Selling Votes

by John Holbo on January 20, 2012

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?

{ 135 comments }

1

reason 01.20.12 at 9:20 am

How could you possibly police this. We have secret voting. Everybody would cheat.

2

reason 01.20.12 at 9:22 am

Personally, I would agree to sell my vote to everyone.

3

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.20.12 at 9:34 am

I think the argument here is that every voter should have equal power (one person one vote, and all that). If you can openly buy votes, then, officially, money is power. Sure, if you can’t openly buy votes, money still equals to power, but not as openly; it’s, like, an unfortunate side-effect or something.

4

chris y 01.20.12 at 9:45 am

As I understand it, if you’re a member of the US Congress, this is perfectly permissable, at least in relation to votes on the floor of the house:

In the 2012 election cycle, Elsevier and its senior executives made 31 donations to representatives: of these, two went to Issa and 12 to Maloney, including the largest individual contribution.


So what’s sauce for the goose should surely be sauce for the gander.

William Hogarth understood.

5

Anonymous Howard 01.20.12 at 10:06 am

#1 makes the key point: if you can buy a vote and confirm how someone has voted, you can set your thugs or cops on voters and force them to vote how you want.

6

J. Otto Pohl 01.20.12 at 10:07 am

In many countries you can sell your vote. Usually the US and Europe are highly critical of elections where this occurs on a large scale. Given the overall conditions in countries where vote selling occurs is usually wretched due to government corruption, repression, and inefficiency I am not sure why anybody would want to copy this model.

7

Knemon 01.20.12 at 10:19 am

Very Roman. Patron-client. Far from the worst of all possible regime. An alienable vote is like the proverbial dime that buys you a cup of coffee.

“How could you possibly police this. We have secret voting. Everybody would cheat.”

It’d be like a game of Diplomacy! Fun.

8

Charlie 01.20.12 at 10:40 am

Selling your vote might be undesirable for the same sorts of reasons that make selling the use of your body for sex undesirable. Other relations besides the transaction in question are corrupted. How will you look your employer square in the eye – confront him on any issue – if he knows that you can be bought anywhere and everywhere?

9

StevenAttewell 01.20.12 at 10:45 am

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.

That sort of assumes that corruption only emerges from the use of public funds for private interests. What if we take the more 19th century republican conception of corruption as private money sapping civic virtue?

10

davidly 01.20.12 at 10:51 am

This is precisely what I am trying to do with my absentee vote here.

11

Neville Morley 01.20.12 at 10:54 am

Since I live in a constituency that’s a knife-edge marginal between Conservative and LibDem, with Labour and Greens coming way behind assorted loony Eurosceptics – and since my conventional ‘vote for anyone with a hope of beating the Tories’ tactic has been undermined by the coalition – the idea of getting paid for voting for yellow evil to spite blue evil seems rather attractive.

12

faustusnotes 01.20.12 at 11:22 am

Is it actually illegal to sell your vote? I’ve never thought about doing it, but if I agree, e.g. to vote Lib Dem in exchange for (hmm, thinks for a moment), $1,000,000 on a completely personal level – that is, Chris Bertram contacts me and offers me the money, and I accept – have I broken any actual law? Has he?

13

Andrew Fisher 01.20.12 at 11:23 am

Perhaps representative democracy is a ritual practice? It would be like asking Catholics whether the congregation would start feuding more if you took the peace out of Mass.

14

John Holbo 01.20.12 at 11:26 am

“How could you possibly police this. We have secret voting. Everybody would cheat.”

It would be easy enough, if if were legal, to sell the right to vote. It’s just a contract. Someone pays you and you get a piece of paper and they get one and it’s registered in the system and that person now gets to vote twice.

15

Colin Reid 01.20.12 at 11:29 am

The difference between this and how elections currently work in say, the US, is that spending money on campaigning is an extremely inefficient and unreliable way of buying votes. Even if advertising were 100% effective, it would amount to an ‘everyone pays’ auction rather than a ‘winner pays’ auction.

16

davidly 01.20.12 at 11:41 am

To be clear about my intention (linked in my previous comment):
I propose to sell my vote to the highest bidder. I had assumed that the bids would be coming from voters and not candidates (I believe those who still vote value their individual vote a whole lot more than the candidates they’re voting for do).

17

davidly 01.20.12 at 11:49 am

@1, who said: How could you possibly police this. We have secret voting. Everybody would cheat.
You just have to trust them. Sound familiar?

18

Tom Hurka 01.20.12 at 11:51 am

It’s not that long ago that people did sell their vote. Here’s an example from a talk I heard the other night about the history of Canadian banking (fascinating topic, I know).

It’s the 1890s and the Liberals nominate a candidate for the riding of Pembroke, which is heavily Tory. But he finds that he can’t borrow money in Pembroke to finance his campaign, because all the banks there are Tory supporters and refuse to lend to him. So the Prime Minister asks the head of another, Liberal-friendly, bank to open a branch in Pembroke and they do.

The manager of the new branch raises the money and before handing it over, in cash, starts to count it. “What are you doing?”, the candidate asks. “Counting the money.” “Why would you do that? I don’t count it when I hand it out.”

Wasn’t the secret ballot an innovation of the late 19th century, introduced to make it harder to buy votes as had commonly been done before?

19

Harald Korneliussen 01.20.12 at 11:56 am

How could you possibly police this. We have secret voting. Everybody would cheat.

Even with secret voting, vote buying can be arranged pretty easily. I give you this slip of paper, now if I win this election (or do well past a certain point), that slip is worth cash to you. If you don’t, it’s worth nothing.

Do you think people wouldn’t take such slips? Or do you think people wouldn’t follow up and vote to make their slip worth something?

20

Salem 01.20.12 at 12:13 pm

I’d make a different argument: voting isn’t a right, so much as it is a trusteeship. You have the vote not in order to advance your own private interests, but in order to advance the public weal. Now the only person who gets to decide what is the public good is the individual voter, but he must make a good faith effort to do so. Accordingly to sell your vote would be corrupt in the same way that it is corruption for an MP to sell his vote. Alienation of a public trust for private gain.

Spending money on advertising to persuade other trustees, however, would not qualify as corruption under this view.

I’m aware that this is quite an 18th century argument, and ludicrously out of touch with the modern view that voting is all about rights and private interests. However, I think this is both the historical basis for the law, and the best reason to support it.

21

chris y 01.20.12 at 12:14 pm

faustusnotes, it is illegal to sell your vote in Britain. Sorry.

Under Section 113 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 a person is guilty of bribery if he directly or indirectly, by himself or by any other person on his behalf gives any money or procures any office to or for any voter, in order to induce any voter to vote or refrain from voting.

From a Parliamentary briefing here.

22

dsquared 01.20.12 at 12:18 pm

same reason you can’t sell your jury duty – it isn’t a property-right of yours, it’s a (weak) obligation to take part in a process which is mutually owned by society.

23

Joshua Miller 01.20.12 at 12:30 pm

This is largely how things worked in the US in the 19th century: you voted a ticket, and the ticket was supplied by a party, in exchange for cash, favors, or jobs.

I think the difference between spending unlimited money on advertising and directly exchanging it with the voter is similar to the difference between unlimited spending on medicine and allowing people to buy organs. The poor are much more vulnerable to coercive offers than the rich in both cases, so the impact is disproportiate. Yet many poor people are happy to find work in medicine, and many are happy to view Gingrich’s recent SuperPAC-funded Bain Capital docu-advertisement. Neither taking a job nor learning new information about private equity and carried interest tax rates is coercive: rather they are consonant with liberal autonomy.

24

Xerographica 01.20.12 at 12:32 pm

John Holbo, I literally did a double take when I saw this in my google reader. I was like…”What…is this really coming from the Crooked Timber website?” When I was reading your article I kept waiting for the…”Now here’s why this would destroy society as we know it…”

My point is…you have my vote…which I wouldn’t sell for anything less than $10,000 dollars.

The goal of voting is to determine which side cares the most. It surely wouldn’t make sense for the side that could care less to win. People get confused though and think that just because one side has more numbers it automatically means that they care more. Yet…it’s fairly reasonable to say that one person who would sell his/her kidney for an additional vote obviously cares more about the issue than one person who would sell his vote for only $1.

That’s why limiting campaign contributions would be as counterproductive as limiting how many hours people could volunteer for a cause that they care about. Time is money.

So the question shouldn’t be: Do you care about an issue? Rather…it should be: How much do you care about an issue? That’s why we have the common expressions…”put your money where your mouth is” and “actions speak louder than words”. It’s one thing to just “like” a cause on facebook and it’s another thing to volunteer for that cause in real life.

Not too long ago Jason Brennan wrote a book on the ethics of voting. In his book he argues against “bad” voting. Of course…”bad” voting for a libertarian isn’t necessarily the same thing as “bad” voting for a liberal…and vice-versa. Here’s my comment on his BHL blog entry (you have to sort the comments from oldest to newest). In my comment I argue why it’s perfectly reasonable for people to sell their votes.

Also, here’s my 10 topic Self-Ownership Survey where I juxtapose the issue of campaign contributions with children’s suffrage, procreation licenses, consensual slavery, etc. in order to encourage people to evaluate where they stand with regards to self-ownership.

The bottom line is…if it was easy for people to think objectively about voting then we would have embraced universal suffrage from the get-go. As it is…people automatically evaluate voting issues in terms of the outcomes that they desire.

25

Tom M 01.20.12 at 12:36 pm

US history is replete with stories of vote buying. How else was it possible to have “machine” politics? Tammany Hall in NYC was just an early example of what took place in most urban districts. Here in Pittsburgh, it was quite common in the 1930s for voters to be treated to free food and drink at the local tavern in return for voting the “right” way.
That may not be a strict cash exchange but it was as good as.

26

JMH 01.20.12 at 12:44 pm

Hey,

I find the statement about the immorality of ‘using public money’ to buy votes in the blog post to be hilariously ridiculous. When a political party offers to cut taxes or provide a particular benefit it is straightforwardly providing public money to voters. And this is entirely analogous to Harald’s value-only-in-case-of-victory statement.

I think, therefore, the exchange only works if it is a straightforward cash-for-vote scheme, which is blown up by the secret ballot (as others have observed). So, in this frame, selling your vote would not be illegal but rather the anti-coercion measures make it impracticable (I assume a priori that the social cost of eliminating anti-coercion measures is greater than any greater utility in allocation of votes and wealth gained by vote-selling).

Yours,

JMH

27

Latro 01.20.12 at 12:47 pm

I find it interesting that we focus a lot on the freedom/right/duty to vote and not on the freedom/right/duty? of being able to present your platform and yourself as alternatives in the political process.

The whole “you cant ban donations and all that, thats against freedom of speech”. What about the freedom of having your ideas about how to run the country taken as seriously, as it should be your right as a citizen, as the ones of the mega-rich-backed candidates?

In short, why dont we (everywhere, I’m not American but the problem is similar everywhere), give to each candidate – defined as whoever wants to be one – and party – same – the same means of communication, the same alloted time, the same OBLIGATORY presence in debates, and all that, as to ensure all voices get the same, equal treatment and the deciding citizens can vote fully informed?

28

howard 01.20.12 at 12:56 pm

1. Policing the contract: I sell you my vote. I request an absentee ballot. I sign the ballot and send it to you, or we meet and you observe me voting correctly. This is how it’s done with Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes, except the voters don’t get properly compensated.

2. Is volunteer slavery (hat-tip to Rahsaan Roland Kirk) illegal? Can we not execute a legally binding contract under which I agree (in exchange for compensation) to live in conditions you set, perform duties you describe, for the rest of my life, and with the contract being transferable by you? I don’t know enough law to answer this question, but on the surface I don’t see why it should be illegal. I have the idea that personal assistants to famous celebrities bind themselves to these contracts (except they are not life long, and not transferable, so maybe those are the important distinctions). And isn’t Michelle Bachman’s marriage contract like this (except for transferability, and perhaps not even with that exception)?

29

John Holbo 01.20.12 at 1:17 pm

Xerographica: “My point is…you have my vote…which I wouldn’t sell for anything less than $10,000 dollars.”

I’m not surprised, nor horrified, that some people actually think it makes sense, my little scheme. I would be surprised if some propertarian-libertarian hasn’t worked out the details long ago.

But just to be clear: I strongly disapprove of this scheme. But I think it wouldn’t actually be much worse – if at all – that the system we’ve got. I do think this is a big mistake: “Yet…it’s fairly reasonable to say that one person who would sell his/her kidney for an additional vote obviously cares more about the issue than one person who would sell his vote for only $1.”

This is reasonable, but willingness to spend large amounts of money is not a good indication of intensity of preference if some people are very poor and others very rich.

