Final Impressions of Dahl

I have now finished Robert Dahl's "How Democratic is the American Constitution?" Though I appreciate his intent, he is far too much of a Hamiltonian for my taste. Being from California, I shudder to think of what could happen should we have the influence in the Senate that we have in the House of Representatives.

Dahl also has a great fondness for Proportional Representation, such as that in the Israeli Knesset. While it does provide the fairest system of representation, in that any political view of any significance will get representatives, for that reason PR tends to reward extremist politics. You get more benefit from "energizing your base" than from reaching out to other voters, who presumably have parties of their own that more closely match their views. "First past the post" systems, such as those of America and Britain, place a premium on moderation. Granted, they also allow for the domination of national politics by two large parties; but there are better ways to correct that than by switching to PR.

To his credit, Dahl does bring up my personal favorite way to do so, which is changing our voting procedure from casting a single vote for each position, to assigning a ranking to all the candidates in the running. This method, used in Australia and Ireland, is called preferential voting, or instant-runoff voting, because if no candidate achieves a clear majority of #1 votes, the bottom candidate is dropped, and those people who voted for him now have their #2 votes applied. This continues until a clear majority arises. This system would neatly eliminate the "wasted third-party vote" syndrome now stifling the growth of alternate parties in America.

Dahl also is pragmatic enough to realize that the Electoral College isn't going away soon, and recommends instead that the present "winner take all" system be modified so that the electors vote along the proportions of the popular vote in each state. I am in favor of this as well, since there is little incentive at the moment for people to vote if they live in a deeply partisan state in either direction.

But Dahl ends the book with a coy reference to "equality of political resources." The context is a discussion of campaign finance, which is a predictable attack on the ability of the rich to wield political influence that the poor cannot match. Dahl is sadly out of date on this one, as Howard Dean's incredible internet fundraising proved. And in any event, Dahl had a worrying habit of citing our ratio of rich-to-poor (without defining either term) as a way of determining whether the Constitution "worked." I do not think it the responsibility of government to eliminate poverty (except insofar as it can do so by simply getting out of the way!!), and I think it imprudent for government to try in the first place, as the experience of France and Germany proves.

All told, I was not impressed by this book. It raises some valid points, but they are nearly lost among the more outlandish examples of socialist-populist dogma.

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