H. G. Wells and the Single Transferable Vote

About the time of my most-recent-but-one move (“penultimate” has such a final sound), I decided that rather than cart all my books around with me, I would test out e-books.  After some research to determine that with the help of Calibre, I could convert all manner of books to and from the E-PUB format, I set out to equip myself.  Being both practical and cheap, I ended up with a Kindle and a whole lot of public domain books from all over the web.

One of the fun things about the project has been the chance to re-acquaint myself with classic stories, and with less-known work by classic authors.  I learned, for example, that Jane Austen’s early work (collected as Love and Freindship [sic]) is best left undisturbed, but also that a lot of good early pulp magazine content is available.

One of the authors I’ve had occasion to turn back to is Herbert George Wells, a writer whom I knew largely from When the Sleeper Wakes, Tono Bungay, and similar work.  In turning recently to less famous works, I was reminded in Ann Veronica that he was a strikingly good writer, but also learned that he was (for the time) a feminist, considered “capable of poisoning the minds of those who read” his work.

Sitting at home sick on a bright sunny morning today, I turned to my Kindle for something simple to distract my fuddled mind.  Not feeling at my best, I picked the shortest H.G. Wells piece I found: In the Fourth Year.  Rather to my surprise, I found I had in hand not a satirical piece of fiction, but an equally sharp mix of idealism, social commentary, economic analysis, and political mechanics.  And yet it was surprisingly readable.

In the Fourth Year: Anticipations of a World Peace was written in 1918, when the end of World War I was visible, but had not yet arrived.  In it, Wells displays a strongly leftist, idealistic view of the world’s capacity for peace, and especially of the potential of the League of Nations.  The argument is very much a product of its time, yet it holds remarkable interest as a measure of the way the future was then – what has come true, and how much more has not.  The book is marred by an almost idolatrous reverence for Woodrow Wilson (“almost divine”), and by a much more troubling racism (I urge you to skip the chapter on Africa).  Wells was also outspoken against racism, so the import of the section is uncertain.

Wells is on firmer ground with a sophisticated argument for the single transferable vote (the issue I originally set out to write about).  The STV is an idea whose time has seemingly not yet come, but which is still actively discussed in the international electoral community.  It was a surprise to me find out such a promising idea had been around so long with so little success.  The core idea is straightforward – rather than voting for one candidate or party, you mark your choices in order of preference.  Any votes above the minimum needed to win get transferred to voters’ second choices.  Similarly, if your candidate can’t win, your second choice gets your vote.  And so on, until all votes are apportioned.  While the STV has some drawbacks, it does deal nicely with the problem of third-party spoilers that gets so much attention in US politics.

In any case, Wells’ presentation is interesting, inspirational, troubling, and funny in turn, and well worth a read.