The Italian election may finally be over, with the supreme court
certifying, as expected, the victory of Romani Prodi’s centre-left
coalition – although at last report Silvio Berlusconi was
still considering further legal challenges. The margin remains
tantalisingly small, but substantially unchanged.

It provokes some thought about what a poor method politics is for
making social choices. Granted, as I said last week, it makes
more sense to give a close election to the winner than the loser, when
the margin is that small there’s not much to be said for either option.
It seems absurd that the destiny of a country could turn on such a
small number of votes, cast for who knows what random or capricious
reasons.

It may be that not a great deal turned on this election, since the two
coalitions were not far apart in policy terms. But that will not always
be the case – it wasn’t, for example, in the US cliffhanger election of
2000. And when it is, it just creates more problems. With two broad,
amorphous coalitions, barely differentiated in policies and separated
by a hair’s breadth in votes, how is the winner supposed to interpret
his or her mandate? Even with the best will in the world, how can
someone like Romano Prodi know what the voters were asking for?

In practice, Prodi will follow his own inclinations (at least to the
extent his coalition partners let him), which is probably as much as
the voters really expect. In other words, democracy operates as a
choice of personnel, not of policies. Many successful leaders, in fact,
seem to avoid close association with any particular set of policies,
and others (perhaps including our own John Howard) succeed in spite of
their policies rather than because of them.

But that puts voters in the unenviable position of having to judge
character: of having to somehow assess the personal qualities of
candidates whom
most of them have never met and who are only visible in highly
stage-managed campaigns. And since the influence any individual elector
can have on the result is vanishingly small, it can hardly be expected
that they will put a lot of effort into the task.

All of which explains why even a good left-winger like me supports
leaving social decision-making, where possible, to the market. For all
its faults, at least in a market process people can ask for what they
want, and get what they ask for.

Peter Fray

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