Harkening back to his roots in the Reform Party, Stephen Harper has tabled a plan to reform the Senate. The opposition NDP has responded by reiterating its position that the Senate should justÂ be abolished. Neither side, unfortunately, has an adequate appreciation of the part that is supposed to be played by a senatorial legislative body in a democratic system.
Though the belief that democracy is the best regime is part of the modern Western political creed, that regime is not without its defects. One of them is that it puts ultimate political authority in the hands of individuals who often lack adequate knowledge of public affairs. Since the chances of a person’s vote deciding an election are so infinitesmal, there is very little incentive for individuals to invest the time and effort necessary toÂ acquire competencyÂ in Â public policy issues. A number of studies confirm this so-called “rational ignorance” among voters. Bryan Caplan has written an excellent book demonstrating this thesis,Â in the process showing how the public systematically errs in its choicesÂ of economic policies. Â Another flaw with democracy is that it enablesÂ 50% + 1 of the population toÂ exploitÂ the rest of the population.
This majority voting rule Â poses aÂ significant threat — one which has certainlyÂ been realized over the last century — to property rights. The wealthy, after all, are usually a minority in society. And, human nature being what it is, peopleÂ are apt to favor those whoÂ promiseÂ them benefits for which they do not have to pay.Â Given these two facts,Â a politician does not have to be a genius toÂ deduce thatÂ a promising strategy to get elected is to shower goods on the not-so-rich majority by exacting resources from the rich minority.
Eventually, as we have seen with the developmentÂ of the social-democratic welfare state, politicians institute an extensiveÂ menu of public goods and servicesÂ far beyond what can plausibly be financed from the wealthy. So the not-so-rich end up paying for part of the scheme, though politicians soon figure out that they can avoidÂ the wrath of the voters by running deficits. But this simplyÂ passes on the costs to another, relatively disempowered class in a democracy: future generations.Â
Preventing this is among the main original rationales forÂ the inclusion of a Senate within a democratic legislature.Â Â The idea was the Senate would be made up ofÂ members of the well-to-do classes who would have a stake in maintaining property rights.Â It was also supposed to be made up of thoughtful individuals who understood the place of those rights in a healthy societyÂ as well as theÂ dangers to these, and other individual rights, of untrammeled democracy.Â Socialists and social-democrats are well aware of this history, which is ultimately why the NDP wants to do away with the Senate. Â
Sadly, Harper’s planÂ doesÂ little to get us closer to the original vision of the Senate.Â The proposal to allow provinces to elect senators, and impose a nine year term on their tenure,Â would actually serve to make the Senate more democratic. The point of the Senate, however, isÂ to constrain the excesses of democracy — in other words, to make things lessÂ democratic.