TCS Daily


Is Democracy Like Sex?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 15, 2006 12:00 AM

So the elections are over, and happily my fears of last week weren't borne out. A cynic may say that it was because the Democrats won, but for whatever reason there weren't major complaints of fraud or miscounting. That said, I hope that these issues will get addressed more thoroughly before 2008.

But enough on that topic, which I've been hammering on for a while. This week I want to explore a feature of electoral turnover that doesn't get enough attention: Its effect as a limit on political parasitism.

We always hope, when an election rolls around, that the better candidates will be elected. It often seems, however, as if it's a choice between dumb and dumber, or crooked and crookeder, or something equally unappetizing. This leads some people to wonder why they bother voting at all. But it just may be that voting and elections have benefits that go beyond just selecting the right candidate.

As I argued in a law review article some years ago (you can read it here), democracy serves some of the same interests that sex does.

Evolutionary biologists, I noted, have only recently begun to appreciate the importance that parasites play in evolution. That makes sense: Predators are visible, and when they kill and eat their prey it's pretty dramatic. But when you look past the surface, it turns out that predators are vastly outnumbered by parasites, and the arms race between parasites, which try to adapt to get around their host's defenses, and their hosts, which try to make life tougher on parasites, turns out to be an important one.

This, it is thought, explains why sex is worth all the trouble and expense. (Explains it at the species level; we all know why it's worth the trouble and expense at the individual level. . . .) Reproducing by fission is easier, cheaper, and conveys virtual immortality -- but a population that reproduces by fission is an army of clones, and a parasite that's well adapted to one population member is well adapted to them all. Sexual reproduction, by jumbling up genes every generation, forces parasites to try to adapt to a moving target, giving the host organisms an advantage that justifies all the metabolic energy they put into this more troublesome form of passing on one's genes.

My thought has been that elections play the same role for the body politic that sex plays for the body physical: Every so often, the voters throw the rascals out, and vote in a new set of rascals, meaning that the special interest groups, lobbying outfits, etc., that parasitize the body politic have to adapt to a shifting target. As scientist Thomas Ray has said, one rule of nature is that every successful system accumulates parasites. The American political system has been successful for a long time.

It's not perfect, of course -- neither is sex, since parasites remain a problem -- but it does mix things up and help prevent special-interest relationships from becoming too fossilized. When the Democrats come in, Republican interest groups lose influence, and vice versa. The question is, does it mix things up enough?

Power tends to corrupt. The new guys always promise reform, but -- as the history of the "Republican Revolution" of 1994 suggests -- those promises generally don't get as much attention once the new guys are in power themselves. Mixing things up via elections helps, but -- especially when there are only two parties to choose from -- it may not stir the pot enough over time.

This makes me wonder if we don't need some additional anti-parasitic measures. But what kind of measures?

Two proposals that we often hear are term limits and campaign finance reform. The former may have some merit -- particularly in light of gerrymandered House of Representatives districts that tend to make turnover less likely. The latter, it seems to me, is more likely to foster parasitism than limit it: If you make donating money to politicians complicated and obscure, the process is likely to be mastered by people who have the incentive and ability to deal with complicated and obscure laws.

Transparency would seem like a good idea: Making it easy for people to find out what politicians are doing for whom, and what they're getting in exchange, is likely to have a strong anti-corruption effect, and likely to enhance the turnover created by elections. This suggests that information on who's behind every legislative provision, and who's getting contributions from whom, would be very helpful. So would amending the Freedom of Information Act to ensure that it applies to Congress.

Will we see anything along these lines from the new Congress next year? I hope so, but -- even though Democrats ran against the "culture of corruption" in Washington -- don't hold your breath. Still, politicians respond to pressure. So if there's sufficient attention to the issue, who knows?

If not, I think that we may see a renewal of pressure, a la Ross Perot, for a third party. And it's possible that technology and the Internet will facilitate the growth of third parties in ways that weren't previously possible. Perhaps having a third party in the mix will enable us to mix things up more.


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30 Comments

Multiparty System
I'm skeptical that more than two viably electable parties would do much to advance (our) democratic institutions for a couple of reasons.

If the electorate has more than two choices for any specific office, and particularly for national office, eventually we'd wind up with what is essentially a minority/coalition parliamentary-style legislative branch. While the Commander In Chief would obviously be of one party or another, Congress could alternatively be composed of rougly even-party splits, meaning that little could be accomplished within the purview of their resposibilities.