30

John Holbo 01.20.12 at 1:30 pm

People still seem to think there’s a secret ballot problem. I don’t actually think it’s that interesting trying to work out the mechanics. The abstract principles are the only really interesting issues, but you can still have secure secret ballots. If you sell your vote you do not go into the ballot box at all. Someone else gets to push the button twice. And they can do whatever they want, twice, secretly. Now this could mean that you sell your vote to someone, thinking they are going to use it to vote one way, and they really vote the other way. Presumably if you sell the vote to the candidate himself, or his rep, you can be reasonably sure. But if that uncertainty about how the vote you sell is going to be used bothers you, you just shouldn’t sell.

31

Matt L 01.20.12 at 1:30 pm

Yes, lets do this. I could really use a couple grand to fix up my house (need new carpet or some hardwood flooring). As someone who has voted for democrats all his life, at this point I care a lot more about getting some new carpet than I care about Obama winning re-election. So I’d be happy to sell my vote for a couple of grand to whoever. Two grand is reasonable, it might even be cheaper to buy and sell votes than it is to by TV ads. So who knows, candidates and voters could all end up saving a lot of time and money all around.

32

Bruce B 01.20.12 at 1:38 pm

“What do you think?” he asks…

Well I thought I was at Crooked Timber, but I think it sounds like Marginal Revolution.

33

Salem 01.20.12 at 1:47 pm

“Two grand is reasonable, it might even be cheaper to buy and sell votes than it is to by TV ads. So who knows, candidates and voters could all end up saving a lot of time and money all around.”

Doubtful. In the 2008 Presidential election, Obama spent $760m and received 69m votes, meaning he averaged $7.39 per vote. McCain spent $358m and received 60m votes, meaning he averaged $5.78 per vote. The minor party candidates spent even less per vote. Now OK, maybe a lot of the spending is at the margin, but even so, I don’t think anyone would pay $2000 or anything like it for your vote.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundraising_for_the_2008_United_States_presidential_election

34

Adam Roberts 01.20.12 at 1:49 pm

What would it look like the other way about? That is to say, not that citizen X can sell her vote, but that (a) she can only vote if she buys the right — at, let’s say, $10 a vote; and (b) she can buy as many votes as she wants. (I actually had this system as part of the background worldbuilding in a science-fiction novel I once wrote). The benefits would be: that only those prepared to take a stake in the system would vote; abstentions could not happen; and of course it would raise revenue for the State. The most obvious downside is that it would mean rich people could literally buy election results; but — as people are saying in this thread — that’s kind of what happens now anyway.

Why do we allow people to contribute as much money as they like to political candidates rather than just cutting-out-the-middle-man and putting as much money as they want into the election directly?

35

Zamfir 01.20.12 at 1:55 pm

Can we not execute a legally binding contract under which I agree (in exchange for compensation) to live in conditions you set, perform duties you describe, for the rest of my life, and with the contract being transferable by you?

I don’t know about your place, but the answer here is simple: no, you can’t. There’s a whole host of labour law that cannot be overruled by a contract. Some of those laws deal with the ability to cancel the contract, and what compensation people can possibly demand in such circumstances.

The strongest labour contract is when you work on a specific, short-term project, where it is clear that your personal specific involvement is important to the project (like when you are a hard-to-replace expert or something).

If you then walk out of the job without good reason (and there are precedents on what count as good reasons), a judge might rule that you have to fork over several months of pay as compensation to your employer. It’s rare, but this happens.

The other option is when the employer has has done you a concrete service in return for a period of employment, like paying for an education. It that case, you could be ordered to repay the service if you quit early. But only at reasonable terms, you can’t just say that a training was worth 10 million dollar.

Any contract that makes it harder to quit is just nor legally valid. You could avoid labour law by setting up a company with yourself as employee, then get yourself hired on a business-to-business basis with heavy stipulated damages to pay in case of cancellation of the service. But even then, banckruptcy is the worst that can happen if you quit. They can’t force you to keep working.

36

Anderson 01.20.12 at 1:58 pm

Electronic voting machines could print receipts, and you could show your receipt to collect your $2 or whatever.

37

Zamfir 01.20.12 at 2:01 pm

The most obvious downside is that it would mean rich people could literally buy election results; but—as people are saying in this thread—that’s kind of what happens now anyway.
At the moment, people can use money to swing marginal results. In some places you can swing further than others, but the further you go away from a vague “people are OK with this” situation, the harder it gets. Ina vote-buting system, money would buy the starting point, not just the deviations.

38

Joe 01.20.12 at 2:03 pm

That is to say, not that citizen X can sell her vote, but that (a) she can only vote if she buys the right—at, let’s say, $10 a vote; and (b) she can buy as many votes as she wants.

This is a nice idea, but as stated it offends basic principles of democratic justice. The first vote should be free, so that even the poorest citizen can participate in this great civic duty. Each additional vote that citizen X wants to buy would be $10.

39

Timothy Scriven 01.20.12 at 2:06 pm

Actually- things wouldn’t turn out the same. If votes could be bought and sold, than policy would tend to support even greater inequality and would reduce the welfare of the poorer, except for the class traitors (and by the logic of bidding, even the class traitors may be less well off than they would have been if the election had have proceeded apace.)

An extreme case as an example- Suppose that the electorate is divided into two camps, the “ruling class” camp, which is comprised of 49% of the population and the “oppressed class” camp, which is comprised of 51% of the population. Suppose that the ruling class will recieve an extra 1000 dollars in utility if it’s favoured candidate wins and the oppressed class with recieve the same if it’s candidate wins (however, the gain shall be much more meaningful to them because of the declining marginal utility of money- say it shall have twice the value). The ruling class, but not the oppressed class, has the capacity to bribe. In short order the ruling class will win the election, and only a small portion of the population need be bribed, increasing inequality.

40

politicalfootball 01.20.12 at 2:15 pm

If you sell your vote you do not go into the ballot box at all. Someone else gets to push the button twice. And they can do whatever they want, twice, secretly.

You’re missing the point about secrecy. If someone else knows how my vote is used, it doesn’t matter whether I know or not. I am vulnerable to coercion.

Under your scenario, my employer decides who I vote for. Period. If I don’t turn my ballot over, I’m fired. Mitt won’t be doing business with me, he’ll be doing business with my employer.

41

John Holbo 01.20.12 at 2:18 pm

“If votes could be bought and sold, than policy would tend to support even greater inequality and would reduce the welfare of the poorer, except for the class traitors (and by the logic of bidding, even the class traitors may be less well off than they would have been if the election had have proceeded apace.)”

I don’t disagree with the proposition that this is a system for making the rich richer and the poor poorer. I just am not sure I agree with the proposition that it would do so to a greater extent than the system we’ve got.

I’m glad that people think the post sounds like Marginal Revolution, but I didn’t intend it in that spirit. More of a Modest Proposal, really. But with the caveat that it really is modest. It’s a horrible idea, but it would only make things modestly worst. Which says something, I think.

42

John Holbo 01.20.12 at 2:23 pm

“You’re missing the point about secrecy. If someone else knows how my vote is used, it doesn’t matter whether I know or not. I am vulnerable to coercion.

Under your scenario, my employer decides who I vote for. Period. If I don’t turn my ballot over, I’m fired. Mitt won’t be doing business with me, he’ll be doing business with my employer.”

If this sort of thing happened it would, of course, make things much worse. I am obviously not going to bother assuring you that this wouldn’t happen. How the hell do I know what the world would have to be like, for this to happen. But it would be as easy to make this sort of coercion very illegal as it is to make other kinds of workplace coercion – sexual harrassment, for example – very illegal. As to whether the law will be enforced? Well, imagine what you like.

43

Mike Huben 01.20.12 at 2:43 pm

Selling your vote is like selling yourself into slavery.

Who would sell themselves into slavery? Only the poor. Who would sell their vote? Only the poor.

If you wanted to buy votes, you would not buy them from the well-off, finicky folks who populate this blog. You would buy them from the poorest, most destitute people and they would sell at the lowest, desperate price. And in the process, those are precisely the people you would be disenfranchising.

Some might say that you would benefit the poor by now enabling them to sell something they couldn’t sell before, enriching them. Malthus pointed out centuries ago that all this would do is change the wages of the poor to less, so that the sum was still the same as needed for survival. The same problem exists with organ sales. You won’t benefit the poor as a whole if you allow them to sell organs: the economics of the situation will simply reduce the wages to compensate.

There are several functions of voting, but an important one is to insure that voters have enough buy-in to society that they cooperate within it. The disenfranchised have no incentive to cooperate. Even small minorities of enfranchised voters can have some clout to change society in their favor because they can swing votes one way or the other. Disenfranchising the poor by allowing their votes to be purchased reduces their social clout while only giving the illusion of benefitting them financially.

Another important function of voting is to allow expression of values other than financial values, values where markets do not work well. For example, values about what sort of economic system you want, who should be able to vote, etc. If you sell votes, you are subverting this purpose.

44

Manta1976 01.20.12 at 2:43 pm

I don’t know much about the subjext, so I will ask:
don’t we have actual example of places where and times when John’s “modest proposal” is/was the norm?

If so, what conclusion can we get about what would happen if such proposal were actually implemented?

45

politicalfootball 01.20.12 at 3:06 pm

If this sort of thing happened it would, of course, make things much worse.

Of course, Modest Proposal-wise, it’s not unreasonable to stipulate a fair, non-coercive vote market. I’m humorless enough to be reading the original post as libertarian-utopian rather than Swiftian.

46

j_h_r 01.20.12 at 3:08 pm

not quite what you’re faux-proposing, but worth mentioning even so…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gondour

47

LFC 01.20.12 at 3:30 pm

I happened to see a (pretty absurd, I thought) recent column by Richard Cohen in WaPo along the lines of: I was a young journalist-in-embryo in ’68 covering the NH primary, and Eugene McCarthy would never have been able to do what he did without rich anti-war people (one of whom was Martin Peretz, btw) giving him sizable amounts of money. Ergo, money = speech, money in politics is no problem, QED. I assume there is a term for this kind of fallacious reasoning.

48

LFC 01.20.12 at 3:32 pm

in 45, the “I” in the second line refers to Cohen, not me

49

Xerographica 01.20.12 at 4:01 pm

John Holbo, my reply was getting a bit lengthy…and since one of my points had to do with efficiency…and since I was going to post my reply on my blog anyways…here is my reply…Crooked Timber Liberals Do Not Advocate Selling Votes.

If A) you have better things to do with your time than read my lengthy comment (of course this would prove my point regarding the value of opportunity costs)…and B) I could only offer one counter-argument in this comment…then this is what it would be…

You certainly aren’t the first to suggest that there is a correlation between wealth and values…but you would certainly be the first if you were able to substantiate your claim.

Latro…if you’re interested…my blog entry also includes a reply to your comment.

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ben w 01.20.12 at 4:20 pm

People could donate to candidates, to help them buy votes.

Even though probably no one would be willing to vote for free? So I’d give you $x, with some of which to buy my vote back from me?

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Billikin 01.20.12 at 4:33 pm

“We’d have formal democracy but functional plutocracy.”

And this differs from our current situation, how?

BTW, as others have indicated, votes were effectively bought or coerced in 19th century America, no? How hypothetical is this question?

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Watson Ladd 01.20.12 at 4:35 pm

The assumption Holbo is making is that political advertising benefits only those with money. That’s not the case: no amount of advertising will make Santorum palatable to gays. People realize that advertising is paid for and evaluate it accordingly: political advertising works by increasing name recognition and potentially bringing out new information to voters that, because it is likely to sway them, is exactly the information we want them to have. There’s also the fact that the Solicitor General could not figure out how to ban it without banning the newspaper. (Read the transcript of the orals of Citizens United).

By contrast buying votes directly affects how people will vote. As J. Otto Pohl pointed out it rewards cronyism and corruption and empirically does worse then free votes. Furthermore, because you only need 51% of the people to win an election, it doesn’t actually take into account everyone’s concern for the policies that are being argued about.

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Omega Centauri 01.20.12 at 5:19 pm

To follow up on Adam’s proposal to invert the question, voters must buy their right to vote, and those who pay more get more votes. Lets say we made the election currency be hours of freely given public service. Now rather than the rich having an advantage over the poor, the weighting people get in the election outcome is proportional to how much effort/time they are willing to put in. This might even be expandable into a decent system, although it would require some work to questimate what the unintended side effects might be.

We could also go to candidates/supporters buying votes, only the only legal vote buying currency is hours of service rendered/promised. At least this potentially levels the class playing field.

As far as the O.P.; surely, we could arrange a mechanism whereby only the buyer and the seller know about the transaction/vote. The practicality of this needn’t be the issue.

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John Bohn 01.20.12 at 5:22 pm

Are there no corporate lawyers reading this? I would set up a vote brokerage. I would buy and offer to sell blocs of votes to CEOs, who could then offer to vote for politicians who would support legislation, say, exempting their firms from all taxes. All nice and confidential, and no risk of prosecution for bribery — there’s nothing illegal about voting for someone who supports your favorite policies.

This efficient system could speed the installation of total plutocracy by several years. You should not give away ideas like this for free!

