“Don’t vote, it just encourages the scoundrels”. So writes humorist PJ O’Rourke. He has a point. Symbolic elections endorse bad governance.
Elections decide candidates, seldom actual issues. Candidates avoid specifics, they posture. Once in office, they waffle, they trade their votes, and they switch positions.
Current elections are quirky, too. If candidate A had a funnier line or a better campaign organization, results might be different.
Elections favor narrow interests over the public good. A subsidized group that turns out in force can vote itself a pay raise that otherwise would not pass.
Are elections accurate measures of the public will? No.
Elections give legitimacy to decisions voters do not make, too. A byzantine tax code, indifferent public services, dangerous levels of public debt, all exist without voter approval.
Public officials use elections to separate authority from responsibility as cleanly as a fisher fillets a brookie. Officials get the authority, citizens get the responsibility.
When public retirements crash, citizens pay. If public transport damages the have-lesses, the public pays. If defense is both expensive and ineffective, the public pays. If housing policy and Wall Street dynamite the economy, citizens suffer the blast.
Elected officials sluff off responsibility. At worst, they go back to their old work. Bureaucrats seldom even change desks. Neither pay. Elections bless the whole mess.
No wonder Fidel advised Hugo Chavez to hold elections. He reportedly said people are easier to control if they believe they have a voice.
Colorado is not Cuba or Caracas, but nor is our democracy what it should be.
You can see it in the County Clerk’s office. Hanging from the ceiling are multiple signs that warn misbehaving citizens that more forceful authority will intervene.
Your grocery store does not need to threaten its customers. Nor does your favorite fashion shop or mechanic, or restaurant. It is not the fault of the County Clerk’s office and its courteous staff.
The problem is the relationship. It is one of command and control, not one of candor and cooperation. Officialdom is power rich. Citizens are power poor. Each knows it. Public officials can conk citizens on the head. Citizens only buffer is a heavily sedated vote.
That relationship can be eunuch-harem as police and courts are supposed operate. It is often nanny-child as grocery store liquor restrictions, preschooler’s toilet height rules, and thistle-police programs work.
All have a captor-captive flavor to them; especially veteran’s health care, zoning, K-12 education, and the postal service.
All also have a shepherd-sheep piece, too. The shepherd keeps the shearing profits, and no single sheep matters much. Social Security is an especially ingenious variety of this relationship.
None of these have the customer-heavy power balance of free-exchange relationships. So the public sector has little incentive to improve. Bureaucratic failure is even turned to political advantage. It is an argument for more money.
And the money is big.
That king of curmudgeons, H.L. Mencken, sums it up humorously; “Elections are advance auctions of stolen property”.
Politicians compete with promises of benefits, but shrink from discussions of costs. Do the people want to be fooled this way? Of course not.
My family votes. I encourage others to do it, too. It is gloriously symbolic. Yet your vote does not pack much real decision-making power.
Lead-dog democracy expert, Robert Dahl, says we are not ruled by the people. Instead we are ruled by groups, by a wide variety of narrowly focused special interests.
“Can anyone be satisfied with the American political system simply because it is not an oligarchy?”, he asks.
Dahl’s question is really a statement. Our democracy is not fully developed. You will know if it grows.
You will have more power, if democracy progresses. You will have more power.
Click HERE for a version of this story that was published in the Vail Daily on 3 November 2015.
1from vpe file “Eagle County Local Gov budgets.ods”