Why aren’t citizens allowed to sell their votes to the highest bidder? (Bear with me for a minute.) You may at first be inclined to say that it’s like the stricture against selling yourself into slavery: we don’t let citizens strip themselves of the most basic political rights and liberties. But I’m not talking about disenfranchising yourself permanently. Let’s focus just on the case in which you sell one vote in one particular election, or on a particular measure. It’ll grow back. You can vote next time. It’s like working for pay, rather than selling yourself into slavery. A short-term surrender of rights and liberties for the sake of something you want: namely, cash. It’s hard to see that giving up the right to vote in one election – which you honestly may not care much about – would be permanently crippling to someone’s status as a free citizen. (We let people not vote. Why not let them not vote for an even better reason?)
I think we think this isn’t a good idea because, basically, it would produce not-good results. We’d have formal democracy but functional plutocracy.
That said, it is sort of interesting to think how it might work, as a market system for buying and selling and trading policies and laws and so forth. People might end up making fairly nuanced economic decisions. Possibly nobody would end up voting for free. Sometimes they would sell their votes for a little, if they basically liked the guy. Sometimes they would only sell for a lot, if the guy seemed especially terrible. (We wouldn’t have to be unreasonable about it, insisting that, if voters are willing to sell at price x, they have to be willing to sell to any candidate at that price, first come, first served.) So candidates would still be concerned to be good candidates, in the eyes of voters. And it wouldn’t necessarily be the case that candidates would all be corrupt, i.e. only willing to spend $2 million on votes if the expected return from all the self-dealing they plan to engage in exceeded that. People could donate to candidates, to help them buy votes. You could have eminently populist vote-buying drives. Candidates would still be idealistic, at least sometimes. And sometimes they would lavish money on their own campaigns in more or less a ‘what do you get the guy who has everything? – a Senate seat!’ kind of way.
In short, it might look a lot like the real world, in its range of outcomes: the rich would mostly, but not necessarily always, win. Which goes to show that objecting to vote selling on the grounds that it would lead to some unacceptable result is not so compelling. Unless you add the premise: the system that we’ve got is unacceptable (so another system that worked no better would be, likewise, unacceptable.)
Like a lot of people – most liberals and progressives – I think it would make most sense to ‘keep the money out of politics’ to a much greater degree than is the case. Obviously this is complicated, but ideally it shouldn’t be the case that people can buy so much influence, in effect.
Suppose you think, instead, that it’s better to let people spend freely. Is there any reason not to think it would then be even better still to let people actually buy votes?
What’s attractive about the mixed position: spend all you want, but you can’t buy votes outright?
You could make a Constitutional argument. There’s no argument that US citizens’ existing rights are violated by not letting them sell their votes. Whereas the argument that free speech protects money spent on ads and so forth makes a certain amount of sense. But is there, additionally, an argument that it’s a good thing that the Constitution says this thing (if indeed it does – a matter subject to some doubt)?
You could say we want people to vote for whom they want. So it’s not right to vote for the guy who offers you $10 for your vote. Because what you really want is the $10, not the guy. But voting is always instrumental like that. You vote for the guy who is going to do what you want – in this case, give you $10. In general, we don’t require citizens to be sincere or unselfish or even unfoolish in their voting patterns. Again, if you are not forbidden from throwing away your vote, why can’t you sell it?
You could say that paying for votes is just obviously and inherently corrupt. Period. But I think that would only be clearly the case, in a non-question-begging way, if candidates used public money to buy the votes.
You could say that you think it’s just impossible to regulate campaign spending and contributions effectively and in an even minimally coherent way, that accords with people’s intuitive sense that we need ‘less money in politics’. Whereas it’s possible to forbid buying votes. But this seems like a ‘perfect is the enemy of the good’-style mistake. Probably no way of limiting money in politics is perfect. Still …
What do you think?