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Mr.Violet 01.20.12 at 5:23 pm

Oh it’s easy to understand what would happen, go to Sicily and study how Mafia buys votes, you will end up with a “natural” experiment on this kind of world, well or a bullet somewhere :DDD

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shah8 01.20.12 at 5:28 pm

As mister 3/5 here, never mind how *I’ll* sell my vote…

On a more serious note…
Voting does not really work outside of relatively equal privilege, always buying off or eviscerating the power of unfortunates, and I don’t think democratic or republican government works in a framework where *everyone* is supposed to have civic rights and responsibilities. The main utility of modern voting is in the process of coercing a losing regime out in favor of an ascending one without violence. As we can also see, there is unfortunately low capacity to vote for a policy, even by referendum, given the shenanigans…

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shah8 01.20.12 at 5:30 pm

Also, just as a side note, I’d *love* for Watson Ladd to ponder the curious role of the Log Republicans. Perhaps he’ll find illumination.

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Xerographica 01.20.12 at 5:33 pm

Mike Huben, on one hand…all the policies/candidates that the poor would vote for provide them with definite benefits…yet on the other hand you argue that the poor would be willing to trade those benefits in for cash.

Is your issue that the cash that the poor is accepting is less valuable to them than the benefits? Or is your issue that the money isn’t going through the government? If that’s the case are you arguing that congress would spend the poor’s money better than the poor would? For example, would the poor just use the money to purchase big screen TVs while congress would use the money to subsidize public education?

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paul 01.20.12 at 5:37 pm

Latro at #27 makes the same argument I have been making:

In short, why dont we (everywhere, I’m not American but the problem is similar everywhere), give to each candidate – defined as whoever wants to be one – and party – same – the same means of communication, the same alloted time, the same OBLIGATORY presence in debates, and all that, as to ensure all voices get the same, equal treatment and the deciding citizens can vote fully informed?

Given the expense of today’s campaigns (defending a Senate seat can cost $7.5 million), who doesn’t think our electeds are selling their votes by granting time and access in exchange for donations? If not as an outright exchange of a vote for a cash amount (even I’m not that cynical about all of them), they are are going to support the side they understand best. Witness the recent SOPA/PIPA fracas: they were told it was a harmless administrative change by the people who stood to benefit from gaining that power.

OT for this thread, perhaps, but rather than selling votes I would like to see a ban on purchased broadcast advertisements on behalf of candidates. Would anyone argue that political discourse has been improved since 1960, when Kennedy ran against Nixon on TV? The power inherent in the unrestricted use of TV gave us Roger Ailes, after all, and we know his legacy.

All qualified candidates (i.e., they are certified to be on the ballot) care granted equal amounts airtime with some restrictions. Ads must have a minimum length (if you can’t make an argument more than 30 seconds long, go home). They must be shown in the same time slots as they would if paid for by campaigns, not in the overnight PSA/informercial graveyard. And no other ads/messages can be paid for by anyone else.

I had originally thought of making this part of the FCC broadcast license, that broadcasters would be required to cough up some airtime as part of their stewardship. But this would exempt cable operators so we may have to pay for it out of public funds. Last I looked, the two main candidates are slated for get $80 million each for campaigning. We could save money and raise the level of discourse by taking that back and buying airtime blocks for their use.

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UserGoogol 01.20.12 at 5:48 pm

Charlie @ 8: I don’t support the idea either, but I fundamentally disagree with your argument against it. Everyone can be bought. If someone offered you a billion dollars in exchange for your vote, even if your fundamental goal is to help other people you can help other people far more with a billion dollars than with a single vote, so rejecting the deal would be patently irrational. So it’s just a matter of haggling over the price, as the old joke goes. (Of course the “market price” of a vote wouldn’t be that ridiculously out of whack from actual outcomes, so selling your vote in practice would be a different matter.)

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Jake 01.20.12 at 5:50 pm

Is there some sort of bug in Crooked Timber’s system? This is clearly a John Quiggin post – deliberately obtuse but masquerading as being daring and controversial, sort of a poor man’s dsquared – yet the top of the page says “John Holbo”.

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bianca steele 01.20.12 at 5:57 pm

What is most important about voting? Finding out what percentage of the people have certain positions? Or finding out what each person thinks? Probably the issues would be different.

Or is voting just a probably reasonably good way to make certain decisions, which could be made even better without making it not voting anymore, though not necessarily a process that we should expect to come up with a “correct” answer, and could be drastically changed if it didn’t?

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bianca steele 01.20.12 at 6:23 pm

Put another way: I may be missing something, but ISTM there is a fundamental difference between a system that permits free contracting for votes and a system that puts votes up for the highest bidder. One of those foregrounds local power imbalances, the other foregrounds the current debate among left-leaning pundits about the need to get the influence of money out of politics, to get people to be able to stand up for themselves, to make the system fair, by not permitting people to have large amounts of money and influence elections by it. Again I may be misreading, but it always seems to me there are people talking at cross-purposes in these discussions because some are talking about the local power imbalances.

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dictateursanguinaire 01.20.12 at 6:42 pm

As long as we’re playing the ‘hey, enough of that fuddy-duddy civic virtue stuff, let the market rip!!111′ game, I wanna do some rational choice speculating.

Assumption: any rational actor should care about the laws that they have to follow.

Assumption: Money can buy anything, but the government can do anything, up to and including killing people.

Hypothesis: the bundle of goods ‘voting’ is not a rational substitute for the good ‘money’, since the law and the government enforcing it can theoretically do things like: take all that money away, put you in jail or kill you. While it may be rational for one person, who can’t change an election, to sell their vote, it would be irrational for too many people to sell their vote because that would add up to ‘trading a good of potentially infinite value (e.g. not being killed) for a finite good’.

Right there, we have a sort of prisoner’s dilemma (it makes sense for me to take the money and let rich people vote to have a poor-people-genocide, since maybe I can buy some nice stuff before my inevitable death; but if I knew that all the other poor folks were on board to vote against and I was the marginal voter, it would be totally nonsensical to sell), a situation where it makes a lot of sense for the government to step in and make sure that this doesn’t happen.

So why would anyone do this (because surely a lot of people would)? I think Mike Huben has the answer. I think that only grinding poverty, ignorance and a massively corrupt government could convince a rational actor to sell their stake in the society that they have to live in, because otherwise your vote should be invaluable for those reasons listed above (not to mention that it has sentimental/pride/self-respect giving value that no sum of money does.) I’m not saying solving the fundamental problem would be easy but I think it’s disingenuous to limit ourselves to saying ‘well, those fastfood workers aren’t gonna vote anyway, might as well give em a leg up for it.’

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Eric Titus 01.20.12 at 6:59 pm

No one has addressed the flip side of the question, namely “what if we allowed candidates to buy votes”–the same question rephrased differently. Aside from problems of enforcement, one fundamental problem with this system is that it forces candidates to raise large amounts of money, and generally the only way to do so is to be corrupt in some way. In some cases, you’d have an extreme 1/3 buying the votes of the indifferent 1/6th to get a majority. Thus, while the system may make sense on an individual basis, it seems like a recipe for corruption and extremism at the societal level.

The problem also starts off with a fairly flimsy rational choice premise–I say this as an anti-rational-choice sociologist. The assumption is that people value their right to vote in a way that can be translated into prices. This is not to say that such a market couldn’t exist, but that the process of marketization would lead to values on one’s right to vote that might not have existed before (in the same way that a market for surrogate mothers makes some women think about the “cost” of childbirth). The economic approach maps fairly well to the rational choice voting model in which votes are seen as a sort of currency that candidates try to maximize. But given that voters tend to take a more holistic approach to candidates, this system could really only work if the process caused voters to behave more like the idealized “rational” voter.

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Bruce Wilder 01.20.12 at 7:16 pm

I suppose it might have something to do with why we require that legislatures make laws, aka rules of general applicability, rather than simply act in highly specific transfers of wealth and power.

Vote-buying, or vote-selling, is the democratization of corruption. And, what is corruption?

What does it mean, when we say that a country is poor because its government is corrupt? What goes wrong with political decision-making?

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mpowell 01.20.12 at 7:23 pm

Of course this system would be pretty bad. But there is a factor here that nobody has mentioned yet. Any individual voter has a pretty poor negotiating position with any given candidate. His vote is very unlikely to impact the outcome of the election. So in order for voters to get any value out of their votes they would probably have to form up in large groups or coalitions. Then those votes would be bid on in mass for a reasonable value (and the result split among voters, with the person heading up the coalition taking a decent sized cut). Now these coalitions would have to have some kind of democratic process for determining who was running their coalition or how they made decisions on who to sell votes to. And presumably this decision making process would have to forbid vote selling or you would be back to the same problem as before. So, in summary, I think it is strictly better to forbid vote selling, even if the final difference may not be as substantial as we would prefer.

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Bruce Wilder 01.20.12 at 7:26 pm

Let’s recognize, too, that “corruption” can be a pejorative, with an elastic and circumstantial meaning, quite at odds with the common weal. The Reconstruction state governments of the American South were legendarily corrupt, and the oligarchic, white supremacist regimes that replaced them were . . .

The political machines of the immigrant cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries were sometimes accused of effectively buying votes, by the WASP Republicans, who disenfranchised those cities in state legislatures. (It is often forgotten that one-man, one-vote transformed the politics of Rhode Island as much as any southern, Jim Crow state.) Those machines could be legendarily corrupt; they also organized the provision of public goods, with various degrees of efficiency: streets, transit, water, sewer, schools, police.

Strategically organizing political coalitions is inventive work. Maybe, buying votes would work well for a time, to marshall the concerted interest of broader electorates.

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dictateursanguinaire 01.20.12 at 8:02 pm

addendum: sorry if there was unnecessary snark in original comment

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Emma in Sydney 01.20.12 at 9:08 pm

Anthony Trollope wrote a good number of novels in the mid-nineteenth century which examined this question among others. Sometimes the good guys bought votes, sometimes the bad guys. The price was about a day’s beer. What’s clear is that for the newly enfranchised businessmen and tradesmen of rural England in the 1870s, it made exactly no difference whether the Tories or the Whigs controlled Parliament, so they sold to the highest bidder ( and had a great party on election day).

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Ed Crotty 01.20.12 at 9:52 pm

I think that only grinding poverty, ignorance and a massively corrupt government could convince a rational actor to sell their stake in the society that they have to live in, because otherwise your vote should be invaluable for those reasons listed above (not to mention that it has sentimental/pride/self-respect giving value that no sum of money does.)

grinding poverty,
ignorance
massively corrupt government

check, check, check – and so the poor do not bother to vote.

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howard 01.20.12 at 10:05 pm

replying to Zamfir at 35.

Thanks for your thoughtful and informed reply. I’m in the US, but I can think of working conditions that seem to violate normal labor law restrictions. I’m thinking of (1) professional baseball players who played for 32 straight hours or in 105 degree heat; (2) ultra marathoners who competed for 24 straight hours (or more); (3) movie stars in the 30′s (or so) who had personal service contracts that allowed the production company (say warner brothers) to sell the contract to another production company (say Goldwyn) either permanently or temporarily. I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know enough about US labor law to know what allows these to occur (maybe not legal today, but not regarded as horribly unethical). I know there are loopholes in a lot of US laws that exempt small businesses, or employers of a single person. My more general point is that there are a lot of (apparently) legal contracts that bear resemblance to slavery (except for the incredibly important distinction of voluntariness). Historically in the US (and in England) indentured servitude (voluntary contract, limited time, otherwise much like slavery) was common and legal.

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LFC 01.20.12 at 10:54 pm

@58
clearly a John Quiggin post – deliberately obtuse but masquerading as being daring and controversial

I don’t agree w everything JQ writes but this is not an accurate description of his posts.

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Peter T 01.20.12 at 11:12 pm

The Philippines. Pakistan. Thailand. Indian “voting blocs”. There’s a rich literature.

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John Holbo 01.21.12 at 12:15 am

” People could donate to candidates, to help them buy votes.

Even though probably no one would be willing to vote for free? So I’d give you $x, with some of which to buy my vote back from me?”

I was imagining that as few people might be willing to vote for free as are now willing to be activists for a particular candidate. A distinct minority, that is. Really it could work a lot of different ways. It would depend on how the culture of voting changed in this environment. I wasn’t trying to be too definite about that. You can imagine what you want, so long as you see that it could go a lot of different ways.

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John Holbo 01.21.12 at 12:32 am

Getting back to xerographica: “You certainly aren’t the first to suggest that there is a correlation between wealth and values…but you would certainly be the first if you were able to substantiate your claim.”

I’m not sure I fully understand this. (I did click through for a quick look.) Presumably if you study income and party affiliation and so forth you can find some meaningful correlations. Probably the Pew values survey would be a good place to look. But my argument and attitude doesn’t depend on any particular social science results. Consider three ways of allocating votes.

You get more votes the longer you are willing to sit in a chair in a room for hours on end with nothing but nothing to do.

