Competition Among Politicians

Whom do you trust to tell the truth? A long-running survey by the British pollster Ipsos MORI asks respondents which occupations they trust the most to tell the truth. Doctors, teachers, judges, scientists, hairdressers, police, and clergy were the most trusted what, me lie?occupations. Politicians, government ministers, and journalists were among the least trusted occupations.

Why do we trust politicians so little? After all, we live in a democracy where we can elect our leaders. If we don’t trust the people whom we choose, do we simply not trust ourselves? I asked the Ethics & Economics Challenge students about this at our last meeting.

In a democracy, politicians have to compete for our votes. Those who actually get elected and re-elected are probably pretty good at telling us what we want to hear. So why aren’t we satisfied?

Maybe we don’t actually know what’s good for us. Most voters don’t do much research into political candidates, let alone the issues our legislators vote on. Voter ignorance is well-documented. After the 2002 election, only 32% of respondents knew that Republicans had taken control of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1964, in the midst of the Cold War, only 38% of Americans knew the Soviet Union was not a part of NATO, the group of American allies in North America and Europe. The list goes on and on.

Do you think people do a lot of research before buying a house or making a big investment? I asked the students. They thought so. Why don’t people do similar research on candidates, given that billions of dollars are at stake from what legislators decide? Apparently they do not do so because the costs of educating themselves are greater than the individual benefits, even though the benefits to the country are huge.

Another reason democracy frustrates many voters is the power of the median voter. In an election with two candidates and a single dimension of political views, both candidates will run to the middle, leaving voters at extreme ends of the dimension dissatisfied.

I had some student volunteers play a game of “divide the dollars,” in which three representatives had to decide by majority rule how to divide a sum of money. They quickly saw that any possible combination of payouts could be devised to win two out of three votes: there was no stable solution. In this case, democracy doesn’t even give a unique solution, because majority voting could go on forever without coming to a stable stopping point. That possibility gives leaders who can control how long voting occurs, and over what alternatives, immense power. Democracy can be distorted – and has to be!

As a final exercise, I asked the students to rank ten possible pizza toppings and indicate which of them they approved of. I collected the votes and will demonstrate at our next meeting how the way you count the votes affects which alternative wins. The following image shows how the ten voters voted (click to expand). Italicized choices are not approved of.

pizza votesYou can see that “chicken” and “pig meat” both get three first-place votes. (“Pig meat” was our playful shorthand for a sausage and bacon meat-lovers’ pizza, and “chicken” is short for “chicken fingers.”) Under the system that the U.S. uses for most elections (“plurality”), those two alternatives would tie. If you used a majority runoff, as Louisiana and some other states use for some elections, then “pig meat” and “chicken” would again tie, five votes apiece, with voters D and J going for chicken and voters E and I going for pig meat in the runoff. The more complicated “Condorcet criterion,” which chooses the candidate that beats every other candidate by a majority, also yields a 5-5 tie between chicken and pig meat, and both of those defeat every other possible topping by a majority.

Finally, approval voting, which gives a point to every approved-of choice, yields a new outcome: extra cheese! Extra cheese is the only topping that all 10 voters are willing to accept. The second-place choice is chicken fingers, with meat-lovers coming third. Only voter J disapproves of chicken fingers. The way you count the votes really can affect the outcome. Both extra cheese and a coin flip between chicken fingers and meat-lovers could be thought of as “the democratic choice.”

So what will I do? I think I’ll bring an extra cheese pizza and a chicken fingers pizza. Make as many voters satisfied as possible! But that brings up an important point. Market competition often yields better outcomes than political competition, because you don’t have to force everyone to accept the same thing. Everyone can get what he or she wants best.