While some would claim -- myself among them with respect to several issues -- that a Congress incapable of passing any meaningful legislation isn't necessarily a bad thing ("That which governs least, governs best."), such governments typically respond poorly at best to time-sensitive national crises and worse yet to long-term structural-policy issues. The mess we're witnessing in the Western European democracies with respect to social policy is but one outstanding example. Most of those nations exercise their democracies through parliamentary systems which inevitably result in unstable and roundly uncollegial minority coalitions and which in the final analysis are incapable of making necessary adjustments to, much less wholesale restructuring of, either domestic social policy or national defense and security institutions.

The demographics of, for example, France leads one inexorably to the conclusion that sooner or later the bill for their excesses with respect to Western-style socialism will come due, and when it does, anarchy and chaos will inevitably result. While many in the U.S. would probably indulge themselves with a measure of perhaps partially-deserved schadenfreude after the fact, we on this side of the pond need to understand that a stable and democratically-directed Europe is necessary for our own stability and financial and economic well-being. Certainly not on what looks like the current EU model, but rather as a loose coalition of many like-minded strategic and economic partners.

I do agree that serious discussion of term limits is long overdue; we already do that with the Presidency, to no one's (as far as I can tell) particular unease. Clearly, making Congress more accountable to their constituencies and requiring transparency with respect to their own institutions would be major constructive steps. I suppose the salient question here is whether or not the new crop has the moral fibre to take them.

Further, I believe that we need to come up with some extra-party incentive for new candidates to run against incumbents in primary elections. Typically (although not universally, as Joe Lieberman discovered), the parties are going to invest heavily in returning incumbents to Congress. What they should be doing -- but for obvious reasons won't -- is encouraging new blood within the ranks.

Primary election turnouts are deplorable in most cases; this needs to change. The electorate needs to understand, as the Republican party obviously didn't (and perhaps still doesn't), that the primaries are their opportunity to throw the rascals out and replace them with candidates of like political persuasion but without the Hill-mentality baggage, cronyism, and, where applicable, corruption. How to promote higher participation in the primaries, particularly during the mid-terms, is beyond me, though. Perhaps this cycle will serve to send the appropriate message.

'Berg

Starve the parasites
Repeal the 16 th amendment and return to following the Constitution by eliminating at least half of the cabinet departmens.

We already have a third party
As I've read in these pages and most recently in an interview with **** Armey, America already has three political parties: Republican, Democrat and Appropriator.
Seems like much of the House and Senate switches to the third party after a couple election successes.

Election Rates
"Primary election turnouts are deplorable in most cases; this needs to change."

Why is the improvement in election turnout such an article of faith among so many people? If you have to be prodded and poked to vote, it means that you are being forced to pick among candidates you don't want to select from OR you're not motivated enough to make an INFORMED choice.

Did we automatically get a better choice when we get better votes? We don't trust 18 year olds to drink responsibly, but we think they vote just fine. Truth is, you don't know squat at 18 and your method of picking a candidate is probably more influenced by some simplistic anthem, then any thoughful reflection.

Do we get a better result when wards of the state vote, or just more politicians inventing specious arguments to expand the welfare state?













Minus Typo
Did we automatically get a better choice when we get better votes?

Should be-Do we automatically get a better choice when we get better voting rates or an explanded suffrage?

The short answer
is no we don't get better choices. The problem is that too many elections revolve around politics of personality rather than issues.

3d party?
We have many more than 2 parties.The Libertarians, Greens, Constitution Party,Right To Lifers, Natural Law Party etc. all have many members and address the issues and do not always revolve around personalities, as people always die, and take unique characteristics with them.
I would like to see you use real names instead of cowardly nick names and false ones, especially since elections are critical for the free markets and the laws that try to kill them, and the media which will kill any story it sees fit. I recommend you use my good name and accomplishments to collect signatures on petitions and raise funds for me to be nominated and elected to the US Presidency 2008 and 2012 on the Libertarian Party line, and maybe others also.I think sex should be less democratic and republican and more selective and healthy, but of course I won't promise that or deliver it in any camapaign in or out of office.

Apparently, you can't say "richard" Armey...
eom... LOL..

We Have a Lot of Third Parties, and They are All Marginalized by the Constitution
Whether at the national, state, or district level, elections are all-or-nothing affairs. Whichever candidate gets the most votes ( direct or electoral ) wins.

This means, that any time you form a new party, your going to primarily take votes from one existing party more than another ( based on your platform, and which party it more closely resembles ). This results, as a rule, in the party *less* like the third party winning, because they lose fewer votes to the third party.

Thus, a systemic disincentive to factionalize, as not only do additional factions lose, they lose to the party more opposite their goals and desires.

Me, I look at this as a good thing. As the system currently stands, you will generally have two parties fighting over the middle. Extremist parties that try and break off end up giving the election to the other guy, so they have only as much power as they can gain within the major parties.