You get more votes the longer you are willing to do the downward-facing dog.

You get more votes the more you pay.

These are all potential methods of measuring intensity of preference. In some ways they are all better than the system we have got, because they all attempt to measure intensity at all, whereas one person-one vote does not. That said, they are all obviously flawed. The first will skew voting to people who don’t have jobs or things they really need to do that keep them from sitting in a boring room doing nothing. The second will skew voting to yoga practitioners. The third will skew voting to rich people. Now do I know for sure that, say, yoga practitioners have different values than everyone else has, so that this skew will be a problem? No. If I had to guess, yoga skews left. But maybe that’s totally wrong and there is no correlation between being good at the downward-facing dog and any kind of political value that anyone might be called upon to express with a vote. All the same, I’m not inclined to adopt a system that gives a group disproportionate representation, for an irrelevant reason, even if that disproportion does not clearly create a problem. The basic equality proposition underlying one person-one vote, and also the pragmatics of it, suggest that you should not be giving someone more votes than someone else gets for an obviously irrelevant reason.

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John Holbo 01.21.12 at 12:44 am

Just to be clear (since evidently my penchant for saying ‘there’s something to this scheme’ has misled some people as to the spirit of the post): in saying that in some ways these downward-facing dog, etc.-based vote allocation systems are better than what we’ve got I don’t actually mean to be saying that, overall, any of them would be better than what we’ve actually. I think one-person one-vote is better than all these schemes. Having a (flawed) measure of preference intensity is better than having no measure of preference intensity, granted; but it’s better still to have more basic fairness in the system.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.21.12 at 10:38 am

Aside from giving away the game and making it all too obvious, this also seems kind of inefficient, from the elite’s point of view.

Suppose I’m The Man. In your model, first I have to find a politician who will be loyal to me – which means that either I’m paying him (or, perhaps, blackmailing him) – and then I should buy millions of votes to get this politician elected. So, I’m paying to both the politician and the voters. But I don’t really care what particular individual gets elected; all I want is anyone who follows my orders.

Accordingly, in the current model, I just send a signal to the pool of potential politicians that whoever is elected will be well paid, I let them compete, and then I bribe the one who gets elected.

So, if I’m The Man, I’m not going to buy votes, don’t need to.

Now, of course the politicians who compete for my patronage might decide to buy votes. So, some voters might get some money out of it; like, say, 10 bucks/head from Romney, in South Carolina. $10, a free lunch instead of moronic ads (not even directed at you, in most cases) clogging your TV, that would certainly be a big improvement. So, yes, my vote is for John’s proposal, especially if it comes with $10 attached.

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skidmarx 01.21.12 at 12:27 pm

We have few enough opportunities to vote in a lifetime that it is already feasible for those with money to skew the process sufficiently the render it largely meaningless. Give me annual parliaments or the hanging of the last capitalist with the entrails of the last newspaper proprietor and I’ll consider your proposition.

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Xerographica 01.21.12 at 6:59 pm

John Holbo, for even considering preference intensity…I’m bumping up the price to $2,000. It’s fine for liberals not to agree with a concept…but it’s preferable if they integrate their understanding of the concept into their argument…like you have.

That being said…I don’t get the feeling like you’ve made a real case…or any case…for equality…in the sense that it trumps revealing intensity. That’s kind of the equivalent of a libertarian that holds “liberty” as argument enough.

If you scroll down my blog entry you can read my detailed response to your comment. If I had to pick one sentence to share then I’d guess I’d go with this one…

Just like we should support free-speech even when it has an unfavorable skew….we should not let the possibility of an unfavorable skew diminish our support for people’s right to try and protect their interests.

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Hume 01.21.12 at 9:18 pm

I have not read these comments, so forgive me if this has been covered. Voters have an ethical responsibility to vote for the just ends of their political community (as per their worldviews). This is a moral duty in exercising their political power in the form of a vote. To receive particular benefits (as opposed to voting for the ‘common good’ or just ends of government) appears to violate this moral/political requirement. Some may object and argue that “people vote in their self interest all the time.” This may be true, but it does not entail that people *ought* to vote in their self interest. And when one receives any extra payment for their vote, they are necessarily exercising their political power for their own particular good. This is illegitimate.

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billie 01.21.12 at 9:27 pm

The system of voting for the American President looks very complicated to outsiders and looks like it is open to abuse. Australians are confused about why Americans need to state their political affiliation when they register to vote, our major political parties keep this info in their detailed databases and we are shocked that people can queue to vote for 6 hours, maximum wait is one hour then polling officials will tell you which close booths are quiet. We also are shocked that companies like Walmart call all their employees into work when the polling booths are open, so they can’t vote – in Australia you can vote early – about 14 days prior to the election.

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Mike Huben 01.22.12 at 1:07 am

Xerographica (@58) writes:

“Mike Huben, on one hand…all the policies/candidates that the poor would vote for provide them with definite benefits…yet on the other hand you argue that the poor would be willing to trade those benefits in for cash.”

Each one is individually in a prisoner’s dilemma, where he can get some immediate benefit directly in cash. If he doesn’t defect for the cash, he is a loser compared to the other poor who do. They all thus will want to defect, and thus lose their political leverage to get anything else out of the system.

“Is your issue that the cash that the poor is accepting is less valuable to them than the benefits? Or is your issue that the money isn’t going through the government?”

No. You didn’t read carefully. The issue is that employers can reduce their malthusian starvation wages by as much as they are paid for their votes, and thus they have no net benefit from the sale.

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John Holbo 01.22.12 at 2:25 am

Xerographica: “That being said…I don’t get the feeling like you’ve made a real case…or any case…for equality…in the sense that it trumps revealing intensity. That’s kind of the equivalent of a libertarian that holds “liberty” as argument enough.”

It’s true that I haven’t made the case for equality, but that’s because if you don’t accept the basic proposition that people should be given equal political rights and equal representation, I don’t see why you want to devise a better democratic voting scheme at all. Democratic voting only makes moral sense on the assumption that, basically, we want equality for citizens. Attempts to reveal intensity of preferences are not alternatives to valuing equality, in my sense. Such attempts only have a coherent motive as refinements – not replacements of – attempts to realize basic political equality, plus liberty. You want to give the people what they want. And you are starting from a baseline of equality of persons.

You write about ‘efficiency’. It is more efficient if we can measure intensity of preference better? But efficiency for what? Why do you want to measure this stuff? Presumably because you want to have a more refined, nuanced sense of what ‘most people really want’. But why would you care about that unless you think that what most people really want is morally important? And why would you think that unless you think that, given that everyone is equal, what most people really want is what we need to go for, in most cases.

I mean, if you are a divine right of kings monarchist-type, you won’t believe any of this equality guff, but then you won’t care about revealed preferences of anyone but God and the king either. Just for example. So what gives?

You give the rich more votes if you think the rich deserve more political power, for being rich. Just like you give more votes to yoga practitioners, if you think doing yoga makes you a spiritual aristocrat more deserving of wielding political power. You don’t do either of these things, ideally, if you don’t believe these things. Even if you think it would be politically harmless – a wash at the ballot box – you don’t go generating random aristocracies. It’s just bad design, at best.

A simple question: do you think that selling votes, as a scheme, is superior in any way to the more votes for more downward-facing dog scheme? If so: why?

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tib 01.22.12 at 3:48 am

One problem is this, in the post’s fourth paragraph:

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.

This is the apparently cynical but actually naive take on modern democratic politics. There are lots of different opinions in the world, if your opinion loses in a modern democracy it’s generally because you and your allies failed to make your case, not because the other side fooled or bought off the voters. But for some people it is easier to blame malevolent forces and voter ignorance than to examine their own weaknesses and failures.

In systems where votes are bought and sold, say parts of the U.S. in the 19th century, the range of outcomes is very different from outcomes in the ‘real world’.

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G. McThornbody 01.22.12 at 5:18 am

@85 et al. I don’t think the assumption JH makes is incorrect. In the US especially, we don’t want people who disagree with us to vote at all. We only have voting on one day. We gerrymander. We make laws hassling people about voter registration. Citizens, for various reasons, do not start off on an equal level concerning government participation, much less anything else. I think your sentence “you and your allies failed to make their case” is quite true in part, except for the large portion who aren’t doing their civic duty or are oblivious or apathetic to it. (Perhaps you can force people to vote, but it would suck for me if they voted against my candidate!) Voter turnout for the last US election was only 63% of eligible voters. That’s not stellar… while also being the highest turnout since 1968 before voting age was lowered. MY pulls from Nate Silver here, and I think it warrants a brief inspection at the least: http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2011/12/18/rich_people_are_politically_active.html
This seems to reinforce the idea of risk aversion in elections. If you live in a democracy where the term equality pops up for whatever reason, you stand to lose much more (numerically) if you are already rich, and you stand to gain much less if you are already poor. On the other hand, if you look at purchasing power, the rich lose basically nothing while the poor gain quite a bit. If you want non-rich people or non-interested people to vote, a monetary incentive is an obvious option. Another would be making it much easier to vote, extending the voting window, making voter IDs easier to obtain by electronically linking it to an SSN, etc.

It seems to me that free market types would into this sort of thing. In the US, I’d expect interstate trade to see a huge increase in commerce. A vote for ManOnDog would be worth much more in liberal states where his votes are already rare than they would be in states where ManOnDog votes are common since conservatives are into catholicspandexwrestling. Such interstate commerce, as a “vote buying” loophole, would trump our electoral college as well. You’d have a huge vote market.

I can imagine a sleazy tv salesman marketing early, “Vote for ManOnDog today and get a $50 bonus!” Maybe you’ll take the offer, maybe you’ll wait until the ballot futures market goes up. How desperate are you for money anyway, and who would you vote for if you were just some silly person who voted for free?

This repost from KDrum is vaguely related: http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2012/01/congressional-eyeballs-are-worth-more-yours. People more participatory in the game are worth more.

You could really look at the rest of the ~30% of voters as an untapped market since they aren’t interested in making their own personal choice anyway.

Last caveat – I look at this as still one vote per person that can be bought: one contract per person that they can sell to their neighbor, a PAC, a corporation or business, etc. I.e., you have sold you own vote and preference away to someone else.

grismcthorn

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ogmb 01.22.12 at 12:21 pm

dsquared 01.20.12 at 12:18 pm
same reason you can’t sell your jury duty – it isn’t a property-right of yours, it’s a (weak) obligation to take part in a process which is mutually owned by society.

Actually, it’s the public office that is supposed to be the civic obligation. Considerable public funds are put in the hands of someone who is supposed to dispense them in the public interest. Anyone who is willing to pay to reach this position is likely more interested in redirecting them into their own coffers.

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John Holbo 01.22.12 at 2:21 pm

I wrote: “the rich would mostly, but not necessarily always, win.”

tib responds: “This is the apparently cynical but actually naive take on modern democratic politics.”

I think the opposite may be the case, naivete-wise. But who is being naive is less interesting than who is right and wrong. (Possibly the naive person is right, after all.)

I wish I remembered where I read it six months or so ago. Some social science someone or other attempted to quantify the degree to which congresscritters seemed attentive to the interests/preferences of rich and median and poor constituents, respectively. (I know, it sounds hard to quantify. Well, that was the trick, I suppose.) Bottomline: congressfolks care about what the rich think and don’t care much at all about the poor. But, in addition to the difficulties in making such a measure, there is the problem McThornbody mentions. Namely, the rich are more politically active. So, naturally, congresspeople would tend to pay them more mind even if money were otherwise out of the equation. It’s complicated.

So what do we think of: “if your opinion loses in a modern democracy it’s generally because you and your allies failed to make your case.” I guess the first thing to say is that it’s clearly ambiguous in an unhelpful way. Take the recent SOPA/PIPA pushback. Suppose Wikipedia and everyone else hadn’t gotten their acts together and pushed back with actual people power? Well, if SOPA and PIPA went through you could say the opponents failed to make their case. But it’s also true that money talks in a big way in this area. Big Content thought they had done the necessary, contributed enough cash to get what they wanted in this case, and were quite shocked when it turned out otherwise. So even if it’s true, in a sense, that if you lose, you failed to make your case, it doesn’t follow that it’s false that money has a huge, and (I would say) largely undue influence on the process.

In short, what you say, tib, is ambiguous between a more or less trivial truth that isn’t inconsistent with the position you are trying to deny, and a substantive but not clearly true claim that money can’t buy you as much as most people think, in politics.

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Xerographica 01.22.12 at 2:58 pm

John Holbo, I just purchased your book…Reason & Persuasion: Three Dialogues by Plato…for $32.50 from Amazon. And I intentionally kept your Amazon tag in the above link. Rather than just thinking of it as me “purchasing” your book…let’s think of it as me “voting” for you…and Amazon…and Pearson Education…and…

yadda yadda yadda

So to answer your simple question…selling votes is superior to the downward facing dog scheme because you and I voted for the people who can buy votes.

