What business is it of other people what we do or what we own? What does it matter to us how other people behave, or what they possess? These are perennial questions in politics. In the context of the present book, they can be stated as follows: What sort of questions should be voted on?
In Iceland, the issue of the right to own a dog has sometimes been put to the vote. Let us examine how local councils in Iceland have imposed rules on dog ownership in response to public opinion as a basis for understanding
o the rights of the minority and the majority
o voting methods
o notions of good neighbourliness
o how sequential choice and fund voting could put relations between fellow citizens on a different footing.
In earlier times, and right down into the twentieth century, tapeworm was a problem in Iceland. As tapeworm relies on dogs as a host for part of its life cycle, the disease does not occur in areas where there are no dogs. Most people lived on farms during the period when tapeworm was a major problem, and every farm had one or more dogs to keep livestock out of grazing meadows and to round up sheep. The health authorities made an effort to eradicate the disease by having a law passed requiring dogs to be treated against tapeworm under the supervision of the district veterinary officers. Another measure was to ban dog ownership in towns; in 1924 the local authorities were authorized by law to impose such a ban, and this was done in many places.
These measures resulted in tapeworm being almost completely eradicated. Nevertheless, despite the ban on dogs, by the 1970s it became not uncommon to see dogs in towns even though people could be fined for keeping them. If the police received a complaint that someone was keeping a dog, they usually needed a search warrant in order to investigate; however, such warrants were issued only if the alleged offence was punishable by a fine of at least a certain minimum sum. Despite inflation, the fine for keeping a dog was not revised; the minimum sum justifying the issue of a warrant, on the other hand, was revised in accordance with inflation. The result was that the police were unable to carry out the searches necessary to act on complaints about dog-keeping, since the offence did not entail a sufficiently high fine on which to base the issue of a search warrant. In this way, people could flout the ban on dogs with impunity. Dogs are still treated for tapeworm in accordance with the law.
There is no longer any general fear of tapeworm. Those who object to dogs being kept in towns tend rather to base their argument on the inconvenience caused by dog excrement on pavements and in children’s playgrounds, the noise and disturbance they can cause, and also the danger of dogs biting people. In Reykjavik there is still a strong feeling that it is not natural to keep dogs in a city where they do not have unrestricted freedom of movement, as it is no life for them to be largely confined indoors. People who like dogs as pets take the opposing view.
In 1984 the Reykjavik City Council lifted its total ban on dogs and issued rules on dog ownership and how to obtain licences. An opinion poll was taken among 500 telephone subscribers selected at random on the question of dog ownership in October 1987. Of the 385 who were contacted, 302 stated their position. One hundred and ninety-seven were against allowing dogs, 58 were in favour of allowing them under certain conditions, and 47 were in favour of allowing dog-keeping without any conditions.
The council carried out a survey on the issue on 24-30 October 1988, putting the question as follows:
Are you in favour of allowing people to keep dogs in Reykjavik subject to the conditions that have been in force for the past four years?
A total of 8,777 people (12.8% of the electorate) answered. 5,279 said “No” and 3,459 said “Yes”.
These figures give no indication of whether those who were against dog-keeping in the form that it had taken were in favour of setting stricter conditions or abolishing the conditions.
In an adjoining town, Kopavogur, a survey of attitudes to dog ownership was made concurrently with the municipal elections of May 1982, putting the following question:
Are you of the opinion that keeping dogs in Kopavogur:
( ) should be banned completely
( ) should be banned, with special exemptions
( ) should be permitted, with certain conditions
( ) should be permitted without special conditions
A total of 3,342 voters were in favour of a complete ban; 1,196 were in favour of a ban with special exemptions; 1,843 were in favour of permitting dog ownership subject to certain conditions, and 224 were in favour of permitting it without special conditions. Altogether 6,605 answered the question, while 6,946 cast valid votes in the municipal elections. The municipal health committee had proposed a simpler ballot paper with a box for “Yes” and a box for “No” following the question: “Would you be in favour of allowing dogs in Kopavogur?”
The municipal executive board and municipal council of Hafnarfjordur, a neighbouring town, drew up the following four alternatives on which people were to express their positions:
o allowing dog-keeping
o banning dog-keeping
o allowing dog-keeping subject to strict conditions
o banning dog-keeping with a few exceptions
Later it was decided not to put forward four alternatives and instead to put forward the following question:
What is your attitude towards dog-keeping in Hafnarfjordur?
( ) against dog-keeping
( ) for dog-keeping
The participants in the opinion poll shall tick x in front of the alternative they favour.
Voting on the issue took place in conjunction with the 1982 municipal elections. A total of 4,605 voters were against dog-keeping, 1,258 were in favour and 347 returned void or invalid papers. Altogether, 6,210 of the 7,680 people on the voters’ register voted on the issue, 6,571 voting in the municipal elections. There were 6,383 valid votes and 188 void and spoiled ballots.
In these examples, the authorities exhibited a tendency to test public opinion in the simplest way possible. In Reykjavik, people who were dissatisfied with the conditions in force at the time had no chance to indicate what they would have liked to see instead. In Hafnarfjordur the council and the executive board disagreed on the order in which the alternatives were to be listed; the council changed the order, moving the board’s fourth alternative into second place, but having done so, it ended up by refusing to present more than two alternatives to choose from.
The findings of the Kopavogur survey probably seemed easy to interpret. But let us consider what could have happened with the alternatives that were voted on. Let us imagine that the four alternatives had each received the same number of votes — 1,650. Would the conclusion have been drawn that half of the voters wanted to ban dog-keeping with special exemptions, all those who were in favour of banning dog-keeping being included in this category? Or might it also have been said that half of the voters wanted to allow dog-keeping under certain conditions, those who were in favour of allowing dog-keeping without special conditions being included in the count? It might have been reasonable to do so, but another interpretation is that some of those in favour of a total ban would have regarded dog-keeping without restrictions as the second-best alternative, e.g., in view of the argument that exemptions are generally undesirable. If sequential choice had been used, these voters would have been able to express such a view, and there would have been no difficulty taking this into account when calculating the results of the vote.
The issues mentioned at the beginning of this section are important. Up to now we have not paid proper attention but used them only to illustrate unsatisfactory opinion polls and point out how sequential choice would be a better instrument. However, these major issues receive better attention in the Fund voting part of this book, chapter C, Miscellaneous observations; see in particular Section 2, on improving team spirit, Section 4, Putting life into the local community, and Section 5, Starting from scratch.