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Illya Somin argues that the rational ignorance of voters gives relatives of former successful politicians an advantage stemming from better name recognition.

Because voters know very little about the details of candidates’ ideology and issue positions, they use a candidate’s family affiliation with a popular political leader as an information shortcut. Voters could instead analyze each candidates’ qualifications and ideology in detail (though, as Bhutto noted, that may be impossible for those who are illiterate or poorly educated). However, rational ignorance ensures that most of them have neither the time nor the incentive to do so. Bhutto herself, of course, rose to power in Pakistan in large part because voters associated her with her father, a popular politician who had been executed by a military dictator in 1979.

He also argues that this advantage also means they will be less competent on average then other politicians, presumably because there is a smaller population of politicians with familial name recognition. This also suggests that in elections where the electorate is more uninformed, familial name recognition should be more of an advantage. I would be interested to see a study try to support this empirically.

Update: Discussion in the comments.


In the past, I have advocated both Direct Representation, a form of proportional representation, and the institutional protection of federalism by having state governments at least partially elect the national government, as was the case in the U.S. before the 17th Amendment. How these two institutional features might fit together is not immediately obvious, but the solution is relatively simple:

At the state level, each population elects it’s representatives (parties) in the normal Directly Representative way. At the national level, Direct Representation elections are also held normally except the votes are cast by all the individual state parties using the votes they have been delegated instead of by voters in each of the states. In this way, both the state and national legislatures remain Directly Representative, and the national legislature remains representative of the state governments.

I liked this old article by Alex Tabarrok, Arguments for Federalism. Tabarrok’s arguments are

  1. Districts form laboratories of democracy, where relatively low cost experiments can be run
  2. Districts can adopt different policies for diverse preferences
  3. Districts that most closely match an “area of effect” for some political decision are better because they reduce political externalities while still allowing for economies of scale
  4. Open borders between districts will preserve liberty through competition

Numbers 1 and 4 strike me as much stronger arguments than 2 or 3, but 4 needs to be more general. Districts with open borders compete on the overall quality of governance, not just liberty. Inter-district competition will pressure district governments to be relatively efficient and adopt productive policies. Indeed, I would think that they compete least of all on the issue of liberty, because liberty is usually most important a small minority.

I have a new article called Professional Voting: A Proposal for Democracy Reform that expands on and modifies an idea I posted about earlier this year to create a class of Professional Voters, who are paid to become well informed about issues in an effort to solve the problem of voter ignorance

The Professional Voting scheme would monitor how well informed individual voters are by giving voters a test right before they vote, which would measure their knowledge of political facts and arguments. To ensure that Professional Voters would be representative of the population at large, they would also be given a demographic survey, which would ask about their income, race, gender geographic location and any other factors which would be likely to shape a voter’s perspective and values. Then, after they vote, voters would be given a relatively large payment (perhaps about $10,000) based on how well they did on the political test and based on how representative they were of underrepresented demographics. The initial voting result would then be statistically corrected so that the final election outcome would be representative of the population at large and to model how voters would have voted if everyone had done very well on the test. This corrected voting result would be used as the final outcome of the election. The body responsible for creating and administering the test and demographic survey would be a proportionally elected Electoral Council, the subject of the next section, which would be elected in a normal election by non-professional voters.

 Comments and criticism are always welcome.

In response to my last post, Jim Dew expresses the intuition that politicians are self selected for the desire for power and control, and so we should expect politicians to seek power and control more than other people. This is an excellent point.

Here is how I think about it now:

We can think of all jobs as providing compensation along to dimensions: the opportunity to exert control over people and resources, and all other forms of compensation (mostly money, benefits etc.).

Political jobs, whether elected or unelected, offer comparatively more compensation in the form of opportunity to exert control over people and resources than other jobs, even those which offer the amount of ‘total’ compensation. This is especially true because many political jobs don’t pay very much.

We should expect those who find relatively more utility in exerting control over people and resources to prefer political jobs because they see political jobs as providing more total compensation than other jobs they can get.

We should also expect to see relatively more such people in political jobs because they will be willing to spend more resources to get those jobs. People who value control over people and resources relatively more than others, will spend more time and effort to cultivate the skills to get political jobs than others.

The net result is that people who have self selected to become politicians will be more motivated to exploit the opportunities to exert power and control over people and resources than others. I think that this same logic also applies to the desire to implement ideology, which I mentioned in my last post, because there are very few opportunities to implement ideology outside of government. Therefore we should expect politicians to be more motivated to advance their ideology than others.