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Manta1976 01.22.12 at 3:15 pm

88: see this post: it should link and give to an abstract of the study you want
http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2011/02/political_economy

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John Holbo 01.22.12 at 4:06 pm

Thanks for buying the book! I hope you like it.

Thanks also for that link, Manta1976. That’s the one. The study I had in mind, that is.

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mw 01.22.12 at 11:47 pm

How could you possibly police this. We have secret voting. Everybody would cheat.

But we really don’t have secret voting in the U.S. any more — most states now have ‘no excuses’ absentee ballots (and nobody really checks up on the excuses in the other states anyway). So anyone who wants to sell a vote now can do it, by requesting an absentee ballot and filling it out in the presence of the vote-buyer (or just by selling the blank ballot itself).

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John Holbo 01.23.12 at 1:51 am

“selling votes is superior to the downward facing dog scheme because you and I voted for the people who can buy votes.”

OK, I’ll respond quickly to this. It seems to me circular. In a world in which people have been downward-facing dogging (on behalf of) the candidates for some time, the people to whom (for whom) one downward-face are also the people to whom (for whom, one behalf of whom) one has downward-faced in the past. Just as the people who buy votes are the people who bought votes in the past, ex hypothesi. But ‘we’ve always done it this way before, so it must be a good way of doing it’ is not an argument, especially not when we are arguing hypothetially about things we actually haven’t done before. (If this is not your argument, then I don’t see what you your argument is.)

The only difference, it seems to me, is that there is no market in selling instances of performance of the downward-facing dog. Whereas you can sell votes. But there is no particular reason why that should making selling preferably. Our interest in settling an optimal voting system is not a desire to create a commercial industry, per se.

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EKR 01.23.12 at 5:01 am

But we really don’t have secret voting in the U.S. any more—most states now have ‘no excuses’ absentee ballots (and nobody really checks up on the excuses in the other states anyway). So anyone who wants to sell a vote now can do it, by requesting an absentee ballot and filling it out in the presence of the vote-buyer (or just by selling the blank ballot itself).

Technical nit, just because I’m a voting nerd. You often need not just the ballot but also the envelope. Absentee voting procedures are generally designed to allow election officials to verify the validity of your ballot without seeing how you voted. For instance, some locations use the double envelope method in which you put your ballot in a blank envelope and then the blank envelope in an outer signed envelope. The election officials check the signature, then open the outer envelope, shuffle the inner envelopes, then open them and process the ballots.

This isn’t to say that you can’t sell the ballot plus signed envelope, just that it’s slightly more complicated than selling the ballot.

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Glen Tomkins 01.23.12 at 5:16 am

Fair enough to want to avoid discussing the voting mechanics involved, one can see the point of that, but I’m not sure you can avoid that discussion if you want to talk about this as a functioning system. Those voting mechanics are fairly basic to who wins elections. As Stalin observed, it doesn’t matter who votes nearly so much as who counts the votes, and that’s what the mechanics of voting is, who counts the votes and how they do it.

Besides the obvious adjustments in the law needed to let this work, that buying and selling votes be made legal (and that, if we are talking about the US, in 50 separate jurisdictions, because voting is a state matter), you have to assume all sorts of legal changes making a system of vote-buying workable. Even assuming a perfect willingness of state legislatures to pass any law to make this work, it’s not clear to me that you could make this workable.

Right now, we don’t have anything tangible you could sell to a buyer that would tranfer your vote. We could try to create something new that would do this, we could issue registered voters a chit, and they could sell that. But how do these chits get distributed in a way that keeps the system secure from fraud, yet still allows a secret ballot?

You obviously can’t do this with in-person voting. Not only would the purchaser have to have agents at every polling place (of which there are tens of thousands in the US), but it would be obvious to whom the seller had sold his or her vote, as the handover of the chit would have to be witnessed in order to insure that the purchaser’s agents weren’t just voting multiple times without actually obtaining some voter’s chit. And, of course, the purchaser would need agents at these tens of thousands of polling places who could be trusted to vote the secret ballots they purchased according to their employer’s wishes.

To insure some sort of accountability when voting by mail, most jurisdicitons in the US use a two-step process. Voters first request a ballot by mail, receive it at their home address, then mail the voted ballot back in, at which point their names are crossed off the rolls as having voted that election. Well, the vote seller could game that system, unless the ballots mailed out were made uncounterfeitable, by selling to multiple buyers. And buyers could mail in ballot requests, then mail back ballots before the actual voters had a chance to mail in the ballots they receive as a result of the phony requests. There would be no way to adjudicate the resulting conterclaims over which ballot was actually mailed in by the voter, or a valid purchaser, without opening both the inner and the outer envelopes and establishing the link between voter and vote — without violating the secrecy of the ballot.

You can’t have a system that allows the purchase of votes without making the assignment of those purchases public. And we wouldn’t even be able to maintain the system half public and half secret ballot; because purchasers in such a system could claim to have bought the votes of people who would have no way to prove otherwise, because their vote would not be a matter of public record unless they had sold it. Everyone’s vote is public, or no one’s can be.

We really already knew this connection between the open ballot and bought votes from historical example. The reason we moved away from the public ballot was precisely that it allowed favor and fear to influence voting, that those who voted the right way would face reward from the local political machine, and those who voted the wrong way could face reprisal.

It’s all well and good to set up some thought experiment in which vote buying is allowed as the one variable that changes. But I think that you actually would need to bring back the public ballot to make vote-buying workable. And if you bring back the public ballot, you actually end up making fear of punishment the easier and surer way of getting out the vote than any system of cash rewards. We would see machines back in the saddle in any case, because you would need a machine with a local presence in many localities to make even the vote purchasing work (politics being a retail business). And once we have political machines back in the saddle, they would quickly find that they no longer have to be Santa Claus to get out the vote, that intimidation works better and cheaper.

As a side note, this whole discussion has this other dimension, that we may soon find ourselves returning to the open ballot as the only refuge from the massive election fraud that computerized voting and vote counting make possible, but make possible only if we have a secret ballot. If the way we all vote becomes a matter of public record, then no Dieboldery could possibly steal an election — and we may find, in the aftermath of a provably stolen election, that the public ballot is the only way to be certain to prevent a repeat. The risk at such a point would be that we won’t remember why we fled from the public ballot, in our haste to escape the more recently demonstrated evils of the secret ballot.

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Alex 01.23.12 at 5:51 am

I disagree with the suggestion that the outlined scheme would be unlikely to be much worse than the current set-up [in Western democracies?].

Someone may have already said this, but here goes anyway. Let’s say you’re poor. The vote selling scheme is introduced and there’s an election. Candidates (or their backers) start buying up votes. Overwhelming, voting rights at this election will be transferred to those who have the money. Now think about yourself. Let’s say you haven’t sold your vote, but nor can you afford to buy others. In other words, you have a single, solitary vote, while richer voters have many more. They can out-vote you. This abolishes equally at the ballot box. I might want to sell my vote, but why should you let me, considering you have no say in who I sell it to?

If you want, you can think of it in economics terms – if people sell their votes, they impose an undefined, but likely extremely large, negative externality on everyone else (that temporary sale could become a permanent one if a dictatorship is established). Also, since buying one or two votes would seem pointless, those buying would buy millions of votes – the market would tend towards oligopoly.

Compare this with what goes on now. Yes, Goldman Sachs (or whoever) can try and effectively bribe every candidate, but they can’t assure that a successful candidate they backed will actually give them what they want when s/he’s in power (unless they stand themselves), and more importantly, the principle of one person, one vote is maintained. If Goldman tries to buy Obama, citizens can persuade each other not to vote for him. Whereas if Goldman buys millions of vote directly, it doesn’t matter how much you complain, the rich will take Congress and the White House in a landslide, because they have more votes than you do.

Vote selling would increase the chance of the abolition of democracy, and decreases the chance of any kind of leftist government. Yes, Western countries seem to be in (or sliding towards) a new Gilded Age, but things could be a lot worse.

By the way John Holbo, what would you advocate instead of the current system? Clean Elections where candidates get an equal share of public money?

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Alex 01.23.12 at 6:02 am

Just like we should support free-speech even when it has an unfavorable skew….we should not let the possibility of an unfavorable skew diminish our support for people’s right to try and protect their interests.

If we’re to take this principle to its logical conclusion, presumably you would have no objection if e.g. impoverished people hired your neighbours to come redistribute your property. After all, they’re only trying to “protect their interests”.

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Xerographica 01.23.12 at 1:03 pm

John Holbo, your argument is that it’s not fair for the founder of Amazon.com…Jeff Bezos…to be able to purchase more votes than you or I would be able to.  My counter argument was that you “voted” for Bezos by selling your book on Amazon and I “voted” for Bezos when I purchased your book on Amazon.

We didn’t literally “vote” for Bezos given that he is not running for office.  We figuratively voted for him by making him that much more wealthy.  

The question is…would you still have sold your book on Amazon if you knew that Bezos was going to use your money to purchase literal votes that were against your interests?  We can see that the beauty of your idea is that it would establish a culture of ethical consumerism.

Like pragmatarianism, your idea would allow us to objectively discern the proper scope of government.  There’s no need to debate the proper scope of Jeff Bezos.  Why is that?  It’s simply because we’ve all used our money to figuratively vote for exactly what it is that Jeff Bezos should be doing…running Amazon.com.  

If we allow people to sell their votes…and directly allocate their taxes….then the government would simply do what we pay it to do.  Would you pay the government to do something that it was bad at doing?  No…nobody would  We would all only pay the government to do what it was good at doing.

If anybody disagrees with something that the government is doing then they would have the freedom to engage in ethical consumerism by boycotting that government organization.  If you support the concept of ethical consumerism in the private sector…then why wouldn’t you support applying the same concept to the public sector?  Wouldn’t you value the freedom to boycott unnecessary wars?

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Mike Huben 01.23.12 at 1:26 pm

Xerographica (@98) wrote:
“There’s no need to debate the proper scope of Jeff Bezos. Why is that? It’s simply because we’ve all used our money to figuratively vote for exactly what it is that Jeff Bezos should be doing…running Amazon.com. “

No, it is because we have long ago decided the proper scope of businessmen like Bezos, and decided that they should not be able to compete coercively: we don’t need mafias. By centralizing and democratizing government, we prevent wasteful combative competition that would lead to positive feedback.

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Xerographica 01.23.12 at 2:13 pm

Alex, how is that the logical conclusion?  The context of my statement is the current system.  It refers to people spending their time and money to try and modify the current system.  With the current system what you described is illegal (well…at least in terms of the private sector).

If you want what you described to be legal…then even though it’s against my interests…I wouldn’t want to limit your right to spend as much time/money as you wanted to try and protect your interests.

Just to be clear…my issue isn’t the taxing…it’s the spending.  I could care less if there was 100% public ownership of the means of production…as long as 1. taxpayers were allowed to directly allocate their taxes and 2. people were allowed to sell their votes.

Socialism really could work…as long as we solved the incentive problem and the partial knowledge problem.  By allowing 1. taxpayers to directly allocate their taxes and 2. people to sell their votes we would definitively solve both those problems.

Would the outcome be socialism…or anarcho-capitalism…or somewhere in between?  I have no idea…nobody could truly know the outcome.  That being said…what I’m fairly certain of is that if there was a shift…then the shift would benefit our country as a whole…completely irrespective of the direction the shift took.

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Xerographica 01.23.12 at 2:52 pm

Mike Huben, last year on your blog entry…What is Libertarianism?…I provided specific examples to refute your arguments.

Sure…I agree that we don’t need mafias…but you’re going to have to offer some specific examples of how Jeff Bezos would have anything to do with mafias. How is Bezos offering to buy your vote in the same league as mafia extortion? Is he going to send thugs to your house to beat you up if you didn’t want to sell him your vote? Would he really risk going to jail for one vote?

Would legalizing the sale of kidneys help or hurt the black market for kidneys? Would legalizing drugs help or hurt the illegal drug trade? Did ending prohibition help or hurt the mafia?

Was it easier to corrupt a king or corrupt congress? Would it be easier to corrupt congress or corrupt millions and millions of taxpayers and/or voters?  The more centralized that power is…

1. the easier it is for the corrupter…given that all the eggs are in one basket
2. the greater the likelihood for corruption…given that there will be many many many offers
3. the greater the negative impact of corruption…given that all the eggs are in one basket.

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John Holbo 01.24.12 at 2:08 am

“My counter argument was that you “voted” for Bezos by selling your book on Amazon and I “voted” for Bezos when I purchased your book on Amazon.

We didn’t literally “vote” for Bezos given that he is not running for office. We figuratively voted for him by making him that much more wealthy”

The big problem here is that we didn’t vote for Bezos, literally or figuratively, for office, by making him more wealthy. The reason we didn’t vote for him for office, in virtue of our purchase, has nothing to do with the fact that he’s not running for office. (He could have been, and we still wouldn’t have been.) By buying a product from Amazon, we reveal a preference for the product, not for Bezos in office.

