Thursday, May 27, 2010

Economic Benefits of Political Apathy

Yesterday I discussed the inherent flaws in democratic votes and how shouting (rioting, protesting, donating) can actually be more efficient. In the past this has convinced me of the benefits of political apathy. Apparently I should have been a little more specific:
there is another critical competitive advantage for America in relation to its other democratic peers. It is the fact that in American presidential and congressional elections, about half of the electorate never turns out to vote. And the unique competitive advantage arises from the fact that unlike in other Western democracies, the people who end up staying away from voting in the U.S. belong overwhelmingly to its poorest, least educated sections.
He goes on to discuss the reasons why the poor don't vote:
Historically, many of the southern states have had a nasty record of officially and unofficially making it more difficult for blacks and poor whites to vote, a position that largely prevailed until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Other reasons include the disenfranchisement of its prison population, which, at two million, is the largest in the world. Moreover, felony disenfranchisement laws in most states make it difficult for ex-felons to vote. As a result, about 5.4 million offenders and ex-offenders (about 2.5 percent of the electorate) were excluded from the voting rolls in the 2004 presidential election. Also, the fact that Election Day in the U.S. is not a national holiday makes it difficult for those holding low paying jobs (where wages are paid by the hour) to go out and vote.
So why is this good for the American economy? It's something I've already mentioned before on this blog, more educated voters leads to more libertarian voters, which leads to more economic growth:
A critical factor which determines the economic success of a country is how well it strikes a balance between its short term needs and long term requirements. The short term interests veer towards more spending and consumption, while the long term interests lie in greater investment for the future and in shaping an environment conducive to creation of wealth. Essentially, the poor and the disadvantaged within a country would tend to have a short term outlook. Their interest would lie in having the government spend more on generous social security benefits and subsidies and in laws that protect labour. They would be far less enthused by the investments and sacrifice required to further the economic well-being of the country over the long term, or in promoting the entrepreneurial class.
This also supports my graduate school thesis about the correlation between compulsory voting laws and government spending. So here's the question: do the economic benefits of voter disenfranchisement outweigh the social costs? My guess is most people would say no.


  1. What you are asserting re: the poor voting less would lead in practice close to the original voting privilege established by the Constitution--only [white male] property owners could vote. (I'm missing the exact reference in USC on property ownership. The requirement was eliminated in 1850, so maybe it was a statute?)

    My wife's dad and I return to this theme often--the electorate in 1790 was more likely to be middle class or higher and to be educated. (Don't get me started on the change in election of senators, as we consider that a disaster for federalism and state sovereignty.) Property ownership invested the voter in the long-term health of the nation, and taxes levied by the individual states were most likely to be borne by the same property owners.

    In 1790, we were supposed to be electing wise people to our state and national assemblies who best represented our views. Our state legislators would choose wise people to the Senate. We voters were likely as not to be ignorant of many details necessary to formulate laws and policies, making trust in character and judgement more important than promises to achieve specific ends, except in highly visible circumstances (i.e., war, taxation, slavery, etc.). The rise of political parties and the increasingly rapid diffusion of information have supplanted this mode of relationship between the elected and the electorate. It has also led to a more technocratic central government, a mode for which it was not designed.

    Perhaps this (r)evolution in political affairs has rendered modern voting meaningless?

  2. Interesting question. I would justify the growing emphasis on the individual voter (such as the 17th Amendment) with the "increasingly rapid diffusion of information." Don't you think the average voter in 2010 is more educated than 200 years ago? Sadly that probably makes them more of a special interest.

  3. We may be more educated, but it does not mean that we are more wise. It is evident in my wife's veterinary hospital when people with too much information (usually from the internet) claim facts that are easily struck down by an expert (like a doctor). Healthcare is complicated, but now so is foreign and domestic policy. We hire civil servants with years of education and experience and elect legislators we hope are principled and intelligent enough to oversee said civil servants because we are not qualified en masse to decide what should and should not happen. (Doesn't stop pundits and a small minority of genuinely interested amateurs from having public opinions, some of which are right, some of which are wrong.)

  4. Good point FS, but as a libertarian yourself, don't you think that small government generally leads to better outcomes?

  5. I agree in general with you re: small government leading to better outcomes. Smallness is not measured in size of the civil service or the legislature; it is rather descriptive of the scope of government. I want the government to hire as many competent civil servants (at pay levels that bolster their unimpeachability) to achieve the mission of government economically and effectively, overseen by a competent and wise and responsible legislative branch. My libertarian complaints chiefly center around the central nature of modern government and the corrective need to disperse that authority and responsibility as much as possible back to the states and municipalities. (The latter has been recognized by large businesses for more than two decades now; the government is still late to the show.) A bolstered judiciary that could respond more efficiently would undo a lot of need for much of the regulation we--directly and indirectly--are burdened by now. (This is akin to the principle in child-rearing of justice and discipline being swift--as close to the time of infraction as possible--in order to deter the behavior in the future.)


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.