Being unable to buy elections isn't a bug, it's a feature

"Markets in everything" can be taken too far.

Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt blogs an idea which, frankly, demonstrates why we're pretty justified in keeping a sharp divide between economists and politicians:

In Glen’s voting mechanism, every voter can vote as many times as he or she likes. The catch, however, is that you have to pay each time you vote, and the amount you have to pay is a function of the square of the number of votes you cast. As a consequence, each extra vote you cast costs more than the previous vote. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say the first vote costs you $1. Then to vote a second time would cost $4. The third vote would be $9, the fourth $16, and so on. A person who cast four votes would have to pay a total of $30 (1+4+9+16=30). Twenty votes would cost $2,870. One hundred votes would cost you more than $300,000. Five hundred votes would cost more than $40 million. So eventually, no matter how much you like a candidate, you choose to vote a finite number of times.

What is so special about this voting scheme? People end up voting in proportion to how much they care about the election outcome. The system captures not just which candidate you prefer, but how strong your preferences are. Given Glen’s assumptions, this turns out to be Pareto efficient — i.e., no person in society can be made better off without making someone else worse off.

Levitt deals with some potential criticisms on his blog, but only in passing; and while he argues that there is support for the idea in a laboratory, the laboratory experiments didn't deal with the major problem with the idea in the real world, which is that when the difference in wealth spreads several orders of magnitude, it couldn't fail to give more voice to those with more wealth, especially when it comes to issues where the rich speak as one (like, perhaps, taxation of the wealthy).

In addition, the proposal is only examined from an economists point of view, when it is an area also well studied by political scientists. An important aspect of voting, for instance, is that while we may talk of "wasted" votes in majoritarian systems, very little has been actually wasted. If you have to buy votes, then "safe" constituencies would basically never change hands, as the minority party's turnout would collapse. That, in turn, would likely see the majority party's turnout also collapse, which could set up frankly strange chaotic cycles, especially in a three+ party system.

Levitt also mentions the prospect of fraud, but focuses on a strange aspect; the problem seems less to be that people would sell their votes, and more that a system set up to take multiple votes per person removes one hurdle to voter fraud that we have now.

Add to those problems the fact that the system as designed locks anyone out of the electoral process who doesn't have enough money to spare on it; that one-person-one-vote was always defended for philosophical, rather than practical, reasons; and that a far more serious problem with elections from the point of view of an economist is that being forced to communicate acceptance of a broad set of policies with only a yes or no answer to a question every five years is a stupidly inefficient way to gauge public preferences.

So: be glad economists don't run countries, only their money.

A woman votes in Florida. Hopefully, she didn't have to pay. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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