OTOH, in a multiparty parliamentary setup, with no party having the majority, the small parties have proportionately much greater influence, as they serve as kingmakers, trading enough votes to form government in exchange for influence. Thus, despite the fact that a party might get only, say, 1% of the total population voting for it, said party has effective weight resembling the major parties.

This isn't even bringing in the fact that, since proportionate voting is done by party, each representative is beholden to the party. Something like what Liebermann pulled off couldn't happen under a parliamentarian system, where you vote for parties, not people. . .

parlimentary temptation - - - -
Just to flog Reynolds' horse a bit more, sex is advantagous not only against parasites, but everything else since it speeds up genetic differentiation to evolve faster to adapt to all enviromental pressures, while at the same time providing a spare back-up gene in case one fails (as I explained while propositioning a sweet young thing once, but she was unimpressed).

The shake-up theory is a good one, power must be constantly difused to avoid drifting into tyranny. The Israeli Kibutz' method of regular planned rotation of officers, sans voting, would do well. Or just select citizens at random. I've often thot that we would get our best leaders by drafting (like soldiers) those who don't want to have power. Term limits, if our currently forming judicial aristocrzcy would allow it, would be an excellent hedge against a perilous concentration of power (a la Lord Acton).

My county, during the last election, passed an Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) balloting initiative, a true advance in democracy. It eliminates primaries and the "wasted vote" syndrome that props up the two main parties who campaigned together against it, since they both depend on this factor to beat down competition from small, emerging parties.

Now, voters will rate candidates in order of preference. If none gets more than half the first-preference votes; the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and those second-preference votes are counted. This continues until a candidate wins by getting more than half. Thus, you can vote your first preference for your favorite candidate, even if he is unlikely to win, without worry about "wasting" your vote. Google it up.

You Talk like That is a Good Thing
At the very least, instant runoff is just as exploitable as any other voting method. For starters, it gives a flagrantly obvious way to manipulate votes by adding additional candidates ( want the Democrat to win? run a candidate whose far to the right of the Republican competitor ).

More generally, increasing the ability of third parties to challenge the main two is a *bad* thing, IMHO. Every third party I can think of is either a single-issue party, or an extremist party beyond the limits of the big two in magnitude, but similar in issues. Barring the total disintegration of one of the big parties, or one of them rushing off into the extreme fringe, we don't need any more major parties.

it's more like rape in my opinion
Winning politicians get what they want and the public is left fearful of the process and the side-effects of the deed.

think a little more deeply - - - -
Tnx for the comments, and the opportunity to fill in some details. You're wrong on all counts. Candidates still have ballot qualification requirements, as they do now. So no change there. Both big parties are in serious disrepute with low approval numbers, but there is little recourse for the voters, and they know it. You sound like you'd like it better if there were only one party, well, in a sense there is. Gerrymandering, campaign finance and political speech restrictions, judicial vetoing of voter initiatives and term limits, etc., all militate against challengers to incumbents of both parties and so are supported by both.

Single issue parties are not exactly a threat are they? One minor party, the Libertarians, single issue is freedom. Got a problem with that?

Blanket primaries with crossover voting to select the other party's worst candidate is eliminated by IRV. Each party gets to select their own candidate. With one, instead of two, or three (in the case of runoffs), elections,voter qualification is easier to police, and voting more convenient, while the voter is allowed to give more information about what he wants.

The cussedness of human nature assures us that the fabric of our political system will always be under attack by clever folks who want to accumulate power. We need to constantly shore up and improve our hard-fought-for, precious institutions of freedom and democracy.

A National Referendum Process Will Mix Things Up
Another way to add checks and balances to the system is direct democracy...using a National Referendum process. In my state, the referendum's were far more interesting and relevant than any of the national or local candidate races.

If many believe as I do that many elections are about voting for the lesser of evils, then providing the opportunity to vote directly on issues is likely to be very appealing to many.

I truely believe in this
But it will have to be limited within Constitutional bounds and so as not to create a for of voted totalitarian system.

term limits would stir the pot even more
If 1/3rd of politicians were new every election, lobbiest would have to work their tails off to form new relationships.

The two party system has also proven itself incapable of dealing with structural problems.
...

Not true
Running a far right candidate has more affect on the current first past the post system. It has no affect in an IRV system.

Let's posit a three party race, a left of center (LOC), right of center (ROC), and a far right (FR) party.

Let's also take as a given that the FR party draws votes from the ROC party, and none from the LOC party.

A) If the LOC party has more than 50% of the votes in a two party scenario, adding the FR party just means it wins by a wider margin.

