Last year, the British government decided to lift the top rate of income tax from 41 to 52 percent. Last month, Lord Myners, the UK Secretary of State for Financial Services, said that the policy would raise not nearly as much revenue as had been expected. People are apparently making efforts to avoid paying it. A host of politicians and commentators responded that it was always a foolish idea, a purely “political” policy.
But how can a bad policy be good politics? What defect in the electoral system can explain this?
The most popular explanation these days is the malign influence of “special interests”. Perhaps there is something in this. But a more fundamental defect is always overlooked, presumably because it is mistaken for a virtue of modern democracies. The reason so many bad policies are good politics is that so many people vote: about 62 percent of adults at the last general election, both in Great Britain and in the United States. The best way to get more sensible policies would be to reduce the number of voters to less than 0.01 percent of the population.
To see why, consider a question that arises in banking. How many bankers should be involved in deciding whether to approve a loan application? The ideal number may vary with the complexity of the application. But the right answer is always, “very few.”
If a loan officer’s initial decision required sign-off by a majority of 100 other bankers, his own judgement would have little effect on the final outcome. So he would have little incentive to think hard about the application and the likelihood that the loan will be repaid. Since this would be equally true for each of the other 100 bankers, none would bother to think hard. Why struggle to make the right decision when your decision will have no effect?
This is the position of voters in a general election. Each individual’s vote makes no difference to the outcome. Even marginal districts are won with majorities of hundreds. If you had stayed home instead of voting, the same candidate would have been elected.
If each person’s vote makes no difference to the candidate elected, why do so many people vote? One answer, as the economist Geoffrey Brennan has argued, is that people enjoy it. The simple act of going to a polling booth and ticking a box is imagined to display democratic virtue. And, by ticking one box rather than others, people can feel themselves to be generous or pragmatic or progressive or something else they like to be.
Enjoying such feelings is easily worth the cost of taking two hours off work on a Tuesday every couple of years. But it is not worth the effort of learning anything about economics, jurisprudence, international relations or even the policies of the candidate you vote for. Research into voters’ knowledge shows a stunning degree of ignorance. Most voters would be as likely to vote for the best candidate if they entered the polling booth blindfolded.
In fact, blindfolds would increase most voters’ chance of making the best choice. Because, as Bryan Caplan shows in The Myth of the Rational Voter, ignorant voters do not make their mistakes randomly. They are biased towards particular errors; they tend to underestimate the benefits of trade and they believe that the prices of goods and labour are determined by corporate greed rather than by supply and demand, to take but two of many examples.
Hence the many foolish policies followed by democratic governments. And hence politicians’ sentimental and grandiose rhetoric. Modern politics is just as you should expect it to be when votes are cast by ignorant people taking advantage of a low-cost source of emotional gratification.
So what is the best way to improve modern politics? The answer is not to increase voter turnout. On the contrary, the number of voters should be drastically reduced so that each voter realizes that his vote will matter. Something like 12 voters per district should be about right. If you were one of these 12 voters then, like one of 12 jurors deciding if someone should be imprisoned, you would take a serious interest in the issues.
These 12 voters should be selected at random from the electorate. With 535 districts in Congress – 435 in the House and 100 in the Senate – there would be 6,420 voters nationally. A random selection would deliver a proportional representation of sexes, ages, races and income groups. This would improve on the current system, in which the voting population is skewed relative to the general population: the old vote more than the young, the rich vote more than the poor, and so on.
To safeguard against the possibility of abuse, these 6,420 voters would not know that they had been selected at random until the moment when the polling officers arrived at their house. They would then be spirited away to a place where they will spend a week locked away with the candidates, attending a series of speeches, debates and question-and-answer sessions before voting on the final day. All of these events should be filmed and broadcast, so that everyone could make sure that nothing dodgy was going on.
Some will complain that this system would disenfranchise most of the population. It would not, because every adult would be eligible for random selection. Of course, each of us would have a tiny chance of being selected. But, on the current system, it is equally improbable that any individual’s vote will make a difference to the election’s outcome. The difference with this “jury” system is that those whose votes make a difference would know who they are. And that would give them a reason to take the job seriously.
Jamie Whyte is the author of Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists and Other Serial Offenders.