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  • Writer's pictureOren Levin-Waldman

Purchasing Votes with 'Free Stuff' is Really Contempt for Democracy

We hear a lot on the campaign trail these days about programs and new investment. We also hear lip service to the meaning of democracy. That is, in a democracy government gives the people what they want, and if the people want new programs, then that is precisely what being responsive to the will of the people means. Still, what exactly does this mean?

A candidate who promises free college tuition and college loan forgiveness is effectively offering free stuff to voters in exchange for votes. If politicians are purchasing votes, then this is a warped sense of democracy. Democracy assumes independent and autonomous actors who will be engaged because they understand the issues and their choices, while furthering their own interests, also serves the public good. If people only vote for candidates because they are promised free stuff, then perhaps they aren’t worthy of living in a democracy.

To say that promising an array of programs in exchange for votes is in no way intended to excuse those on the other side of the political aisle who offer tax cuts and less regulation. They too are offering free stuff of a different variety. In short, all politicians appear to be buying votes, which raises an interesting question: if the electorate can effectively be bought off, is the electorate really worthy of the right to franchise?

Perhaps the real question is just where does this idea of providing free stuff come from, i.e. purchasing votes? In part, it comes from a neoclassical assumption that people would rather have leisure over time spent at work. So if they can get it for free, then why not? Therefore, if free tuition means that one can work less because government will now pay for his/her children’s tuition, then that individual has more leisure time.

It may also in part stem from the broker party model characteristic of American politics. In a broker party model, the objective is to win elections, which means that party platforms are means to an end. In a responsible party model, which is more typical of Europe, elections are more ideological and the goal is to achieve policy objectives. Therefore, if promising free stuff ensures that a candidate will win an election, then so be it.

Of course if politicians are assuming that the only way to win an election is to buy the voters off, they are in effect making an elitist assumption that the public really has no understanding of the real issues and that simply purchasing their vote will suffice to win over the otherwise stupid and irresponsible masses. There is nothing democratic about this view of the public. On the contrary, if it isn’t cynical, it surely demonstrates their contempt for democracy.

Of course, we have seen this in recent weeks. In the last presidential election, Hillary Clinton referred to Trump voters as “deplorables.” If deplorable, then their vote ought not to count. Only a few days ago, Senator Elizabeth Warren was challenged by a voter in Iowa who wanted to know if her program for loan forgiveness was to be enacted, would he get his money back? After all, he said, he did the right thing and saved so he could put his daughter through school free of debt. In a typical elitist response which shows the same contempt for the masses as Hillary Clinton, she said no, and that he along with others are responsible to help others.

It probably goes without saying that if candidates offering too much free stuff are rejected in the upcoming primaries, they will no doubt excoriate the masses for their foolishness. The current impeachment proceedings only demonstrate a contempt for democracy. Even the Framers of the Constitution recognized that to remove a duly elected president was to defy the will of the people. It was considered to be an anti-majoritarian, i.e. anti-democratic, impulse. I am not going to discuss whether Trump’s behavior is impeachable or not, but aren’t those who support it really saying that because the public cannot be trusted to vote him out of office in the next election, the elites need to make the decision for them?

Still, this does not answer where the idea of offering free stuff really comes from. The assumption that the way to win voters is by appealing to and satisfying their interests is very much at the heart of public choice theory in economics. Anthony Downs in An Economic Theory of Democracy best articulated this idea when he wrote that public officials, governmental institutions, and political parties were driven to satisfy their interests every bit as much as individuals were.

Therefore, public officials who want to retain their positions will seek to satisfy those who can help them the most: the more affluent who can make large contributions to their campaigns. They in turn will attempt to purchase the quiescence of low-income voters with programs that will increase their money utility. This then frees them up to pursue policies that satisfies the interests of the more affluent.

In other words, public officials will purchase the votes of the masses. Karl Marx essentially said the same thing when he suggested that welfare programs were nothing more than throwing the dog a bone. But in the early 1970s when political scientist David Mayhew wrote The Electoral Connection, he too said the same thing. He argued that the first objective of Congress is to be reelected, and that programs and policies are nothing more than means to an end.

We can now apply all of this to the current campaign trail: the first objective of all candidates is to get elected in the first place, and if the purchase of votes with free stuff accomplishes that objective, then free stuff is also a means to an end. The problem with this is that it really isn’t free.

Although they are all quick to assure ordinary working voters that their taxes won’t go up, these types of programs, if they aren’t redistributive, are surely distributive. Distributive politics means that all groups get something and that the cost is spread out among the entire population. In other words, we all pay for it. Even if offered on the promise of only taxing the wealthy, everybody knows that the tax will ultimately fall on ordinary workers because the wealthy, with the assistance of loopholes in the tax code, will find ways to evade paying more taxes.

Still, these candidates are in no way showing any respect for the democratic process. Rather, they are effectively saying that the only way to get elected is to purchase votes. But far from respecting institutions of “our democracy,” as they like to say, it only demonstrates contempt for democracy. Perhaps they cynically offer free stuff because they know that it is highly unlikely that they will be able to deliver. And yet, if we could all come to recognize what is going on here, then we should all be offended when we are lectured on how important it is to protect our democracy from attack, both internally and externally..

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