B) If the ROC party has more than 50% of the vote in a two party scenario, then adding the FR party results in either (1)the ROC party winning by a smaller margin, or neither (2) party getting 50%.

In situation A and B1, the presence of the third party has no affect on the outcome.

In situation B2, depending on the law, there is either a runoff, or the party with the larger plurality is declared the winner.

In the case of a runoff, the FR party has no affect.

Only in the final case does the existence of the FR party make a difference.

In a first past the post system, as we have now, the party with the largest plurality wins, which means that depending on how many votes the FR party took from the ROC party, it could have affected the election.
In an IRV election, since no party got a majority in the first round, all the votes that went to the FR party, since it got the fewest votes, are discarded, and the second choice for all of those voters is advanced to first choice. Since it is assumed that all the FR party's votes came from the ROC, in the second round, all of the FR's votes got to ROC, and it wins.

Why do you believe that single issue parties are bad?
In an IRV election, people can send a message to the major parties by voting for a fringe party, without worrying that they are helping to elect the other party. That's a good thing, not a bad thing. When single issue parties start getting a large fraction of the vote, that's a signal to the main parties that there is an issue that they are ignoring and the people care about. Finding a non-destructive way to get your party's attention is always a good thing.

Armey
Apparently not, and he's a pretty good guy.

multiples
Multiple parties is not the same as multiple orgasm. Some countries do already have 3 or 4 or sometimes 52 parties to vote for. This doesn't help at all because most of them are about the same in that they make promises that they can't keep. They all tend towards statism, and people mostly believe that they can somehow all live at the expense of somebody else, like a free lunch forever. Modern weakling people are too fearful to try to be free, so they'll never vote for a party that would advocate it.

Flaws of a 2-party System, voter turnout, and other meaningless trivia
The 2-party system works just fine, or it would, if we would only adopt and ratify a Constitutional amendment requiring that Congressional Districts in each state be as uniform as is reasonably practicable both in population and in shape, with the rectangle being the required shape. In other words, get rid of the gerrymander, and everything else will follow. How many Reps now serving in Congress would survive an election in a non-gerrymandered district? Term limits would help, too, and so would a drastic reduction in the funds available to pay Congressional staff -- make the Congressmen and Senators work for a living, instead of subsidizing a perpetual re-election campaign.

It'll never happen though, at least not as long as the road to such a thing runs through legislatures filled with the very same scumbags responsible for the present situation. We went to war with Britain in 1775 for similar deprivations of our liberty, yet we put up with the gerrymander as if it's business as usual. Even Glenn makes a mention of it as though it was part of the landscape, instead of public enemy no. 1. The beneficial effect of term limits is nothing next to the positive effects of getting rid of the gerrymander.

And voter turnout? What difference is voter turnout going to make in Congressional elections that are uncontested. Almost all of them (90% +/-) are usually not competetive (there might have been a few more competetive races this year, caused by the perfect storm of clueless Republican politicians and equally clueless voters willing to jump from the frying pan into the fire), and many are actually, really and truly uncontested, with only one name on the ballot. If Congressional districts weren't gerrymandered, not a single Congressional race would be uncontested and most would be competetive, if not every election, then at least more often than not.

Nonresponse to Problems
"Gerrymandering, campaign finance and political speech restrictions, judicial vetoing of voter initiatives and term limits" would all continue to be problems if IRV is used. Only it would be coalitions that would perpetrate such offenses, rather than political parties, and with no primaries to filter out those whose, um, temperament and judgment aren't immediately apparent as unsuitable for political leadership but ultimately are surely so, we end up with an even greater number of miscreants holding public office. Keep the 2-party system, the primaries, but get rid of the gerrymander -- difficult, as it would require a constitutional amendment, but so would IRV, and achieving that is entirely unrealistic and probably undesirable in any event (but maybe it works for the Netherlands but here in the US we like our politics winner-take-all, just not in perpetuity, but only for the term of office) -- and the other problems would be solved through the normal legislative processes. Term limits would speed up the process, but aren't really necessary if we get rid of the malformed districts.

Cheer up d - - - -
Having a bad day Dietmar? Look around you, folks are freer and wealthier than they ever were. We just have to keep these improvements going, and not let them get sidetracked by neofascist socialist control freaks.

missing the point - - - -
Thanks for you comments. IRV will not cure cancer either. What it does do is to empower the voter at the expense of entrenched politicians and their wannabe aristocracy, who work daily to undermine the personal freedoms and majority rule that your, and my, ancestors fought bloody battles, for centuries, to achieve.

Incidentally, IRV does not, I say again, does not, "require a constitutionsl amendment", it is currently being used effectively in several forward-looking jurisdictions in the US.

