Politicians & Petitions

Where I live in London it is free for someone to park a car on the street. My local council however, has recently been debating whether or not they should start charging people for this privilege. A couple of months ago a man knocked on my door. He was asking people to sign his petition to say “No” to paid parking. I didn’t sign it. I will explain why but not immediately. I never explain myself immediately. First I want to philosophise.

Democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all the others that have been tried.

I don’t know who said that but it’s quite good and I hope they gave themselves a big pat on the back afterwards.

I haven’t bothered looking up the definition of democracy but I suspect that if I did it would say something about everyone’s opinions being equal. If that’s the case then no country should really consider themselves a true democracy. The United States, for example, markets itself as the greatest democracy in the world. It isn’t though. It is sort of a democracy in that everyone is allowed to vote but are their opinions really equal? No. They’re not even close.

We can see a good example of this by looking at the US sugar subsidy. The US government guarantees American sugar producers a minimum price for sugar. This guaranteed price is way above prices on the world market. Why can’t people just buy sugar from overseas producers? The US slaps a big import tariff on imported sugar to ensure it can’t be cheaper than the home grown alternative. This means that US citizens pay much more for sugar than they should. A 2006 Department of Commerce study estimated the cost to US consumers was about $2bn per year. This is great if you own a sugar manufacturer in the US but bad if you live in the US and don’t own a sugar manufacturer (that’s most people who live in the US).

This subsidy gives benefits to a few at a cost to many. So why is it in place? The reason is fairly simple – the people who stand to gain from this are a well-organised group who will gain a lot each. The people who stand to lose (the American public) are a much bigger but less well-organised group who will lose a small amount each.

The well-organised people lobby the government, fund political campaigns and offer block-votes from their unions. A presidential candidate would be a bit silly to say they were going to repeal the subsidies if it meant that their opponent got lots of extra funding to their campaign plus some block votes from a few thousand union members in a swing state like Florida.

A democratic approach would be to ask Americans if they wanted to pay twice as much for sugar as everyone else does. I suspect the outcome would be different.

We can therefore see that even in the world’s largest economy, a true superpower which prides itself on the democratic basis of its constitution, people do not get an equal say in things. Their voting system is completely manipulated by organisations. I use the word “organisations” here because the real problem is that an organised group of people wield far more power than a disorganised group of people. It’s essentially how trade unions unfairly skew things in their own favour at the cost of everyone else.

Dave “Web” Cameron’s new policy of e-petitions is very susceptible to this problem. Get 100,000 signatures on a petition and it will automatically be considered for debate in the House of Commons. Does this make it the will of the people?

100,000 is equal to 0.16% of the UK population. That’s right – get 0.16% of the UK population behind you and suddenly your cause is being debated in Westmister’s highest echelons. A petition is often considered to be a reflection of public opinion but it is nothing of the sort. Petitioners have already decided the opinion they want their petition to reflect and therefore they:

  • Only reflect one side of the argument when asking people to sign it
  • Discard opinions of people who disagree with them

There are in fact very few proposals for which you could not get 100,000 signatures if you are organised. You just need to ask enough people and you’ll get there. If you want to save time by asking fewer people you can certainly help yourself along the way.

Do you remember when I proved a correlation between people who like jazz and people who like sushi? As I subsequently admitted, I had in fact proved nothing at all. Although my data appeared to show a statistically significant correlation, I had in fact achieved this brilliant result by violating some simple survey rules:

  • I did not have a random sample
  • I influenced the results of voters by telling them what I hoped to achieve.

I achieved a statistically significant correlation from a couple of hundred responses, just by violating these rules. I didn’t discard votes that went against my favoured result though so it was still better than a petition.

The government though, by promoting e-petitions, think that they are somehow opening a channel to hear the voice of the people. Petitions don’t do that though. A successful petition has little to do with the will of the people and a lot to do with the strength of the organisation behind the campaign. To get 100,000 votes (0.16% of the UK population) on your petition you could have a good argument but you could very easily obtain this with a bad argument as long as you knocked on enough doors.

So, why didn’t I sign the petition for free parking that the nice man brought to my door? He didn’t provide enough information. I asked how much the council would raise through this proposed initiative. He didn’t know. If the council raises money through the scheme then it might mean a lower council tax or better services for me. How could I possibly sign such a petition? I would have no idea whether it was good or bad for me.

It didn’t matter though. In his survey, people who wanted parking charges, people who didn’t know whether they wanted parking charges and people who were not at home on the day they called were all treated in the same way – ignored.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are many very worthwhile campaigns which petitions help to promote. My argument is simply that I have a lot of trouble taking a petition’s argument into account because, when relying on petitions, I have no way to distinguish a worthwhile campaign from a non-worthwhile campaign. Petitions simply don’t provide enough information for me to tell if it is the will of the people or not.

If, as the government would like, we all decide to put our faith into e-petitions then all we are doing is putting our faith into the best organised purveyors of public campaigns. You already know who they are – the tabloids. And when do they ever give you a balanced argument? If The Sun did a ‘Death to Peados’ petition it would get 100,000 signatures. If the Daily Mail did a ‘No Jobs for Foreigners’ petition it would get 100,000 signatures. If the Daily Express made a ‘Clone Diana from her DNA’ petition, it would get 100,000 signatures.

The promotion of e-petitions as the voice of the people is not a vote for democracy; it is quite the opposite – a transfer of power from the people to small organised groups with an agenda. All this is doing is putting our faith into The Sun, The Express and the Daily Mail to make our arguments for us.

If you think that’s a good idea then please – don’t sign here.