So your counter-argument is really a counter-premise, like so: wealthy people are, in virtue of their wealth, inherently more deserving of wielding political power. Period. End of story. That’s fine, insofar as that makes clear where the rest of us get off the bus: namely, with this first step.

Making the point from another angle …

Suppose we change my downward-facing dog case around a bit: everyone gets votes to the extent that are musicians who sell dance records. By buying their records, you ‘vote’ for them. The problem here – which is precisely analogous to the Bezos problem – is that it’s simply false to say that, literally or figuratively, you vote for them FOR OFFICE by buying their records. At most you vote for them as being pretty good dance music creators. By buying from Amazon I may, figuratively, vote for Jeff Bezos as the guy most likely to sell me what I want for a reasonable price (this is already a stretch, but let it go.) But there is a long way to go between this and Jeff Bezos FOR SENATE, or whatever office he may seek.

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ezra abrams 01.24.12 at 4:00 am

maybe I’m not smart and French and neo-postmodern, but…how many angels can dance on the head of a pin ?
All you people are bored, need something to do, find out if you know anyone in GA, who knows anyone at the Baptist church that had to take up a collection, cause after he got elected to Congress and divorced his wife, N Gingrich didn’t pay child support and his kids were hungry
so, you need something to do, why don’t you see you can get some more people on the record on that

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John Holbo 01.24.12 at 5:56 am

“Fair enough to want to avoid discussing the voting mechanics involved, one can see the point of that, but I’m not sure you can avoid that discussion if you want to talk about this as a functioning system.”

One clarification to Glen Tomkins. I don’t want to avoid discussing the voting mechanics. I just want to distinguish the question of what the machine is designed to do from the question of whether it will work. You are saying it will have an inherent tendency to break. I’m not sure that’s right, but it could be. I’m pointing out that the machine will do a job that we don’t in fact want to be done: namely, disproportionately empower rich people. Compared to that basic problem, the tendency of the machine to break is very secondary.

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Xerographica 01.24.12 at 12:23 pm

John Holbo…how is it a problem that Bezos isn’t running for office?  You figuratively voted for Jeff Bezos to be one of America’s Best Leaders.  Another leader on that list is Jeffrey Sachs…what difference does it make whether Sachs is a professor or a senator?  What difference does it make that Lady Gaga and Bono aren’t politicians?

They either do…or they don’t…represent a portion of your interests.  Do you have any idea how many different people represent some portion of your interests on a daily basis?  That’s why I really struggle with the idea that one congressperson can effectively represent the interests of half a million people.  That’s a joke…which is why it was funny when the comedian Daniel Tosh said, “The idea that any of these candidates represent my interests is absurd.”

It’s perfectly fine though if you believe that congresspeople do an excellent job at functioning as our personal shoppers for public goods.  Maybe Daniel Tosh, myself…and nearly everybody else I know…are extremely exceptional.  If that’s truly the case though, then why would you be hesitant to allow consumers to figuratively vote for congress?

One of your interests is clearly to try and protect the interests of those who are unable to protect their own interests.  But is your interest in this area so exceptional that nobody else would figuratively vote to protect it?  Do you think that just because conservatives are skeptical of the government’s ability to truly help people in need that it means that they don’t care?  Isn’t it possible that perhaps people are more complex than that?

If you don’t want to disproportionately empower the rich…then you can’t just get off the bus.  That’s not where this story ends.  You need to stay on the bus long enough to understand where your money is going and how it is being used.  Like I said….that is the beauty of your pseudo-proposal.  It doesn’t allow you to dissociate yourself from the indirect consequences of your consumption decisions.

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Glen Tomkins 01.24.12 at 2:26 pm

“I’m pointing out that the machine will do a job that we don’t in fact want to be done: namely, disproportionately empower rich people. Compared to that basic problem, the tendency of the machine to break is very secondary.”

Well, if we’re talking about the mechanics of accounting for votes, we can mean either the particular concrete machinery used by various jurisdictions, or more abstractly as the design features any particular system has to be able to implement. I was speaking from that second meaning, pointing out a design flaw that would vitiate any attempt to have both purchased votes and the secret ballot, even if perfect concrete machinery could be imagined to embody the hypothetical system.

The particular design feature required by any secret ballot system, is that it has to keep careful and public account of exactly who has voted. However imperfectly that design feature is implemented, as long as it’s done at least half-way fastidiously, stealing an election becomes impossible without an impossibly large conspiracy (well, absent Dieboldery, which has the advantage of requiring only a workably small conspiracy). But most people haven’t absorbed the implications of the fact that they are required to claim to be some particular registered voter, whose name is checked off a public list, before they’re allowed to vote, and thus the Rs can make hay claiming a system that already works (as witnessed by the failure of the attempt to graveyard vote in NH), needs to have its machinery tightened up with voter ID laws.

Again, whatever the particular accounting machinery is used, you couldn’t preserve the secret ballot if purchasers of votes have to do en masse and by proxy what the individual voter does in the singular and directly, claim to be voter so-and-so. The purchaser can’t just claim to have purchased 50,000 votes, he has to produce the names of who those voters are, and has to be able to defend an audit trail establishing his proxy if challenged by individual voters, or by competing buyers. If you don’t make the buyer do this, enumerate exactly whose votes he’s using, then anyone can claim to have purchased any number of votes. And, of course, the need to produce the names, and defend that list in public, means no secret ballot.

“…disproportionately empower rich people.”

This really would have to be a naked power play by the rich. The key element to what you present as a system that allows the purchase of votes is that it allows the alienation of votes, it allows voters to assign their votes to someone else. Once granted that, sticks will work as well as carrots (probably better and definitely cheaper), and a system allowing alienated votes means much more direct and thoroughgoing empowerment of the rich and oppression of everybody else than is conveyed by the idea of some polite market of actors all free to pursue their own interests.

You don’t really have to go the long way around the barn as I did to spot this feature of purchased votes. The mechanics of voting was the natural way into the topic for me because we have multiple elections every year in VA, whether we need them or not, and I am an observer in some precinct for each and every one. But for that majority of people not PTSDed out on the mechanics of voting, I think it would probably be a more direct and easy way to the conclusion to just state the inherent feature of the assignment of votes to someone else, that it would have to be a public act. Without an audit trail back to particular voters, anyone could claim to have obtained any number of votes. My claim is that you really can’t have this idea of assigned votes without necessarily having the assignment be a public act.

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reason 01.24.12 at 4:00 pm

Harald Korneliussen @19
“Do you think people wouldn’t take such slips? Or do you think people wouldn’t follow up and vote to make their slip worth something?”

Well if it was me, (knowing that my individual vote makes virtually no difference), I would treat it as insurance, and vote however I want.

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reason 01.24.12 at 4:00 pm

Salem @20
I think you have it right.

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John Holbo 01.24.12 at 4:10 pm

Glen, I don’t think the system would need to be more complicated than existing electronic systems whereby people trade stocks, send money, so forth. Records have to be kept. You can’t have shenanigans. Of course, sometimes you do. Still, I think you could have a pretty robust audit trail. It would, admittedly, need to be more complicated than the system we’ve got.

Xerographica, I am afraid I just don’t get it. Obviously I get the idea that the current system has problems. My objection to what you are proposing is not based on the assumption that the current system is excellent, or that the people running it are unusually excellent at their jobs. But what I don’t get is why Bezos and Gaga are peculiarly suited to overcome existing problems, simply because they are rich. Their riches would allow them to buy votes. Fine. But why is it valuable to enable them to do that? Why are we more concerned to reveal the political preferences of Bezos and Gaga than the man on the street?

“Do you have any idea how many different people represent some portion of your interests on a daily basis?”

I would assume: a lot. A huge number. But why is this relevant?

“why would you be hesitant to allow consumers to figuratively vote for congress?”

Well, I would need to be told why it is supposed to be a good idea. Again, doesn’t it just come down to a kind of axiom: wealthy people are more worthy of wielding political power. Obviously if that’s true, then consumerism plus selling votes becomes a kind of glorious engine of political virtue. Because it makes some people rich, ergo makes them worthy of wielding political power, while at the same time making them politically powerful. But why should I buy the main premise?

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Xerographica 01.24.12 at 8:50 pm

John Holbo, we are not more concerned to reveal the political preferences of Bezos and Gaga than the man on the street.  The concept that I’m failing to convey is how the political preferences of Bezos and Gaga reflect a portion of the preferences of the people on the street.  If we want correct political answers then we need to integrate everybody’s social and economic preferences.  Politics is simply a reflection of economic and social preferences.  The more accurate the reflection the more accurate the answers.

Let’s consider the question of what the private sector should produce.  How many different people does it take to come up with this answer?  It takes every single one of us.  If we took your preferences out of the equation then would the answer still be correct?  No…it wouldn’t be.  It would be extremely close to being correct but it would still be wrong.  Each person we take out of the equation the more incorrect the answer becomes.

This is the basic premise of why socialism fails.  Socialism is resource allocation by proxy.  Unlike capitalism…it only allows you to indirectly communicate your preferences.  If it was just a 1 to 1 ratio it wouldn’t be so bad.  For example…I would give you all my money…and communicate my preferences to you…and you would buy me what I wanted.  The economy wouldn’t work as well but it probably wouldn’t fail.  But what about a 1 to 2 ratio?  Or a 1 to 3 ratio?  Or a 1 to 100,000 ratio?

Everybody has some information but nobody has all the information.  This is not a new concept.  Socrates said, “…it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”   Buddha expressed this in terms of the blind men each feeling different parts of an elephant.  More recently…Hayek referred to this as the “Fatal Conceit”.  You don’t have to agree with this concept…but it helps at least to understand it…given that it’s the very foundation of conservatism and libertarianism.  The irony is that conservatives and libertarians do not realize how they are nearly as guilty of this “Fatal Conceit” as liberals are.  For more on this see my post on a taxpayer division of labor.

If we understand that it takes every single one of us to correctly answer the question of what the private sector should produce…then it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to understand that it would require every single one of us to correctly answer the question of what the public sector should produce.  That in no way implies that we should all be forced to literally vote…it simply conveys the value of allowing people to directly communicate their preferences via the selling of their votes and the direct allocation of their taxes.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.24.12 at 9:18 pm

Personally, my social and economic preference is that I’m the absolute monarch of this whole universe. And I suspect so is Bezos’, as the guy’s been paying thousands of people to keep building personal spaceships for him.

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Xerographica 01.24.12 at 11:49 pm

Henri Vieuxtemps, when Noah was building his ark…how many people were like…”hmmm…maybe this guy knows something that we don’t?”

Even though I’m an atheist…lately I find myself saying more and more…”hmmm…just because I don’t believe in God doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist.”

In other words…the flip side to humility is tolerance.

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John Holbo 01.25.12 at 1:20 am

Xerographica,

I guess I fail to see the relevance. I understand why it would be nice if election and voting revealed voter preference in richer fashion. But, given that people have unequal economic endowments, it won’t work. All you are doing is revealing, disproportionately, the preferences of those with lots of money. It’s as bad as the downward-facing dog scheme. It’s a measure of preference-intensity, but obviously badly skewed. This was the point of the post. It’s every bit as bad as the system we’ve got. And surely any utopia we devise ought to be less bad than that!

” The irony is that conservatives and libertarians do not realize how they are nearly as guilty of this “Fatal Conceit” as liberals are.”

I would say the irony is that they are guiltier, but we can let it go, for argument purposes. Granted, we’ve got a knowledge problem. The existing system tries to deal with it with one man-one vote. Your system seems to me no better because although it is more sensitive, in a sense, it is badly skewed. So the sensitivity all goes to waste, in effect.

We are, actually, recapitulating old debates. It has standardly been argued that the rich are more politically virtuous and should disproportionately wield power. (You are playing theme and variations on this timeless line.) The poor shouldn’t vote because they are too dumb and uninterested and uneducated about general issues. One of the main arguments against that is that is that the poor may not know a lot of things, but they know one thing. What bothers them. If you strip them of the franchise, their grievances will be neglected and will fester and that’s bad. Likewise, if you let them sell their vote, you are – as likely as not – actually making the knowledge problem worse. It’s now harder, not easier, to get information about what the poor want, in a political policy sense.

At this point you could argue that we are still getting information from the sale of votes. And that’s true. But the signal is thinner than it has to be. And the system is set up in such a way that the signal will be ignored, not attended to, by those with political power. So, to repeat, I don’t see how you have proposed any solution to the knowledge problem. You keep saying: the Buddha thing. Yeah, I get it. (When you get your copy of the book you’ll see that I actually drew a cartoon elephant to illustrate the parable. The concept is stock and familiar.) But now what?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.25.12 at 8:28 am

Why, the point is not just to receive a signal, but to react to it and preempt potential problems brewing down there inside the lower classes.

So, I suppose one could hope that selling votes, assuming that the equilibrium results in decent incomes for the vote-selling public, will actually produce a better feedback mechanism (redistribution mechanism) than political bickering.

