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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.