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Why Democracy Fails

In Preserving Democracy, Elgin Hushbeck quotes Alexander Fraser Tytler:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship. (quoted on pp. 26-27)

I thought about that quote today when I read the somewhat deceptively titled story Current Mood Toward Congress: Throw The Incumbents Out. I don’t mean that CQ Politics intentionally wrote a deceptive title. Headlines always miss part of the article. The title refers to the part of their survey results that indicates that 53% of voters do not want to see the majority of members of congress reelected next year.

The next paragraph has the really interesting result, and I knew it was coming, because I’ve seen this before. A statistically similar number, 52%, do like their own representative.

Now unlike poll results that indicate that people hold contradictory views, and there are some of those, I think this points to a different problem. Let me use my own congressional district as an example. Here in the Florida’s 1st congressional district there is one issue on which any candidate who wishes to be elected must take a particular stand–keeping “our” military bases here.

Further, this favors the incumbent absolutely, because he will undoubtedly be able to argue that his seniority makes him better able to protect those bases from any closure. Now I’m not necessarily saying that the bases here are not well placed. But that wouldn’t matter to the voters. The bases are well placed because they are a substantial part of the economy of this area. If our congressman were to become completely convinced that some substantial base or even a facility on a base should be closed, he would be committing political suicide by advocating it.

When somebody else’s congressman makes that argument for the bases in his district, of course, the voters in this district are not so happy.

It’s less obvious sometimes in other areas, because the projects and the money are spread over a wider variety of locations and types of activity. But a congressman must produce stuff for the voters or he’ll get voted out. That’s why we hear a great deal about reform out of congress, but we aren’t likely to get reform that prevents members of congress from doing nice things for their districts.

The same problem continues more broadly. Rather than admitting that smaller government will have to provide less services, many people on both sides of the aisle like to argue that somehow increasing the efficiency of government and reducing waste will let us keep the services, reduce (or not increase) taxes, and still receive more.

Unfortunately, we always count chickens before they’re hatched in this case. A current good example is health care. Now I think we do have a problem, and that we are not a nation that can actually refuse basic care to our citizens, whatever the economic problems. Currently, we require emergency rooms to provide stabilizing care, for example, which spreads the cost to those who pay. But in writing health care plans, everyone counts savings that they believe they will get.

Those deficit projections about health care? They are guesses. They’re making assumptions about what various options will do to prices, and how much they can save.

I could do this with my family budget. Let’s say I want to buy a car today, but I lack $100 of the monthly payment. In order to justify my deficit spending to my wife, I tell her that we’ll get $100 out of the grocery budget. (Since I do the grocery shopping, I might get by with that–or not!) I would say that by saving $25 per week on our grocery shopping we can afford the new car.

Now there’s two ways to go about this. First, I could find and test ways of saving the money and then test them for a month or so. Can I reduce our grocery bill enough by buying bulk, making better use of the freezer, and so forth? If I go out and test this, and only buy the new car after I know it will work, I’m being responsible. On the other hand, I could simply guess that I can manage the savings, go buy the car, and then find out.

In the case of health care, we guess certain savings can be achieved. Bluntly, the current proposals are so complex, I really can’t tear them apart on that point because I would have to give up my income producing work (and see what that would do to my budget!) in order to have time to follow it all. I do know, however, that advocates of the public option tend to assume that it will force the general price of insurance down, using the very capitalist argument that the public option will involve an increase in competition.

Whether you buy that argument or not (and I don’t), the fact is that we haven’t actually seen it work. Advocates of health care reform something like what we have proposed are probably annoyed to have this sort of thing pointed out. After all, we need reform, so we all need to be as positive as possible. Opponents will crow by saying that this shows that the plan won’t work. The bottom line is that the voters are being promised something, but are not truly being told the cost. Would they support it if they truly knew the cost? I don’t know, but we’re not going to get to find out.

I don’t regard this as a partisan issue. Republicans tend to take a similar approach on defense. We can plan strategy and buy equipment because we need whatever it is, but talking about cost-benefit is often regarded as anti-military and anti-defense. But we need to have good cost-benefit analysis, testing, and most importantly, we need to change our strategy, whether on domestic or foreign policy based on actually observing the results.

Such a thing will only happen if voters demand it. I think that’s unlikely, because I think voters would rather hope that one or another politician can manage to come through and produce something from nothing.

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