The Referendum Paradox

The island of Frobnitz is trying to decide whether to legalize left-handed quonkbats. Three million voters are represented by 200 members of parliament. In a referendum, a majority voice support for the measure, so it goes before parliament … which rejects it.

Why? Because most of the MPs’ constituencies oppose it:

referendum paradox

With this distribution, more than 55 percent (1,664,000/3,000,000) of the referendum votes are positive, but still more than 5/6 (167/200) of the MPs must vote no if they are to honor the preferences of their supporters.

In Voting Paradoxes and How to Deal With Them (1999), Hannu Nurmi writes, “The practical significance of the referendum paradox is in the shadow it casts on the institution of consultative referendum. Which should be decisive: the majority of the votes cast in a referendum or the majority of the votes of representatives who believe to represent the views of the majority of their supporters? If the former is considered more decisive, why then resort to the latter at all? If the latter is regarded as more important, then why bother with the former at all?”

The Nail House
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When developers planned a shopping mall in the southwestern Chinese municipality of Chongqing in 2004, they quickly bought out 280 local homeowners in order to clear the necessary land. They didn’t count on 49-year-old Wu Ping and her husband, Yang Wu, who declined to leave and clung to their two-story brick house even as the developers excavated the land around it and allegedly sent thugs to intimidate them.

The case became a symbol of the struggle between homeowners and property developers as China’s farmland gives way to office buildings and industrial parks. “I’m not stubborn or unruly,” Wu told the state-run Legal Daily. “I’m just trying to protect my personal rights as a citizen.”

Even after electricity and water were cut, Yang cut a makeshift stairway up from the 10-meter pit that surrounded the house and hung a Chinese flag from its roof. He guarded the edifice while Wu conducted press conferences and sent him food, water, and quilts using a rope and pulleys. When the couple turned down compensation offers, the Chongqing housing authority called their demands “unreasonable” and ordered the house demolished. But in the face of 85 percent public support for Wu and Yang, a local court declined to enforce the order.

Finally, after three years, China passed a landmark law protecting private property and the couple accepted an apartment of similar size downtown. “Let’s hope the new law reduces such disputes,” political scientist Zhao Wanyi told China Daily.

Rules are Rules

Indiana had a sumptuary law prohibiting the smoking of cigarettes, and a showman was exhibiting a trick chimpanzee in a country town in the vicinity of South Bend. One of the tricks of this animal was to smoke a cigarette, for which he was arrested and brought before a justice of the peace. His keeper pleaded that the animal did not know that he was violating the law, but the justice solemnly replied that ignorance of the law excuses no one, and the chimpanzee was fined five dollars which his keeper paid.

American Law Review, January-February 1920

Exceeding Fine

When Nathan M. Morse was trying the Tuckerman Will Case before Judge McKim, Dr. Jelley, the well-known expert on insanity, was one of the witnesses. One of the hypothetical questions asked of the witness by Mr. Morse contained no less than 20,000 words. The lawyer started this pithy question at the opening of court and closed only a few minutes prior to the noon adjournment. The point that Mr. Morse was endeavoring to bring out related to the mental condition of the testator when he made his will.

This is said to be the longest single interrogation ever made in a court of law, and the answer comprised just three words, ‘I do not.’

Boston Herald, quoted in The American Lawyer, December 1906


Plowden states a case that if a woman is warden of a prison and marries one of the prisoners, the prisoner has escaped and is at large; for he cannot be lawfully imprisoned but under a keeper, and he cannot be under the custody of his wife, she having no separate legal existence. Therefore the law necessarily adjudges him to be at large.

— H.C. Shurtleff, “The Grotesque in Law,” American Law Review, January-February 1920

The Unexpected Guest

“Sometimes the name chosen for the baby betrays only too clearly that it was not wanted,” reports onomastician Elsdon C. Smith in The Story of Our Names (1950). “The English General Registrar Office for the years 1861, 1870 and 1886 disclose the following un-Christian names: Not-Wanted-James, One-Too-Many and That’s-It-Who’d-Have-Thought-It. A woman once named her baby Alpha Omega with the explanation that it was her first and she fervently hoped that it would be her last.”

