In the last posts of these seriesI’ve described different key ideas that Randall Holcombe outlines in his book Following their leaders: political preferences and public policies. Here I want to bring all these ideas together and describe the challenge they present to common assumptions and arguments for democracy. To do this, let’s go back to the beginning.
In the first post, I reviewed how Holcombe presents the common representation of democracy. There is general agreement that voters have specific outcomes they want to achieve. They vote to express those preferences, and the votes are aggregated into an overall social choice. Policy makers then use the information conveyed by this social choice to craft policies that reflect and execute the will of the people. This system, we are often told, has several useful features, including allowing citizens to peacefully resolve disputes among themselves through negotiation and voting, as well as making leaders both responsive and accountable to the people. But this story has several flaws, says Holcombe.
A flaw is the difference between expressive and instrumental preferences, as described in the second article in this series. What we prefer to express is not always the same as the outcome we would actually choose. In markets, we get what we order, so we will behave instrumentally. In politics, we get the same result regardless of the vote we individually cast, so we will behave expressively. This means that voters can use their votes to express their support for policies they would not have chosen to adopt had they made an instrumental choice. And since voting systems aggregate expressive preferences, not instrumental preferences, the results of an election cannot be used to draw valid conclusions about which outcomes voters prefer.
Another flaw, described in the third article, comes from the idea that voters have anchoring and derivative preferences. Walter Lippmann, in his book Public opinion, was troubled by the fact that individual citizens could hold strong convictions on a multitude of very complex matters with high levels of certainty, writing: “There are few great problems in public life where the cause and the effect are obvious at once. They are not obvious to scholars who have spent years, say, studying business cycles, or price and wage movements, or the migration and assimilation of peoples, or the diplomatic purpose of foreign powers. Yet, in one way or another, we are all meant to have opinions on these matters. Holcombe suggests people will anchor on one key point – maybe a political identity, maybe a specific policy, maybe a particular leader. Voters then adopt their other political preferences from this anchor. For example, consider someone who is passionately in favor of tougher gun control laws. This will lead them to entrench themselves in the Democratic Party, due to that party’s greater support for gun control. That voter will then tend to adopt the rest of the Democratic platform, although these issues are unrelated to gun control. This leads to unrelated views coming together. There is no intrinsic connection between the degree of stringency of gun control laws and whether the tax code is more or less progressive. Yet, if you know someone’s position on one of these issues, you can predict with very high certainty what they will think of the other issue as well.
Finally, as indicated in the most recent message, democracy does not allow citizens to solve social problems through mutual negotiation and compromise between equals. Due to transaction costs, the vast majority of citizens will not and cannot meaningfully participate in the design of social policy. Negotiations and policy design will necessarily take place among a small group of elites, who face low transaction costs in crafting agreements due to being part of a small, well-connected group. For this reason, public policy will also not be formed as a result of compromises between citizens, but neither will it occur as a result of elite participation in citizens:
The political elite does not interact with the masses when they negotiate to produce public policies. They interact with the economic elite and their lobbyists, who are well-connected because they face low transaction costs and are therefore able to negotiate specific public policies. In concrete terms, this amounts to selling public policies to the highest bidder.
Moreover, the use of elections to solve social problems does not lead to greater peaceful cooperation between citizens as some models of democracy suggest, but instead encourages ever greater polarization as more and more problems are “solved” politically – that is, more and more problems become politicized:
Unlike voting models in which voters have preferences and candidates adopt their platforms to match voters’ preferences, candidates and parties offer platforms and voters adopt those platforms as anchors, with preferences on most policies being derived from their anchors. Often, platforms do not converge to a median preference, but remain separate (polarized), and the unique dimension of citizens’ political preferences runs across platforms.
This trend of greater polarization with the reliance on elections is also exacerbated by the fact that politics, unlike markets, is a zero-sum, winner-takes-all game. Markets are very good at catering to even very niche preferences, so almost anyone can get exactly what they’re looking for, even if they have tastes that aren’t widely shared. This is not the case in politics:
In marketplaces, entrepreneurs have an incentive to induce customers to transact with them. In politics, people are driven to defeat their rivals. In the soft drink market, there is room for Coke and Pepsi to succeed. In the automotive market, General Motors and Toyota have room to succeed. In electoral politics, one side wins and the other loses.
But above all, the traditional history of democracy sets things back. Voters do not bring their preferences to the polls, leading elites to shape policies under the direction of voters. Elites form sets of policies as a result of negotiation and planning with other elites, and voters choose between sets that reflect elite preferences. Because voters act expressively rather than instrumentally, and because most voter preferences are derived, voters will express a preference for entire sets of policies that they have had no say in. Elites, not voters, are in charge in a democracy:
The foregoing analysis questions the extent to which democratic governments execute the will of the people and the extent to which democratic governments are accountable to their citizens. More than just being misinformed, citizens and voters tend to adopt their political preferences from the political elite, so it would be more accurate to say that democratic government executes the will of the elite than the will of the people.
It also undermines the idea that elections make elites accountable to citizens:
If the masses acquire their public policy preferences from the elite to which they anchor, it is the elite that designs public policy and the masses follow their leaders. Democratic government is not accountable to its citizens, and is not compelled to act in their interests, if the political preferences expressed by the masses are derived from those of the elite.
Of course, it is always in the interests of elites to publicize the standard view of democracy. Those who advocate the use of elections on the grounds that elections allow citizens to peacefully coordinate solutions among themselves, or on the grounds that elections hold leaders accountable to the public, are providing elites with exactly the kind of intellectual cover that benefits them. most :
The romantic notion of democracy as a system in which the political elite is accountable to the masses works to the advantage of the elite, as it presents the appearance of government compelled to act in the public interest.
This concludes my summary of Holcombe’s book. In the next post, I will give my thoughts on what I consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of his argument.