Commentary

Elections Aren’t as Democratic as Markets

The presidential campaign is just a few months old, but it already feels like years. Luckily, according to the calendar, less than a year remains. The end will come.

Listening to the preposterous and outrageous promises of presidential candidates offers a reminder that politics is a truly awful way to make decisions. Tell people who don’t know much about public affairs to select one ambitious, ignorant, self-serving narcissist to run the government and thus micromanage Americans’ lives. What could possibly go right?

Seriously, is there anything about the US government that even vaguely resembles the civics-class version of Washington? The people, enamored of self-government, choose community leaders to go to the nation’s capital to debate the public’s concerns. Well-intentioned legislators listen to and learn from the people, joining together to discuss issues of the day while holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Thoughtful compromise legislation emerges, advancing the health, peace, prosperity, and welfare of the American people. The president then enthusiastically administers the new laws to promote the public interest. And angels join together in heaven to sing hallelujah.

It is striking how undemocratic American democracy has become. By its very nature, politics is democratic only in process, not substance. That is, everyone (well, almost everyone) gets to cast a ballot for candidates. But in most races, only one person is elected, almost immediately disenfranchising half of the population (or more, in a multicandidate race). A rotating presidency probably wouldn’t work very well, other than to provide constant fodder for political columnists and cartoonists, but imposing an unwanted contender on half of voters minus one is no cause for celebration.

Moreover, citizens must choose between complicated packages of beliefs that may not represent them. For instance, a typical libertarian wants a small government that protects markets and civil liberties at home and promotes peace abroad. But he or she often faces a choice between a nationalistic war-mongering Republican who wants to toss drug users in jail while extolling limited government and tax cuts versus a humanitarian war-mongering Democrat who wants to punish sugar consumers while extolling personal choice and tax increases. Now toss in opinions on abortion, environmental protection, health care, and the United Nations. Few people are likely to be happy about any choice. But they can only vote for one.

Listening to the preposterous and outrageous promises of presidential candidates offers a reminder that politics is a truly awful way to make decisions.

Then there’s the reality of bureaucratic incentives. As public choice economists pointed out, government agencies have interests. Bureaucrats are often unresponsive to legislators and voters. In fact, federal regulators usually spend most of their time attempting to thwart the popular will. Thus, the regulatory process is the antithesis of the democratic process.

Worse, substantive outcomes also are winner take all. When legislation is passed or regulations are implemented, one policy is imposed. The measure might be a compromise between different factions, but the law itself is mandatory. You don’t get to choose whether to obey, what to do, or how to do so.

Of course, some decisions can have only one outcome. That’s why politics is an unfortunate necessity. The national government must decide whether America will be at war or not. The Supreme Court must decide a lawsuit one way or the other. Governments at state, local, and national levels must establish criminal and civil laws to protect people’s lives, enforce their contracts, and provide recompense for negligence. But most life decisions need not be imposed through a winner-take-all process.

However, as government has expanded, it has turned ever more issues into mandatory exercises. Employment, education, health care, housing, transportation, and more have increasingly been taken over by government. Whenever the state moves in, private choices move out. Democracy is becoming ever less democratic.

Consider health care. There are few more personal issues that require an individualized response. Yet Washington is now deciding on almost everyone’s medical treatment. Congress and the president have taken it upon themselves to mandate what everyone’s health insurance plan must cover, how everyone’s plan must be priced, and from whom everyone’s plan must be purchased. Don’t want to pay for birth control? Too bad. Want more or less coverage? Doesn’t matter. Prefer real insurance, as opposed to prepayment of common medical expenses, as most “insurance” has become? Tough. Politics has taken over, so little or no choice is allowed.

Indeed, government control, highlighted by the fact that almost half of all health care spending comes from the state, is edging ever closer to vesting politicians with the decision over who lives and dies. The question of who pays how much for end-of-life care will never be easy. But far better to let individuals and families decide how much they want to spend for what kind of coverage — devote every last dime to ensuring access to every possible procedure, or use the cash for something else in life and eschew costly but futile life-saving efforts? Medicaid and Medicare are already effectively moving many of those decisions into the public realm. Obamacare takes health care another step in the direction of coercive monopoly.

Contrast this process with competitive markets. Every day, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo conduct a ferocious battle in the marketplace, along with all sorts of “third products” (instead of third parties) such as Dr. Pepper, Fresca, Diet Rite, generic colas, and many others. And, as in politics, there is a winner, typically Coke. But the losers do not disappear. Rather, they continue to profitably serve the public. Markets emphasize choice.

It’s what health care could be, absent manifold government intrusions: various buying pools through businesses, social and religious associations, and other organizations; a wide range of insurance plans with radically different coverage options; individuals and families able to decide how they want to spend their money, whether on better medicine, nicer homes, finer education, more frequent vacations, or larger estates for their children.

Ironically, while the political left long argued on behalf of what it called “economic democracy” — letting people vote on politicians who will then run the economy — it is markets that provide real economic democracy. Some rich people might want to buy Maseratis and Lamborghinis, but the market supplies more prosaic automobiles for the rest of us. The lucky few purchase private jets; everyone else can rent a seat on a commercial airliner. And even if we are part of a small minority, someone, somewhere is likely to cater to our tastes. Irrespective of what the majority wants, one’s choice of cereal, toothpaste, furniture, clothes, vehicle, luggage, and much more will likely be available.

Moreover, accountability in the marketplace is continuous. Once elected, a president has four years to mess up before voters have a chance to pass judgment on his or her performance. A federal employee isn’t easy to fire regardless of his performance, and public disapproval matters little. In contrast, if you are dissatisfied with your soap or cereal, car mechanic or chiropractor, university or trade school, you can change tomorrow. What could be more democratic than that?

Long ago Prussia’s famous “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, opined that no one should want to see his sausages or laws being made. The presidential debates provide a dramatic reminder of the truth of this aphorism. We should worry more about what decisions the president gets to make than who becomes president after next year’s election.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.