Category Archives: democracy

Bi-Partisan Markets

Milton Friedman purports in Capitalism and Freedom that the free market allows the individual to express her individual desires, while the democratic system forces conformity.

“From this standpoint, the role of the market, as already noted, is that it permits unanimity without conformity; that it is a system of effectively proportional representation. On the other hand, the characteristic feature of action through explicitly political channels is that it tends to require or to enforce substantial conformity. The typical issue must be decides “yes” or “no”; at most, provision can be made for a fairly limited number of alternatives. Even the use of proportional representation in its explicitly political form does not alter this conclusion. The number of separate groups that can in fact be represented is narrowly limited, enormously so by comparison with the proportional representation of the market.”

Although Friedman argues for the benefits of proportional representation in the market, the economic system can potentially arrive at a similar conclusion as the political system. Consider the situation of the carbonated soda market, where advertising similarly enforces substantial conformity by raising the barriers to entry. Coke and Pepsi hold over 70% of the market share.[1] This sounds dangerously similar to the current political landscape in the United States, with Republicans and Democrats holding over 60% of the “voter market share.” 36% of registered voters are Democrats and 27% are registered Republicans.[2] The competitive landscape is actually slanted more in favor of Coke and Pepsi than our often-criticized bi-partisan political system.

The point that Friedman is trying to make is that 49.9% of the country may be forced to conform to a political situation to which they are opposed. Obviously, if Coke has a majority market share, you are not forced to consume only Coke. However, Friedman argues that the free market constitutes a system of proportional representation, but that is not consistent in the Coke/Pepsi situation. Due to wide awareness of Coke as a result of advertising expenditure, the consumer has a higher subconscious disposition to purchase Coke. It is not the result of actual product preference, but rather brand preference. Even if a company launches a cola competitor to Coke that is a healthier alternative with the exact taste, it will likely fail due to consumer’s requisite knowledge of the Coke brand. Essentially, a consumer purchasing RC Cola has the same effect of a citizen voting for the green party. The consumer is forced to conform to an economic situation in which they potentially are opposed, but is unable to view or obtain alternatives due to Coke’s stranglehold on the market.

One could argue that the consumer is not truly forced to consume Coke; she could simply purchase RC Cola in the supermarket. However, what about the situations in stadiums, theaters, or restaurants where there is only one option? These venue providers will rationally select the most prominent brand in order to appease the most consumers, and thus select Coke. But this leaves the consumer with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice in those certain environments; the exact situation in which Friedman condemns. Thus, while liberal economists criticize the conformity in politics and espouse the virtues of the competitive marketplace, both systems are equally susceptible to the concentration of power.


[1]Esterl, Mike. “Pepsi Thirsty for a Comeback.” Wall Street Journal, 18 Mar. 2011. Web. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703818204576206653259805970.html&gt;

[2] “Fewer Voters Identify as Republicans.” Pew Research Center. 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 04 Apr. 2012. <http://pewresearch.org/pubs/773/fewer-voters-identify-as-republicans&gt;.

Moving the goal posts… on only one side of the field

The Big Hypothesis motivating this blog is that we can better understand several important institutions by seeing them as regulated contests in which participants who are playing to win will also benefit the public. And sometimes we might get a better sense of what exactly is wrong about some obviously dodgy activity or tactic by looking at the institution in question through this lens.

Case in point: what is wrong with politicians in power changing the rules for elections? And in particular, what is wrong with them changing the rules in ways that will reliably increase their chance of winning the next electoral contest?

Obviously, this strikes us as unfair. But why, especially when this electoral-rule-changing follows all of the legal procedures? Now this blog is non-partisan. We are interested in how best to think about institutional design and ethics across a broad range of institutions. But in America we are gearing up for a long series of electoral contests, and as it turns out, most of the accusations about “tampering” with electoral rules are being directed at Republican lawmakers. My only interest here is to see whether we get a better handle on these debates by focusing on the deliberately adversarial nature of constitutional democratic politics. A couple of weeks ago the editorial page of the New York Times was once again thundering about wide-spread Republican tampering with electoral laws. Their analysis in “The Myth of Voter Fraud” allows us to highlight two rather different rationales for rules in deliberately adversarial institutions. The thunder begins with the following claim (including a link to a recent study):

It has been a record year for new legislation designed to make it harder for Democrats to vote — 19 laws and two executive actions in 14 states dominated by Republicans, according to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice. As a result, more than five million eligible voters will have a harder time participating in the 2012 election.

Very broadly speaking (– this is a crude working-hypothesis), the various rules that regulate adversarial institutions are justified in two ways: some of them are justified because of the way they “shape” the contest, or motivate the contestants, so that it will produce better overall results in the long run; and some of the rules are justified for reasons that, in some sense, are prior to, or beyond, the contest — say, because they protect fundamental rights. And some rules may be justified on both grounds.

We worry whenever the “players” who are supposed to be regulated by a set of rules also get to set the rules. We shouldn’t be surprised that they will try to justify the rule-changes by appealing to the latter type of principles: the ones that apply “intrinsically” — in this case the proposed rules are supposed to minimize voter fraud, something that would obviously be wrong in any electoral system. But we have to be suspicious if the players changing the rules for such “intrinsic” reasons will also systematically benefit from those changes. The burden of proof for demonstrating that the intrinsic principles really do apply in the particular case must be a heavy one indeed.

The Times is unswayed in these recent cases:

There is almost no voting fraud in America. And none of the lawmakers who claim there is have ever been able to document any but the most isolated cases. The only reason Republicans are passing these laws is to give themselves a political edge by suppressing Democratic votes.

Plenty of jurisdictions (countries, federal subunits, etc) simply don’t allow the players to write the rules for their own electoral contests: they establish non-partisan commissions for electoral law and redistricting. I’d welcome a recommendation for a good comparative study of such things.

Redistricting post-Citizens United, y’all

This blog has been sleeping for WAY too long. Let’s try to get it rolling again, at least as a place to continue flagging a wide variety of ethically and politically charged issues that arise within deliberately adversarial institutions.

There have been a few redistricting controversies recently. (Is there actually a “season” for redistricting, or does it happen on different timetables all over the country?) These are always potentially problematic: they amount to changes in the “rules” of the contest that can significantly affect the outcome of the contest — and yet in most states in the US, some contestants themselves (elected politicians) are often in a position to manipulate the rule-change (by changing the boundaries of electoral districts) in ways they help them win. As a strategy for winning elections, it seems a lot closer to bribing the referee than to winning because you are more talented player.

In any case, here is a long story in the New Yorker about an elaborate “plot” (or “strategy,” depending on your political affiliation) by Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, and bankrolled by multimillionaire Art Pope, to gain control of state houses in order to get favorable redistricting for federal congressional elections.

The ethics of not voting

This new book, The Ethics of Voting, by Jason Brennan, looks tailor-made for our blog. I’ve just ordered a copy, but as advanced publicity for it, here’s a quick shout-out.

In democratic theory we rightly pay a lot of attention to the design of the system — especially the electoral system and campaign finance. And we pay some attention (as Bethany and Justin have in posts here and here) to the obligations of professional political actors. But what about the obligations of those other participants in the democratic system, the citizens and voters?

As the blurb says:

Nothing is more integral to democracy than voting. Most people believe that every citizen has the civic duty or moral obligation to vote, that any sincere vote is morally acceptable, and that buying, selling, or trading votes is inherently wrong. In this provocative book, Jason Brennan challenges our fundamental assumptions about voting, revealing why it is not a duty for most citizens–in fact, he argues, many people owe it to the rest of us not to vote.

Somebody had to say it. Amen.