When one is asked to praise a homely infant, Lewis Carroll recommends saying, “That is a baby!” Presented with a squirming 6-month-old, William James said helplessly, “It seems a very competent baby.” “Might not Falconbridge have condoned such an evasion in an extreme case as being, at worst, a virtuous sin?” writes Lionel Tollemache. “To be frank would be a mortal offence; and to avert a mother’s wrath, one might be tempted to invoke a principle of limited application, ‘Salus amicitiae suprema lex [Let the good of the people be the supreme law].’ Better this than to set up the more widely applicable and therefore more abusable plea, ‘De minimis non curat moralitas [Morality does not concern itself with trifles].'”

The Greenwich Time Lady

Ruth Belville sold time. Each day she would set her watch by the Greenwich clock in London and then charge a fee for the privilege of looking at her watch.

Belville’s father had established the business in 1836, when such knowledge was valuable — as railways revolutionized European travel, individual towns had to abandon their non-uniform local times, reckoned by the sun, and adopt instead the standard London time that dominated rail schedules.

For a confusing few years the nation underwent a sort of fugue, with public clocks displaying both London and local time; a few great clocks were even fitted with two minute hands. (In Dombey and Son Dickens notes these changes mournfully, “as if the sun itself had given in.”)

But by 1880 the British government had finally established a single standard time for the nation, and when Ruth Belville began selling time in 1892 she was already an anachronism. Remarkably, she continued until 1940, after the advent of World War II — by which time most of her clients were clockmakers.

(Thanks, Luke.)

Compound Interest

On Jan. 18, 1897, California farmer George Jones bought a quantity of livestock feed from Henry B. Stuart of San Jose. As security he signed a $100 promissory note that bore 10 percent interest per month, compounded monthly.

They had agreed that Jones would pay the debt in three months, but the note had run for almost 25 years when Stuart got tired of waiting and told his lawyer to sue. Judge J.R. Welch of the Superior Court of Santa Clara entered this judgment on March 6, 1922:

“Wherefore, by virtue of the law and the facts, it is Ordered, Adjudged and Decreed that said Plaintiff have and recover from said Defendant the sum of $304,840,332,912,685.16 with interest thereon at the rate of 7% per annum until paid, together with the further sum of $50.00 Plaintiff’s attorney’s fees herein with interest thereon at the rate of 7% per annum until paid.”

That’s $304 trillion, “more money than there is in the world, outside of Russia,” the New York Tribune reported drily. Jones paid $19.69 and filed for bankruptcy.

Speaking Terms

Indiana University anthropologist Daniel Suslak is compiling a dictionary of Ayapaneco, an indigenous language of Mexico that has only two remaining fluent speakers.

Unfortunately, the two aren’t speaking to each other.

Manuel Segovia, 75, and Isidro Velazquez, 69, live 500 meters apart in the southern state of Tabasco, but “they don’t have a lot in common,” Suslak told the Guardian in April. Segovia can be “a little prickly,” and Velazquez is “more stoic” and rarely leaves his home.

Without their cooperation, Ayapaneco may die out altogether. “When I was a boy everybody spoke it,” Segovia said. “It’s disappeared little by little, and now I suppose it might die with me.”

(Thanks, Sharon.)

Easy Money

In 1728 the city of Paris defaulted on a large number of municipal bonds. As a way to offer some restitution, the city decided to sponsor a series of lotteries among the disappointed bondholders. There would be only a few winners, but each investor could at least hope to recoup some of his lost money.

That’s very noble, but the city fathers had overlooked two things. First, because the government had sweetened the pot, the value of the lottery prize vastly exceeded the combined cost of the tickets. And second, among the bondholders were Voltaire and Charles Marie de La Condamine, who realized this.

The two organized a syndicate to buy up all of their fellow bondholders’ tickets, essentially guaranteeing themselves a huge profit each month. They did this systematically for half a year before the government caught on; when confronted, they pointed out that they were doing nothing illegal. In all, the syndicate realized 6 to 7 million francs, of which Voltaire kept half a million — enough to leave him independently wealthy for the rest of his life.