Ireland’s electoral system produces a massive Tragedy of the Commons

16 September, 2010

 According to Wikipedia, a tragedy of the commons  is

…. a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. This dilemma was first described in an influential article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in1968……

Central to Hardin’s article is an example …. of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all.

Harding in 1968  was writing about how to deal with the population problem, but his words resonate for proponents of constitutional and electoral reform in Ireland.

Considering in isolation the localised and short-term interest of an individual voter in a general election in Ireland, it’s not too difficult to make out a case for voting for somebody like John O’Donoghue, Jackie Healy Rae, Pádraig Flynn or Willie O’Dea.  They all are, or were, masters at getting things for their constituency and constituents, while being completely useless and profligate when judged on a national level.

The ridiculously over-specified roads in Castlebar were a tribute to Pee Flynn’s focus on his constituency, even at the expense of the national exchequer.  And when then Minister John O’Donoghue pumped €5.5m  from his Sports Capital and Local Authority Swimming Pools fund into the Killarney Sports and Leisure Project swimming pool, it didn’t seem to matter that the town already had several swimming pools available  for use by the public, or that many communities in towns and cities around the country had no money at all available for a swimming pool.  O’Donoghue’s pool subsequently closed due to lack of members availing of it, but not before this classic pork-barrel project had consumed shedloads of taxpayer money.

There are thousands of such examples, and the reader doesn’t need me to enumerate them – as they say, the dogs in the street know the score.  In terms of Hardin’s analogy, voting for John O’Donoghue is like putting another cow on the common land; the individual voter receives the benefits from the additional “cow” through constituency goodies, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire Irish population.

Our electoral system is the problem.  Former FG minister Gemma Hussey, in an article in the Irish Times last year wrote that:

We have in Ireland an electoral system, multi-seat proportional representation, which almost ensures that a broad range of the best brains and achievers in the country will never see the inside of Leinster House, much less the Cabinet room. At the same time, we have too many Dáil members….. The skills required to massage a constituency seven days and nights a week have nothing to do with running a small European country with an open economy….. Most modern democracies of western Europe have some variant of a list system, combined with proportionality. This means that the voter may choose to vote for a party list, which will be written up in the polling booth. Distinguished and/or well-known citizens from a variety of walks of life will have been chosen by their parties to head up their lists. Side by side there are opportunities to vote for individuals too.

On the basis that one should never waste a good crisis, there will never be as good a time as this to change an electoral system that is failing us as a country.  If we don’t change the way we elect our politicians, then it is a certainty that further crises lie ahead. 

Changing the system is a challenge, although both Fine Gael and the Green Party have publicly flirted with a partial list system.  Yes, opponents pick holes in the list system approach, but no system is perfect, and Hardin’s words on the need for change are apposite:

It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it. …. worshippers of the status quo sometimes imply that no reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to historical fact. As nearly as I can make out, automatic rejection of proposed reforms is based on one of two unconscious assumptions: (i) that the status quo is perfect; or (ii) that the choice we face is between reform and no action; if the proposed reform is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all, while we wait for a perfect proposal…… But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of years is also action. It also produce evils.

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One Response to “Ireland’s electoral system produces a massive Tragedy of the Commons”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by margareteward, eoinomahony. eoinomahony said: @margareteward @psneeze @faduda is this anything like yesterday's discussion? Tragedy of the Commons: http://t.co/n9Q8ymN […]


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