have the resources to collect all the necessary information, although goodness knows that Statistics Canada tries the best it can. In my uninformed view, free markets work better precisely to the extent that they distribute the information needed to run an economy amongst all the market participants. Everybody knows their local situations and needs, and they interact to get those needs met. It is by no means a perfect system, but it works a lot better than having Central Headquarters attempt to run everything itself.

In the same way, I believe that representative democracies work better when they accurately represent the people they are governing. Consider a random sample of white men who get elected as politicians. If we believe that this random sample is likely to accurately span the views, priorities and experiences of all citizens these white men represent, there is no problem and the bleeding heart liberals are crying wolf again. On the other hand, if you feel that a more diverse sample of politicians is likely to have a wider range of views, priorities and experiences, then the more diverse sample is likely to be more inclusive (and thus do a better job of representing constituents) than the exclusively white-male set, even if all the politicians act primarily in their own self interest. Maybe the sample of white males could do as good a job if they could somehow prioritize the same views, priorities and experiences of the non-white-male politicians, but that is like saying that centralized economies could work just as well as free market ones if the bureaucrats could access all the information that is distributed in the lives of the wider populace.

Note that my argument is different from that of standard affirmative action. I am not that concerned about giving those who are not white men jobs. I am concerned that the politicians elected to represent us do their jobs better.

There are many limitations and problems with this argument, of course. One of the most insidious is tokenism: the belief that single members of some "exotic" class represent the full range of views, priorities and experiences of that class. This is where our pal statistics comes into play. I would not expect any single white man to encompass the experiences of all white men, and I would not expect any single woman (or any single minority member) to encompass the experiences of their designated groups. In fact, there are built-in biases against this kind of broad representation, because in order to be elected as a politician one has to act more like a politician and less like a human being. Despite this, on average we can expect random samplings of people from "exotic" groups to come closer to representing the experiences faced by people of that group. This is why electing one token from each group is a bad idea: those tokens might be outliers. To get better representation we want larger samples.

Furthermore, the populations we expect our "exotics" to represent might surprise us. For all intents and purposes I am a white male, so hiring me to represent the views of recent immigrant populations who share my skin colour is a bad idea. I might end up being a reasonable representative for other groups of interest, however -- say second- generation Canadians who consider themselves white.

Another big problem is that we are not collections of identities. I may be a second-generation Canadian who considers himself white, but I am also a depressive, an excommunicated environmentalist, an unemployed burden on society, a Linux user, and several other things. Pretending that I could represent one of these facets to the exclusions of all others is kind of foolish. That is one reason I prefer diversity initiatives to be implicit: instead of assigning a bunch of slots to be filled by those who are sufficiently minor and/or diverse (leaving the remaining slots reserved for white men) we attempt to design systems that naturally reward diversity. Our hope is that the closed lists of Ontario's MMP proposal is one such mechanism; there are probably others.

Even this implicit diversity is not enough, however. To say the least, I sympathise with the following sentiment by Richard Gwyn, although I disagree with the conclusion:

But the representation from those groups most in need of being represented -- the poor, the homeless, the undereducated, the mentally disabled -- won't improve one iota.

-- Richard Gwyn, "Electoral Reform won't fix the real political problems", The Record, May 22 2007

I don't think we will see many poor or homeless or undereducated or mentally disabled MPPs under MMP, with or without closed lists. That makes me sad, but unless we move to a randomized jury-style of democracy I don't see how it will change. However, I think that the conclusion that representation for these groups "won't improve one iota" is absolutely false. Under FPTP parties can't get elected by advocating for our most vulnerable -- just look at how the NDP platform has shifted from homelessness and supports for the mentally ill to reducing gas taxes and ATM fees. Under MMP advocates for the vulnerable -- those who work with vulnerable populations and care deeply for their well being -- have a much better chance of mobilizing support across the province to get some MPPs elected. That's not as good as electing members of vulnerable populations directly, but it is a whole lot better than choosing exclusively rich people who isolate themselves in their office buildings and suburbs and can scrupulously avoid contact with the unwashed classes.

This brings me to my final caveat. There is a fine line between recognising that people from diverse groups have different views/priorities/experiences and absolving our politicians of their responsibility to represent all of their constituents -- whether those representatives share the same labels as their constituents or not. We have this miguided cynical perception that it is okay for our elected representatives to serve their own partisan interests at the expense of everyone else. Partisan hackery can and does happen, but it is our responsibility as citizens to make sure that the actors involved don't get away with it. There is no question in my mind that it is better for us to have more diversity in our legislatures than less, but the reason we want this is so that our representatives can articulate a diversity of concerns relevant to their communities, not so they can practice shallow exclusionary identity politics.

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Mood: bigoted