Mayoral elections show the shortcomings of political decision-making

It’s election time again in the UK, where the local elections – in particular the high-profile contest for Mayor of London – are a laboratory example of all the shortcomings of political decision-making.

There is a whole economic science of this – called Public Choice Economics – on which I’ve written a primer for the IEA. And the economic analysis shows that, while the market might fail on occasions, the political system fails pretty much all of the time – with political events failing to reflect the public mood at all accurately.

Too many people suppose that voters – and the politicians they elect – decide on issues rationally and objectively. They don’t, of course. As Bryan Caplan pointed out, voters are far from rational. They tend to overestimate the problems and underestimate the ability of the free market to solve them. So politicians present themselves as having all the answers – you can just see it now, in real life.

And politicians bid for particular interest group support. As William Riker – not the Star Trek one, but the US political scientist – observed, if you can assemble support from lots of interest groups, you can reach a majority. So you throw out promises for cheaper London Underground fares, lower rents, more childcare… hoping to pick up group after group. Unfortunately, the burden of paying for all this then falls on the general but unrepresented public.

Equally, election candidates all tend to bid for the middle ground come election time. That, after all, is where most votes are to be gleaned. It is what the Scottish political scientist Duncan Black called the ‘median voter’ theory. It means that election candidates all seem to say pretty much the same thing, and that people with non-centrist views find there is nobody to represent them.

Not that successful candidates represent the public anyway. Elections are a very weak restraint on them. People have to vote for a whole manifesto package of measures, some of which they like, others they hate. And of course, people vote tactically, for candidates they don’t like, to keep out others they dislike even more.

At least in the market, people get what they pay for, and we can all choose different things instead of having to put up with what the majority want. Doesn’t that seem a better way of running things?

Eamonn Butler is the author of Public Choice – A Primer.

1 thought on “Mayoral elections show the shortcomings of political decision-making”

  1. Posted 03/05/2012 at 20:26 | Permalink

    Yes, contrasting the market process with the political process can be revealing. It is amazing how much space A Level Economics devotes to so-called ‘market failures’ while somehow government failures don’t seem to attract nearly so much attention. Could that be because most schools are themselves government failures? I voted against having a Mayor for London, but I must admit I do always vote at election time — partly to ‘throw the incumbent rascal out’ and partly because I regard it as a civic duty, rather like jury service. But of course I agree with Eamonn: the more the scope of coercive government can be reduced, the less power will flow to whichever politicians are elected (or, in the case of the European Union, not elected).

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