The winner-take-all aspect is unchanged under IRV, it just makes more certain that the winner is the one the voters actually want to win. Think about it. Since we agree on gerrymandering, I have a proposal. The mathmatical ratio of district perimeter length: to district area, should be minimized and fixed in law, at the local, state and national levels. Result; nice, neat, companct districts; and, the gerrymander becomes an extinct species.

Best, Don V.

Which Makes it More Likely A Fringe Party Will Elect Officials
Taking for granted that no, running fake candidates wouldn't successfully manipulate the system any more than current.

The problem with making it non-penalizing to vote for fringe candidates, is more people will as a result vote for fringe candidates. This means the margin of likelihood against succesfully winning as a fringe candidate is lower than before.

While it is not an absolute certainty, I would find it a high likelihood that this would result in more third party candidates winning elections, once they start noticing that fringe candidates are now getting nontrivial amounts of the first run voting percentage. This is especially true, since said third parties, if they can get even a relative handful of officials into congress, now have kingmaking power disproportionate to their numbers.

This is why I think you should only get one vote each election. Voting should not be about 'sending a message.' It should be about saying who you think is the best qualified candidate for the post.

As an aside, let me just mention that I think getting rid of primaries = major major bad thing. The decision of which candidates to run for a party should ultimately be up to the common members of the party, unless they choose to abdicate this responsibility. Installing a legal mechanism wherein the voters only get to vote by party they want in office? Bad.

Once person's experience working with a minor party...
"Single issue parties are not exactly a threat are they? One minor party, the Libertarians, single issue is freedom. Got a problem with that?

No problem whatsoever.

This past summer, we collected the required number of signatures needed to get a number of libertarians on the November ballot. And despite the fact that the Dems and GOP try to invalidate as many signatures as they possibly can, I am pleased to say that we still had enough signatures.

In the end, none of them won. But they didn't expect to win...they realized that that wasn't what it was all about. They saw it as an opportunity to spread the word as to what it was to be a libertarian at a time when Americans wanted to consider other possibilities.

One of the guys received almost 40,000 votes for a state election. Doesn't sound like much. But every time the Dems and the GOP mess up, there'll be more people willing to listen...and more votes. :)

What's wrong with fringe candidates?
The only way a fringe candidate can win, is if he/she gets a majority of the votes. In which case, by definition, they aren't a fringe candidate.

Why are you so afraid of third party candidates getting attention and votes? Are you so convinced that only Republicans and Democrats are worthy of being elected?

No matter what you think the perfect system ought to be, voting will always be about sending messages. Each person's vote is at best one in a million. The chances of your vote making a difference are so miniscule as to make it almost worthless.

When you have only one vote, you never vote for the best candidate, you vote for the best candidate who you believe has a chance of winning. That's a vastly different thing.

In And of Themselves, Nothing
The problem is when you combined fringe parties ( or really, third parties in general ) with no majority at all. If neither major party has a majority, and there isn't enough crossover voting to allow any kind of compromise governing, than the third parties suddenly gain kingmaking power.

Is this a real danger with 1-2 third party reps in congress? No, of course not. But, the more the system allows for third parties, the more representatives are going to be third party. . . and the more likely that neither major party will be able to govern effectively without support by a third party.

( while this isn't as big a deal in our system as in a parliamentary one, where presidency is determined independently, there would still be serious issues if congress couldn't even, say, pass a budget for the year )

to Don
Yeah, maybe bad hair day for me or the whole last decades too. Just sad to see now if americans wimp out again. They seem to be getting more fearful and longing for the nanny state to take care of them. The US was the best hope for a at least freer place in the world and it seems like they long for the gelding knife like europe already did. Sorry for my coucil of dispair, but at least congrats on the occasion of your recent veterans day.

Not term limits, exactly ...
Term limits may not be the right answer. The right answer _might_ lie with reform of the congressional seniority system. Or it might lie simply in reforming who the parties may name on the ballot.
The second point first: if you feel that party A doesn't stand for anything you can support, you'll vote party B. And incumbents just about always get their party's nomination. Just requiring the party to put someone else on the general election ballot periodically (even if the incumbent can appear as well) might loosen things up a bit, and even lead to coalition-building in the primaries (as has happened in some of the big cities in the past).
The other problem is seniority. If the seniority rules said that you wouldn't get credit for a third term unless you'd been out of office for a term, you'd see more movement. You might see career politicians moving from district to district to finesse the rules, but if the committee chairmanships are attached to the district rather than the individual, it won't matter.
Sadly, the constitution give Congress the responsibility for its own seniority rules.

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