Friday, 6 January 2012

Elections are about values, not interests

A lot of people think that democracy is about you getting stuff you want. American lefties in particular have become increasingly obsessed with the idea that Americans are being manipulated into voting against their rational class interests (for free health-care, welfare benefits, etc). e.g. Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? which suggests that conservatives have tricked voters into voting about values (gay marriage etc) rather than their better economic interests.


But this is hokum. It isn't rational to vote for your economic interests. It isn't rational in the economist's sense to vote at all. Why not? Because your individual vote doesn't count. The systems we have for counting votes are simply not sensitive enough to measure a single individual's ballot. As anyone can see for themselves: whenever elections get really close, bureaucrats and judges are called in to decide the answer. So it is impossible for your particular vote to make a difference to the outcome, for you to get any closer to what you want by voting.

That has 2 implications. First we should reconsider why people vote - for values not stuff. Second we should recognise that economic interests can only be furthered by deeper political engagement than mere voting allows.

Democracy is about making collective decisions about what kind of society to live in, and people's actual voting behaviour reflects that. People vote about values because by doing so they are expressing and affirming their beliefs about what kind of society we should live in. Expressing your values is a principled reason to vote - it doesn't have anything to do with rational choice of costs and benefits because it is not about you. In other words, voting is about principles, not getting free stuff. That's the beauty of democracy and the reason it works as well as it does. In other words, lefties wanting votes should stop complaining about conservatives distracting people from the real issues, like favourable tax treatment for working class single parents or jobs protected from Chinese competition. Rather, they should learn to talk about their own values - fairness, justice, equality of opportunity, compassion, etc.

There is a key distinction between the political levels at which democracy operates. While elections are about values, government is about institutions. If you want to further some particular interest you have to get behind the ballot box to frame the options upon which people are voting. That means getting involved in institutional politics: party organisation, think tanks, OWS, parliamentary lobbying, etc. The dirty secret of democratic politics is that most of the real policy making that goes on (whether the tax treatment of the 1%, or environmental protection legislation, etc) has nothing to do with elections and isn't much affected by them. That may be depressing, but the way to deal with it is not to excoriate ordinary voters for voting for their values, but to get engaged in institutional politicking and counterbalance the forces of darkness that lobby to protect investment bankers, etc. with your own lobbying institutions.

8 comments:

  1. There are many kinds of democracies historically including earlier times in America and Britain. Does your critique hold for all or most democracies or just ours today? The thrust of your argument, it seems, is on today, and sounds plausible

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  2. I mean are there really historical democracies that match the ideal?

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  3. I think it applies to all national representative democracies.

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  4. Most people do not act rational most of the time. (O.K., may be ALL people.)

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  5. So, are you saying democracy isn't as we think or that we should have something else?

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  6. Mr GJ. Voters are acting rationally by refusing to analyse their voting in cost-benefit terms.

    HB Democracy is brilliant, but it is a complex machine with different principles operating at different levels. Failing to recognise that democracy encompasses more than the occasional general election leads to disappointment and apathy.

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  7. "Failing to recognise that democracy encompasses more than the occasional general election leads to disappointment and apathy." Wonderful sentence that shouldn't read as an epiphany (but it sure did for me)

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