I’ve been thinking about what assumptions we should make about the motivations political actors. Clearly their motivations are self-interested, but that self interest isn’t always obvious. Downs posited that politicians were motivated to maximize their chance for re-election, but I think it is clear that is not their only motivation.

In The Economics of Collective Choice (p. 195) I found a good starting point,

Breton (1974) suggested that an elected political supplier [politician] “can be characterized by a utility function defined for a probability of re-election (or election) variable and for variables such as personal pecuniary gains, personal power, his own image in history, the pursuit of lofty personal ideals, his personal view of the common good, and others which are peculiar to each politician”

I think this can be refined somewhat. First, I think this motivational assumption can apply to appointed political actors as well as elected ones. I think of appointees as being elected like other politicians but elected by a different electorate and under different rules (for example, some get life tenure).

Second, the desire for re-election can be decomposed into other motivations, primarily the desire for personal power and the desire for personal pecuniary gains.

Third, I think “personal view of the common good” is largely a synonym for ideology.

Here is how I would state these motivations (arguments to a utility function)

  • desire for material gains and other quality of life gains (family time, for example)
  • desire for power and control over resources and people
  • desire to implement ideology/personal conception of the common good
  • desire for a good historical image
  • desire to think of self as “good person”

For a while now, my internal model for the the balance of power between the executive branch and the legislative branch has been that the balance is mostly chosen and adjusted by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is a deliberative body and has the final say on a lot of similar issues. The court’s members are also chosen jointly by the executive branch and the legislative branch (although, the executive branch certainly has a bigger say), so it makes sense for the two branches to defer to the court on the issue of balance of powers. Opining on Charlie Savage’s Takeover, Stephen Griffin offers an alternative explanation

In Savage’s imperial narrative, power-hungry presidents seem to parachute in from outside the constitutional system promoting novel theories that have no true historical antecedents. But this ignores that such power would be hard to acquire and wield without the support of millions of Americans. While it may be hard for congressionalists to understand, many Americans do believe the president is head of the government and best able to respond to foreign policy crises.

I am skeptical of the idea that voters have preferences for how power is distributed among the branches. The balance of powers is a very esoteric issue, so I think voters are unlikely to care about it. Griffin also mentions elite opinions, which, I think are much more likely to care about the balance of powers, but elite opinions affect public policy in different ways than voter opinion (in ways which I don’t have a good internal model for). Consider elite opinions on farm subsidies. My impression is that there is basically a consensus that farm subsidies are bad, but we will probably continue to have farm subsidies for a long time.

Still, I read The Power of Separation, which is on the separation of powers, recently, and I got the impression that a lot of balance of powers issues are handled without court intervention.

I think if you wanted to make the judicial branch more responsible for the balance of powers, you would have to make it much easier for congress and the president to challenge actions taken by each other.

Addendum: Griffin also notes two interesting theories about political parties. First, Savage asserts that political parties in the American system “can make Congress behave more like a subordinate and deferential arm of the executive branch than like the independent and coequal institution the Founders intended it to be.” Second, Griffin asserts that “parties helped overly separate branches work together to create public policy.” Both interesting theories.

For voters with ‘social’ preferences, the expected utility of voting is
approximately independent of the size of the electorate, suggesting that
rational voter turnouts can be substantial even in large elections.

That’s from a paper by Edlin, Gelman (who talks about it here) and Kaplan. Their logic goes like this:

The probability that a voter’s vote is decisive is

p = K / n

Where K is a constant (on the order of 10 for close elections) and n is the number of voters. The potential benefits of voting are

B = Bself +α N B social

Where Bself are the selfish benefits of voting, α is a constant to correct for the fact that benefits are altruistic (they don’t accrue to the voter),  N is the number of people in the population, and Bsocial is the benefits to society as percieved by  the voter

 Bexpect = (K / n) (Bself +α N B)

When n is large (pretty much in any realistic case) this simplifies to

Bexpect α Bsocial K N / n

If α = .1 (I discount benefits to others by 10 relative to benefits to me) and K = 10, which the authors state is reasonable and Bsocial = B$25 which seams plausible, and N / n = 3 meaning 1/3rd of the population votes, which is again, plausible, then

Bexpect = $75

Which would certainly make voting rational.