The problem is, of course, that it is highly unlikely that prices will be so high as to produce some sort of a reasonable guaranteed income. People on top don’t like to compete; they’ll quickly produce an environment where your vote doesn’t matter anyway, and thus is worth nothing. Which is what you have already.

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Xerographica 01.25.12 at 10:50 am

John Holbo, do we have different interpretations of the parable of the blind men and the elephant? My interpretation is that we all have unique but extremely limited perspectives. Based on my interpretation of the parable it would be counterproductive to group people together based on their net worth. Yet, your argument seems to indicate that all the rich people are touching the elephant’s left ear while all the poor people are touching the elephant’s tail.

Am I misinterpreting the parable or is there a disparity between the parable and your argument? If we all have unique perspectives…how would allowing us to directly communicate our perspectives skew the outcome towards any arbitrary grouping of people? In my opinion…allowing people to directly communicate their perspectives would skew the outcome towards reality. In other words…it would correct the skew of misrepresentation.

In terms of our argument…the elephant represents the proper scope of government. We argue over the scope of government like blind men arguing over what it is that they are touching. It’s conceited for one blind person to think they can “see” more than another blind person. This conceit is the basis of socialism…and dictatorships…and monarchies. It requires humility for me to accept that maybe I’m wrong and maybe you’re right. But this humility is a two way street that leads us towards political tolerance. In other words…while I might disagree with who you sold your vote to…or how you allocated your taxes…I would strongly support your right to do so.

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John Holbo 01.25.12 at 11:53 pm

“My interpretation is that we all have unique but extremely limited perspectives.”

That’s pretty much it. My concern is that your proposal deals poorly with this state of affairs, but you seem to think your proposal deals well with it.

“Yet, your argument seems to indicate that all the rich people are touching the elephant’s left ear while all the poor people are touching the elephant’s tail.”

No, the problem is that I’m a bit more skeptical than you about whether we can know a thing like that. You are assuming we know that rich and poor are more or less equally distributed around the elephant. Law of averages. They aren’t clumped or clustered in any way, preferences and interests and values-wise. I say we don’t know that. How could we?

I guess maybe it comes down to this: you think there can’t be any harm in disproportionately enfranchising the rich because, after all, there are rich men and women, and Republicans and Democrats and so forth. I think there perfectly well could be. There’s one study, linked above, suggesting as much. But my point doesn’t depend on being convinced by that one study. The abstract problem is this: I’m basically handing over political power to a minority. Do I know that this minority will represent everyone’s interests and preferences optimally? No, I think I don’t know that. (Nor do you. You are sizing up the elephant and you figure the rich are pretty well distributed over it’s surface. But, again, what makes you so special that you can see the whole beast?) So the proposal is unattractive. It’s a bold shift to a new system that … doesn’t seem any better than the old system. No worse, maybe, but no better. It’s not worth a bold revolution to meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

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John Holbo 01.26.12 at 12:11 am

I think we’ve actually come full circle now, which feels like a conclusion (at least to me). You started by saying (once you realized we disagreed): “You certainly aren’t the first to suggest that there is a correlation between wealth and values…but you would certainly be the first if you were able to substantiate your claim.”

You took me to be on the wrong side of the knowledge problem because of this. But to me that gets the evidential presumption wrong. It’s your job to prove that there isn’t such a correlation, not my job to prove that there is one. So you are actually the one on the wrong side of the knowledge problem.

Why is it your job, not mine? Well, you’re trying to engineer a robust machine for revealing preferences here. It’s the job of the engineer to give reasonable assurances that it won’t blow up. It’s not good enough for the engineer to say that no one has yet proven that it will blow up.

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Xerographica 01.26.12 at 9:49 am

John Holbo, every day you have no choice but to consider the costs of the things you want…yet for some reason the burden is on me to prove to you that voters should be forced to consider the costs, as well as the benefits, of the things that they want from government.

A while back Obama’s favorite analogy was how the Republicans drove the “car” into the ditch. Do you really think it’s simply a matter of which party is behind the wheel? How can one party know our preferences more than the other party? Without knowing our preferences they might as well be driving while blindfolded.

If you want proof…then see how long you can make it without looking at price tags. The fact of the matter is that opportunity costs are just as essential in the public sector as they are in the private sector.

Also…in terms of handing political power over to a minority…can you do me a favor and tell me more about this political power that you have in the first place? Personally I have no political power…so being able to sell my vote…or directly allocate my taxes…would be a positive gain for me…and nearly everybody else.

Our gain would of course represent somebody else’s loss…specifically…538 congresspeople. How small a minority are they? I don’t know them…they don’t know me…yet I’m supposed to expect that they will represent my interests better than I can? I think not. If I had to choose between 150 million taxpayers each representing their own interests or 538 congresspeople trying to represent the interests of 300 million people…it wouldn’t even be a contest. Everybody would benefit from A) 150 million people considering the price tags on all the public goods that they want and B) 300 million people considering the price tags on their votes.

Speaking of price tags…your book arrived yesterday. I think it’s well worth the $30…but my girlfriend did not. Eh…she’s more into the beat poets than philosophy. What is the value of your book to society? It’s simply the revenue that your book generated. What is the value of any public good? It’s simply the revenue that it would generate if people were allowed to directly allocate their taxes. We all benefit by considering the price tags on the things we want…and we all stand to lose by ignoring those price tags. The only people that benefit when the “car” ends up in the ditch are the politicians in the opposite party. How perverse is that. I wonder how many more times the keys will have to pass back and forth before people start noticing a pattern.

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reason 01.26.12 at 2:13 pm

“Speaking of price tags…your book arrived yesterday. I think it’s well worth the $30…but my girlfriend did not. Eh…she’s more into the beat poets than philosophy. What is the value of your book to society? It’s simply the revenue that your book generated….”

No this is not true. This argument ignores consumer surplus and externalities. Think about water or air. Their value far exceeds their price.

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Xerographica 01.26.12 at 6:32 pm

reason, the overall point though is that it wouldn’t make any sense if we allowed 538 congresspeople to decide how many of John’s book should be printed. There’s absolutely no logical basis for believing that resources can be efficiently allocated by proxy.  It just doesn’t work for any resource.

I’m sure you would vote for John’s book…but whether you’d actually purchase his book offers an infinitely more accurate reflection of your own unique and valuable perspective. If you haven’t purchased his book it means that you have better things with greater positive externalities that you could spend that $30 on. If you have purchased his book it means you were willing to forgo those other things that you value. The greater the quantity of unique and valuable perspectives that determine the answer…the more accurate the answer will be.

How many of John’s books should be printed? How much money should be allocated to public education? How much money should be allocated to national defense? How much money should be allocated to public transportation? How much money should be allocated to everything that Rachel Maddow wants? How much money should be allocated to all those awesome things that Obama listed in his state of the union address?

All those questions should not be answered by 538 congresspeople. Instead…they should be answered by millions and millions of consumers each with their own valuable and unique perspectives. It’s a fatal conceit for 538 congresspeople to think that they can answer any of those questions more accurately than our entire nation can. Don’t get me wrong…if you’re happy with congress’s answers then I wouldn’t try and stop you from giving them your taxes any more than I would try and stop you from believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or God.  But if I’m going to concede that maybe you’re right and maybe I’m wrong…it’s going to cost you the same exact concession.  Once we both make that same concession then we would each allocate our own taxes and sell our own votes according to our own unique and valuable perspectives.

None of us knows what the exact outcome would be of allowing people to sell their votes or directly allocate their taxes…but it would defy everything we know to argue that our country as a whole wouldn’t positively benefit from the efficient allocation of limited resources.

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Xerographica 01.26.12 at 7:10 pm

John Holbo, quite frequently I’m really envious of people with great illustration skills such as yourself. Here’s what I would draw if I had your skills…

Obama, Romney and Ron Paul would all be blindfolded and fighting over the keys to a car (which would be in the background). A fourth person, representing the American public, would be standing there without a blindfold on. The illustration’s caption would read…”Aren’t you tired of being a passenger? How many more times will you have to push the car out of the ditch before you decide to take the keys?”

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John Holbo 01.27.12 at 2:21 am

Xerographica,

“It’s a fatal conceit for 538 congresspeople to think that they can answer any of those questions more accurately than our entire nation can.”

Yes, but it’s not MY conceit, so its fatality – which I grant, for sake of argument – is by the by.

We keep coming back to the same point. You keep suggesting that the reason I should accept your proposal is that it would be so much better of we could, as you say, put the citizens themselves in the driver’s seat. But my objection is not that this is undesirable but that I do not have any particular reason to believe your proposal would tend to bring this about. It looks to me like you are selling me a blender on the grounds that I need a refrigerator.

“John Holbo, every day you have no choice but to consider the costs of the things you want…yet for some reason the burden is on me to prove to you that voters should be forced to consider the costs, as well as the benefits, of the things that they want from government.”

The burden is on you, just as the burden is on someone who proposes, say, a dictatorship of the proletariat, as a solution to the problem of how to reveal everyone’s preferences.

The analogy is apt. The idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat is that this one group, only a subset of the citizenry, will be optimally expressive of the interests of the whole population. Your idea is sort of the same on the other end of the income scale: not a dictatorship of the rich, but a promise that one group – the rich – which is only a subset of the citizenry – will, if given predominant political power, adequately express the interests and preferences of the whole citizenry.

Both idea have been tried. Various communist revolutions. The history of aristocratic representative government in Europe. (Historically, your proposal is the norm, in representative government. Only those with money – with property/land – wield political power.) The track record is poor in both cases. So, yes, the burden is on you, as it is on the communist, to show how and why the next time will be better.

There is another problem, incidentally. Market forces can ‘decide’ that the iPhone is awesome: everyone buys it. But market forces cannot design and build iPhones. For that you need designers and engineers and so forth. Probably that’s 500 people at least. And now we are back to the fatal conceit. How can 500 people presume to think they know what everyone wants? Well, they do and they don’t. It’s a fatal conceit in many cases. Companies go bust. Still, the solution is not to have millions of consumers each contribute some small bit of the engineering design and etc. process.

Now we go back to politics as usual. 500 people – congresscritters – are supposed to ‘build a product’ – i.e. a piece of legislation. They hope that it, like the iPhone, will be popular not unpopular. If it isn’t, they will be voted out … is the idea (though not the sordid reality, we may grant). Now what are you proposing, to change this? Somehow we can eliminate the middle-man of representative government? The millions of citizens themselves will write the legislation themselves? But that doesn’t seem practical. No more so than it would be practical for Apple to fire its designers and engineers and replace them with its consumer base, in some diffuse way (thereby presumably greating saving on design costs.) So what are you proposing?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.27.12 at 10:12 am

it wouldn’t make any sense if we allowed 538 congresspeople to decide how many of John’s book should be printed

This example doesn’t sound very convincing. True, it would be difficult for the congresspeople to guess how many copies need to be printed, but by selling the book for $30 you’re not going to arrive at the right number either. Presumably, you need to print as many copies as many people might be interested in reading or browsing the book, and the $30 pricetag (an equivalent half-day labor at the minimum wage) is a serious distortion.

Arguably, the congresspeople could administer a poll and come up with a better number, no?

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Xerographica 01.27.12 at 2:32 pm

John Holbo, ok, you’re right that I should bear the burden of proof. Why should citizens be in the driver’s seat? Because they know what they want. Are they capable of expressing their wants? Yes, they clearly express their wants in the for-profit sector and in the non-profit sector.

In other words…the demand for public goods should determine the supply of public goods. It’s really as simple as that.

Historically my proposal has been the norm? During what part of history have consumers ever been in the driver’s seat? First the king was in the driver’s seat…but then some barons took the keys away from him when he kept driving the country into war. After a while the barons became parliament and then parliament became congress.

Like I mentioned to “reason”…I’m not proposing to eliminate congress any more than I’d propose to dissuade people of their belief in Santa Claus or God. What I’m proposing is that believers show tolerance for us non-believers. If they believe that congress knows their interests better than they do…then so be it…they can give all their taxes to congress. Personally, I’m highly skeptical that congress can know my interests despite never even having met me. In other words…I’m skeptical that congress is omniscient. What I’m proposing is simply that people have a choice to sell their votes and directly allocate their taxes.

“a promise that one group – the rich – which is only a subset of the citizenry – will, if given predominant political power, adequately express the interests and preferences of the whole citizenry.”

The challenge is to see citizens as consumers. If we applied your argument to the private sector then we would expect that transportation options would only consist of private jets and Rolls Royces…which would reflect a failure for the rich to adequately represent our interests. But if you can see citizens as consumers then you’ll understand that we don’t need representatives to adequately express our own interests and preferences.

Consumers would have a choice which government organizations received their taxes and they would have a choice if and who they sold their votes to. If you weren’t happy with other people’s choices then you would bear the burden of convincing them why your choices were better. Why should you have to convince them? Because maybe they are right and maybe you are wrong. That’s the biggest challenge…for people to accept the possibility that they might be wrong. This humility is essential to foster a culture of political tolerance.

