Gordon Tullock: The Vote Motive

I recently read The Vote Motive, Tullock’s basic introduction to public choice, the field he and James Buchanan helped pioneer as the economic analysis of government.  The volume is very slim, yet very insightful.  Many of Tullock’s observations challenge deeply held assumptions about the way politics works.  Why do people ascribe a different morality to public, as opposed to private actors?  Do individual votes “matter” from a results perspective?  Why is majority rule so coveted among modern democracies?

I have personally found the questioning of widely believed truths, regardless of the subject matter, to be particularly stimulating and often rewarding as well.  Four or five years ago I dropped the view that it was important for a citizen to exercise their right to vote in a society with institutions shaped, at least somewhat, by democracy.  I didn’t need a ton of persuading and it was Tullock who did most of the legwork to get me there.  The truth was I had never sat down and really thought about why voting was so crucial or attempted to reason my way to a conclusion.  It was simply ingrained in societal norms and taught in school starting very early.  Woe be unto those who don’t believe voting is all it’s cracked up to be.  There is very little room for heretics among the voting fanatics.

Well I can tell you it felt really good to throw off that political dogma and to embrace the fact that your individual vote means almost precisely nothing when it comes to changing political outcomes.  The only way your vote “means” anything, the vast vast majority of the time, is to the extent it makes you feel good.  That’s it.  And so I can’t help but smirk when I see the confused faces of people churning through that startlingly new and scary mental calculus – the same one I churned through a handful of years ago – the first time someone questions what they presumed was a given.

The median reader of this site is perhaps more likely to already doubt or disown the assumptions Tullock attacks in the following quotes, yet I still think they are worth reproducing here.

Excerpts from The Vote Motive.

On politicians’ motives (p. 59):

The analysis of the politician’s tactics indicates simply that he is attempting to be re-elected to office, not that he is attempting to maximise the public interest.  We think this situation is realistic, and, in particular, that politicians trying to be re-elected are more likely to be re-elected than those who are not.

There is no reason why we should be disturbed by this phenomenon.  The market operates by providing a structure in which individuals who simply want to make money end up producing motor-cars that people want.  Similarly, democracy operates so that politicians who simply want to hold public office end up by doing things the people want.

On bureaucracy (p. 61):

Bureaucrats are like other men.  This proposition sounds very simple and straightforward, but the consequences are a radical departure from simple orthodox economic theory.  If bureaucrats are ordinary men, they will make most of (not all) their decisions in terms of what benefits them, not society as a whole.  Like other men, they may occasionally sacrifice their own well-being for the wider good, but we should expect this to be exceptional behaviour.

Most of the existing literature on the machinery of government assumes that, when an activity is delegated to a bureaucrat, he will either carry out the rules and regulations or will make decisions in the public interest regardless of whether it benefits him or not.  We do not make this assumption about businessmen.  We do not make it about consumers in the market.  I see no reason why we should make it about bureaucrats.

On logrolling, or the “the practice of exchanging favors, especially in politics by reciprocal voting for each other’s proposed legislation” (p. 79):

All of this is perfectly normal, not only for British politics but for democratic politics in general.  Indeed it is also normal for non-democratic politics, although we know less about them, and hence it is not so clear there.  In all democracies that I know of there is both public criticism of logrolling as immoral, as well as the widespread use of it in making government decisions.

and p. 86:

We should not be unhappy about these very common democratic practices, although normal discussion of them is condemnatory.  There is no reason why minorities should not be served by democracies.

On majority voting (p. 92):

The total cost inflicted upon society by various rules is calculated by simply summing these two cost lines, as in the total cost line.  The low point on this line is the optimal voting rule for the society.  Only by coincidence would it be the simple majority.   For important matters, I think in general it would be well above the majority and, indeed, most formal constitutions require more than a majority for at least some matters.

Majority voting is thus generally not optimal.  For important matters we would require something more.  This conclusion is in general accord with constitutional processes throughout the world.  But my opinion is that ‘reinforced majorities’, say two-thirds majority, should be used much more widely than they now are.  Indeed, I have on occasion recommended that the President of the United States always veto all bills in order to compel a two-thirds vote for everything in both houses of Congress.  Startling though this proposal is, the analysis which leads to it is fairly orthodox political economy.

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