My main qualm is that the authors do not discuss people’s tendency to discount low probability events even when those events have large consequences (see risk framing). It is very difficult to have an intuitive understanding of low probability events. Often this effect is unimportant because low probabilities mean that the expected effect is small, but when the expected effect is large this effect can be important. I very much doubt that voters have an intuitive grasp of the calculus involved in determining the expected value of voting.

Sandy Levinson discusses another way in which the presidency has a good deal of market power in the appointment process (link)

 If one tries to be at least somewhat fair to Sen. Schumer, though, one might look at one justification that he offered, his fears that George W. Bush would simply name someone far worse–and one can easily think of people who are worse that Mukasey–to a recess appointment. This would, of course, completely eliminate any role of the Senate in deciding who serves as the country’s highest legal officer within the Executive Branch. This is a realistic fear, but, of course, it’s a fear that arises only because we have a Constitution that includes the recess appointment power.

The recess appointment power gives the presidency another way to reduce the importance of the Senate in the appointment process.

A commenter notes that the constitutional clause that allows recess appointments has been interpreted quite broadly

The plain language of the Constitution is that recess appointments may be made to fill vacancies “that may happen during the Recess of the Senate”. In other words, recess appointments are available when an office becomes vacant while the Senate is in recess. If an office becomes vacant while the Senate is in session, the President has no power to make an appointment merely because he fails to obtain the consent of the Senate to his nominee.

I am aware that there is a legal literature on both sides of this question, but I find the prevailing opinion incomprehensible.

This type of interpretation is probably a result of the fact the presidency has so much market power in appointing Supreme Court Judges sympathetic to executive power.

I started reading An Economic Theory of Democracy with high expectations, but I quickly became frustrated. The book has some good points but there were numerous parts that disappointed me.

I liked the main point of the book, which is that in two party democracy parties converge on the views of the median voter (wiki entry). The broad point that uncertainty can make parties diverge was also a well made, although I thought that the specific mechanisms the book used to make the point were not very good. I suspect that one of the major contribution was viewing political parties as working to reach political office for the private rewards of political service, prestige, pay and seedier rewards, but I tend to discount this because I am so familiar with this argument.

I was disappointed by the lack of mathematical models used in the book, by the presence of omissions and by the use of numerous arguments which I thought were poor. I was probably wrong to expect formal models to be used in the book because those are generally reserved for academic papers, but I want to give examples of what I perceived as omissions and faulty reasoning.

First, although the low individual returns to voting are repeatedly discussed, the idea that intelligent voting is a public good was completely omitted. There are two distinct ways to think about this. If assumes that voters vote in their material self-interest, then voting intelligently for those material self-interests is a public good to those who share those material interests. If one assumes that voters vote altruistically, then intelligent voting is a public good to everyone. Either way, intelligent voting is very likely to be under-provided. The book continually skirts this issue; it mentions the fact that any given vote has a very small probability of affecting the outcome and therefore has an extremely low individual return, and it mentions that government is largely in the business of providing collective goods, but it does not connect these ideas.

Second, I was disappointed that Downs’ work failed to apply the logic he had developed earlier about party convergence to multiparty systems. Downs argues that multiparty systems lead to less centrist government than two party systems, but uses faulty reasoning to reach this conclusion; his logic works like this:

Consider 5 parties on a one dimensional spacial political spectrum (see figure 1), and assume that each party receives an even proportion of the vote.

political spectrum
Figure 1. The distribution of political parties with equal voting power.

No one party or even two parties can rule by themselves; three parties must form a coalition in order to form a government. Downs assumes that party C can come together with the two parties on either extreme (A/B and D/E) to form a government which is centered on either middle extreme party (B and D), and therefore produces more extreme political results than two party democracy.

However, this logic ignores individual party incentives. Assuming that parties A/B and D/E automatically form coalitions (for simplicity), according to Downs’ own logic, the coalitions at both extremes have incentives to offer party C the chance to be in coalition with a policy point which is closer to C’s ideal point than the one center point in the offer given by the coalition on the other side, because the parties want to be in office. These incentives ensure that the equilibrium policy point converges on the median party’s (party C in this case) ideal point.

I think Downs’ error here lies in that he thinks of people voting to “select a government” and not to influence which government is selected. He does not seem to consider how parties in a multiparty system can act as good agents for voter’s political desires.

My overall opinion of An Economic Theory of Democracy is much like that of The Calculus of Consent. Both books include numerous dubious arguments, but both manage to make some very important arguments. I like both books in retrospect, even if I didn’t appreciate them very much when I was reading them.