To summarize…consumers would be coerced into paying taxes…but they would have a choice which government organizations received their taxes and they would have a choice whether to sell their votes or not…and if you disagreed with their choices then it would be up to you to convince them otherwise.

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Xerographica 01.27.12 at 4:05 pm

Henri Vieuxtemps, for me the question is whether the public sector and/or the private sector should supply John’s book. Let’s imagine that taxpayers could directly allocate their taxes…

In order for the public sector to supply John’s book there would have to be a Department of Literature (DoLit). The DoLit wouldn’t sell books…it would just give them away based on an income qualification. This income qualification would be determined by how many taxpayers allocated how much of their taxes to the DoLit. The more revenue that the DoLit received the higher the income with which you could qualify to receive your X amount of books per week/month/year.

Let’s say though that your income was well above the income qualification so you wouldn’t be able to receive any books. Would you still allocate any of your taxes to the DoLit? Well…that would depend on how much you valued increasing the accessibility of good literature to lower income families.

The people who worked at the DoLit would want to keep their jobs…so their goal would be to keep taxpayers satisfied. Would they publish John’s book? I don’t know…their jobs would be at stake though so it would behoove them to engage in due diligence. Would John want the DoLit to publish his book? It might depend on how much money they offered him…or maybe he would just want to get his name out there…or maybe he would just want to donate his book to help support the DoLit.

As a pragmatarian…I don’t have a personal preference for the public or the private sector…as long as taxpayers are allowed to directly allocate their taxes. If taxpayers are not allowed to directly allocate their taxes then if I was going to err it would be on the side of the sector where people strive to keep their jobs.

From the above example though…we can see that everybody would benefit from John having the opportunity to decide whether he wanted the public and/or private sector to publish his book.

From this perspective we can then ask…what value would congress bring to the table? As a society we either do…or we do not…value increasing the accessibility of good literature to low income families. If we do value it then we are the best judges of whether the public and/or private sector should be responsible for supplying books to low income families. If we do not value it then the public sector shouldn’t be spending our taxes on something we do not value.

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John Holbo 01.27.12 at 5:06 pm

“ok, you’re right that I should bear the burden of proof. Why should citizens be in the driver’s seat?”

No, the question is not why – the why is obvious. The question is how. The burden of proof on you concerns the how, not the why. How do you propose to put citizens in the driver’s seat? (An admirable place for them to be, we all agree.) Don’t say: by letting them sell their votes. The question is: how will letting them sell their votes help put them in the driver’s seat? Because, as I keep saying, it doesn’t look to me as though that will have the desired effect. Rather, it will result in the rich wielding disproportionate political power. And you’ve given me no reason to think 1) that it won’t do that; or 2) that, if it does, that won’t be a problem. Do not tell me I must be suffering the fatal conceit of faith in congress’s wisdom or any other thing that it’s not really very likely I am suffering from. And if it wasn’t clear before, it is now: I hereby formally disavow, abjure, and stamp into the dust belief in congress’ omniscience. Place is a mess. Now: why your plan is better?

“But if you can see citizens as consumers then you’ll understand that we don’t need representatives to adequately express our own interests and preferences.”

I can see citizens as consumers. And I get that somehow we’ve moved past the virtues of just selling votes at this point. But I don’t understand how it’s going to work. What are you imagining? That, in addition to having the right to sell your vote, everyone has the right to specify what portion of their taxes goes to every program? Can people then choose not to pay taxes at all? If so, won’t everyone choose not to pay anything. We’ll have anarchism as a straight function of what is basically a free-rider problem? On the other hand, if people are forced to pay taxes – which seems an arbitrary infringement of their rights as consumers, by the terms of this scheme – why will it go better if everyone allocates their tax money privately? We’ll have a huge coordination problem, no? You seem to be advocating not an efficient market but a giant pot luck dinner, with all the hazards of too much potato salad that entails. But with aircraft carriers instead of potato salad. What am I missing?

Shifting angles:

“the demand for public goods should determine the supply of public goods. It’s really as simple as that.”

This seems like a recipe for bloated government. If someone wants a Social Security check, they get it. If they want a bigger check, they get it. Who’s going to pay for this? I suspect you are going to say that the demand to PAY for public goods, to be distributed to other people, will determine the supply. But now we are back to everyone setting their own tax rate. And I take it people will settle on 0% and try to free ride on any suckers who put down for more than that. If this is not the plan, then what?

Your point about the Rolls Royce/private jet economy seems to me a fallacy for the following reason: the rich would have both means and motive to buy up enough votes to make it the case that they were disproportionately represented. The rich do not have means or motive to buy up every Honda Civic on the road, to prevent their falling into the hands of the poor (is that the idea?) If they tried, Honda would just make more. Supply and demand. Can’t do that with votes. Typically, although not always, there is no barrier to people selling stuff to the rich – as much as they want to buy – and also selling stuff to the poor. But there would be a barrier to the rich buying up all the votes they wanted, disproportionately, and the non-rich being represented, proportionately.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.27.12 at 7:56 pm

I’d love to be able to allocate my taxes. Seriously, I would. It’d be difficult to organize this on a high granularity level, though; I imagine everything would get of whack, as I probably have no information on how other people allocated theirs. So, to start with, I would suggest just a couple of categories, like, say, ‘the military’ and ‘everything else’.

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Xerographica 01.27.12 at 8:07 pm

John Holbo, here’s a not so brief synopsis of my post on The Dialectic of Unintended Consequences.  At the height of the unions’ power in the 50s and 60s it became economically feasible for manufacturing companies to move overseas.  Labor costs are one of the most important factors in determining a factory’s location or relocation.  So the factories relocated to some countries with extremely low labor costs…such as Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

At that time the large majority of people in those countries were primarily engaged in subsistence agriculture.  When they were given the option to work in the new factories…many chose to do so rather than continue to engage in subsistence agriculture.  They learned new skills and quite a few left to start their own factories.  The demand for labor increased…while the labor supply stayed constant…so wages started to rise.

When my hero, Deng Xiaoping, opened China up to foreign investment in the 80s…many factories from the four Asian Tigers relocated to China in order to take advantage of what seemed to be an endless supply of cheap labor.  The pattern repeated itself….people chose working in the new factories rather than continue to engage in subsistence agriculture…they learned new skills…many started their own factories…and wages very gradually started to rise.

The other day when Obama gave his state of the union address he said that it was becoming expensive to do business in China.  Just amazing.  Prior to Deng Xiaoping…Chairman Mao had attempted to impose on the entire country what he felt to be the most efficient allocation of resources.  The result?  Thirty million people starved to death as a direct result of state induced famine.  When Deng Xiaoping took over he gave people a choice between manufacturing and agriculture.  The result?  Millions and millions of people were lifted out of poverty within one generation.

You have trouble seeing how giving citizens a choice to sell their votes would put them in the driver’s seat…and I have trouble seeing how it wouldn’t.  We would be giving citizens a choice that they currently do not have.  Anytime we give people a choice that they currently do not have we are giving them that much more control over their lives.  Whether it’s a good choice for them to sell their votes wouldn’t be up to me to decide.  Along those same lines…it would be very presumptuous for me to tell people whether they should choose working in a sweatshop over subsistence agriculture.  Another example…even though I served in the military it would be very presumptuous for me to tell somebody whether it would be a good idea for them to sign up for the military.  In all three cases though I strongly advocate that people be given the choice.

That being said…regarding people directly allocating their taxes…because of the free-rider problem…people shouldn’t be given a choice whether they paid taxes and individuals shouldn’t be able to choose their tax rate.  Those debates are useless without first establishing the proper scope of government.  It would be like somebody asking me how much I’m going to pay them without first establishing what their skills are.  Regarding too much potato salad…people wouldn’t generally allocate their taxes to a government organization that doesn’t need more money…and it would be completely subjective to say whether somebody is spending too much money on infrastructure, public education/transportation/housing/healthcare, cancer research and various other public goods.  If you get a chance read my last response to Henri Vieuxtemps.  It offers an example of trying to establish whether the public or private sector should publish your book.

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Xerographica 01.27.12 at 8:11 pm

Henri Vieuxtemps, how about a third category…say, ‘the war on drugs’?

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John Holbo 01.28.12 at 1:41 am

Well, at least now I understand what you are proposing, although I am very far from buying. Here’s something to think about.

“You have trouble seeing how giving citizens a choice to sell their votes would put them in the driver’s seat…and I have trouble seeing how it wouldn’t. We would be giving citizens a choice that they currently do not have. Anytime we give people a choice that they currently do not have we are giving them that much more control over their lives.”

The thing to realize is that this is false, strictly speaking. Take the most literal driver’s seat case of all: traffic lights. If you abolished rules about go-on-green/stop-on-red you would give citizens a choice they currently do not have. But you would not, thereby, in any meaningful way, be giving them more control over their lives. The opposite would be the case.

Basically your proposal sounds like that to me. A giant coordination problem. You now say that this stuff won’t work unless we first establish the proper scope of government, but earlier you said this stuff would help us establish the proper scope of government. I’m pretty sure that’s how it will go. Re: publishing my book. That’s not such an interesting case because there it’s clear how the market can do the job. What I want to know is how we can have a functioning market to determine the size of government people want. At first you said we could have one. Now you are retreating a bit in the face of coordination and free-rider problems. I think you have to retreat, so that’s good. But is there any point at which you can stop having to retreat? Probably. But I’m not seeing it.

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John Holbo 01.28.12 at 2:53 am

“Regarding too much potato salad…people wouldn’t generally allocate their taxes to a government organization that doesn’t need more money”

Why wouldn’t they? And how do you know? It seems obvious to me that the results would inevitably be extremely ill-assorted, in an ill-luck potluck sort of way. And it seems to me that you are obliged to say not that this wouldn’t happen (how could you know that?) but that any bizarre answer is, by definition, the right answer. We don’t second-guess the market. That’s the whole point: there is no right answer hidden beyond or behind what the market says. If we end up with 12 new nuclear aircraft carriers and some weird and painful shortfall in basic services – maybe not enough infrastructure to service so many carriers, long-term, so they all rust and sink; or so the spent nuclear fuel can’t be processed properly – then that’s what we ‘wanted’, odd though that sounds. No other answer is remotely consistent with your general line. So bite the bullet.

The general problem here is that the market, in the book case, only needs everyone to express what they want, individually. Their self-regarding preferences. Do I want the book or don’t I? People are the best judges of their own desires, in that regard. But people’s preferences about government aren’t like that. You have to make an intelligent judgment, not about what you want personally, but about what everyone wants and needs/should get. A new aircraft carrier? or more school lunches for poor kids? These judgments require everyone to take a vain stab at the knowledge problem. So what we get is not one aggregate, good answer but an enormous mountain of bad answers, not adding up, in the aggregate, to a good answer.

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Peter T 01.28.12 at 6:01 am

What becomes of the United States (or any other state) under Xerographica’s argument? I mean, why the US? Or Britain, or Libya? If voting is just a way to aggregate interests, why aggregate these interests? Should not the sale of votes come under WTO rules? If the Chinese government wants to use its holdings of US bonds to buy US votes and then pass US laws, why, in this reasoning, should it not? It’s a market, right?

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Xerographica 01.28.12 at 5:58 pm

Peter T…oh man…never thought of that! It’s an extremely fascinating point though.

Let’s say Brazil was going to vote on whether it should develop or conserve the Amazon rain forest. Given that I’m not a citizen of Brazil I wouldn’t be able to directly vote on the proposal…but nothing would stop me from sending money to any Brazilian who was on my side of the issue. So I’d send $100 to a Brazilian conservation organization that would be responsible for buying votes for the pro-conservation side.

Everybody in the world would benefit from saving the rain forest…so how much money would everybody in the world send to the conservation organization? Then we can imagine all that money being exchanged for votes…in essence all that money would be transferred to Brazilian citizens that were willing to sell their votes in favor of conservation.

That’s some really heavy stuff. People in country A wouldn’t send money to country B unless they cared about the outcome of elections in Country B. Imagine there was an Islamic fundamentalist party running against a pro-Western party in some Middle Eastern country…how much money would the world send to the organization responsible for purchasing votes for the pro-Western party? Then we can imagine all that money being transferred to people willing to sell their votes to the organization responsible for buying votes for the pro-Western party.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.28.12 at 6:20 pm

I don’t think the war on drugs is a line item. You can send a check to the DOJ, and they will (hopefully) enforce the laws. If the law says ‘anyone smoking a joint should be shot on sight’, that’s what they’ll do. And if you don’t send them your check, then, true, there will be no war on drugs, but also no one will respond to your 911.

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John Holbo 01.29.12 at 3:05 am

“If the Chinese government wants to use its holdings of US bonds to buy US votes and then pass US laws, why, in this reasoning, should it not? It’s a market, right?”

Peter’s point is an excellent corollary to the original post.

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