Sunday, July 22, 2012

Maybe it's good the rich have more political power

Whenever the mournful dirges start about the supposed death of American democracy and how the rich have too much power, I've never stopped and asked if that's always a bad thing.

This morning a book review from Tyler Cowen stirred an idea that will bring me blank stares and quiet frowns from my friends, but it's still important to ask. Do we really want the poor to have more political power?

The argument that the rich have too much influence over legislation is usually constrained to the realm economic issues, and it props up the myth that richer Americans on average pay a smaller percentage of their income in in federal income taxes as a result of their political influence. What about other issues?

Cowen references his mood affiliation fallacy concept, which means mistakenly rejecting an idea because it criticizes something you think deserves a better reputation. He wrote:

I would be falling prey to the fallacy of mood affiliation if I simply assumed the author wanted policy to be more responsive to the wishes of the poor and middle class. Still I can ask whether this would be a desirable end. Aren’t they less educated and less well-informed on average? Don’t they also care about politics less and derive less of their status from political processes and outcomes? Do I want them to have a greater say over social issues, including gay marriage? No.

We know that education correlates with both higher incomes and higher support for gay marriage, so that issue could regress under power redistribution. Cowen also listed contradictory wishes from the uneducated, such as wanting tariffs and cheaper goods. These are impossible and more power from uneducated voters would hurt the poor.

Matthew Yglesias made a similar point:

Needless to say, the disproportionate influence of the rich on the political system is also troubling from an accountability perspective. It suggests that elected officials will be more responsive to the objective needs of the prosperous at the expense of those whose objective needs are more pressing. But pining for a world in which policy outputs precisely reflect the views of the public is neither here nor there in terms of obtaining a better political system.

No one wants a system where the poor have no political power. However, believing that giving more political power to the poor will produce benefits universally is flawed and reads like a chapter out of The Myth of the Rational Voter. The average American leftist would have a tougher time passing the social issues he or she cares about if the poor had a larger platform and voted more

This should be uncomfortable idea for anyone who believes in representative government.


  1. I would argue that a good portion of the poor in first world nations are politically enlightened compared to those in third world regimes. In fact, I'd go further and argue that it's not an issue of enlightenment, since the basic principles aren't obscure -- they're well defined. Every citizen of a Western first world democratic nation has more or less, some sort of familiarity with these principles. The issues which encompass these principles are fuzzier, and that's where public discourse should be solicited to clarify and sort the issues of most importance to us, with respect to local conditions. (Someone from NYC may have a different perspective on regulation of the finance sector than someone from a small town, for example).

    Now *why* might the poor (not even universally) care less about politics? What is this statement in reference to? What part of the political system/process? I don't think it's a case of willful ignorance so much as cynicism and apathy masked as ignorance. Not to deny that the poor are on average less 'educated'. I don't see that lack as an excuse for preserving the status quo. It's misleading. Lack of basic education (towards critical thinking) is cause for alarm. Past an arbitrary threshold? No concern.

    In fact, there are legitimate reasons for dodging what is currently referred to as 'politics' altogether. Why involve yourself with the current, extremely limited electoral process if you don't hold a healthy stake in it? If you use critical thinking, conversely, you will seek out alternative methods as you realize the current democratic process is biased toward those with great political power. As it stands, the 'uneducated' ignorance is taken advantage of to trick them into voting against their own interests. If the poor don't vote for lower corporate taxes, the corporations will pull the strings to get their way.

    What does this mean? 'Educated' or not, voting, as a staple vector in the Western democratic model, currently affords very little political power on an individual level. You're informed enough about an issue? Great! If you vote against it, Congress will find another way to pass the resolution if met with sufficient opposition. The public mandate is an excuse to push private agendas. It's not the close-fitting concept it seems to be, either. What policies do a majority of Amerians agree on? What's happened to reforming Medicare? Ending foreign wars? Do you need to be 'educated' to honor the basic principles of a decent society? No. As a citizen, you're familiar to some degree with those same issues already.

    That some people lack instruction in a particular direction doesn't imply that they're necessarily disconnected enough to warrant exclusion from the process. In other words, the minority shouldn't define the public interest. Just exactly what constitutes the public interest is a separate but pressing manner. Before we push the status quo, we should question the values, us being citizens of democracy, universally cherish. The issues springing from those values should be open to public scrutiny.

    1. The 'basic principles' I was referring to: consent of the governed, to name one.

      I think most (even on a global scale) will agree that consent of the governed is a positive thing. What is the scope of this concept? Does it end when a party gets a mandate to govern? What if it tries passing legislation like SOPA? In the same vein, this mandate should be scrutinized when our governments try to goad us into supporting them in baseless wars.

      The public by definition does not have a say in whether or not the country goes to war -- it can oppose or support it, but it doesn't make the decision. In other words, the State does not require consent of the governed to push policy goals in this direction. Surely this is unfair, as we're forced to subsidize the expenses of the State, and most don't condone wanton bloodshed anyhow. Losses are collectivized, profits are privatized.

      You don't need to be educated to grasp 'consent of the governed'. It follows that you don't require much further extrapolation to understand that something is very wrong when we have States declaring war on a hypothetical public mandate where one is absent in actuality.

      And so, one issue which should be open to public scrutiny is the financing of wars and technology related to advancement of these goals. Not merely that we don't have a public mandate. But also because the
      conclusions of these wars and the principles they utilize stand in stark contradiction to the values of a civilized society: loss of individual autonomy, mutual co-operation, freedom of expression, political participation, as well as consent of the governed.

      In short: Soldiers aren't free. Neither are the victims they help conquer for the State. The State is a public apparatus -- we should hold exclusive purview over these so-called 'vital' State functions. Continually assess their use to us, and if of exhausted utility, discard them for more fruitful endeavors.

  2. Forgive my horrible reading comprehension, but I think I agree with David and in fact I feel that people leaching off the working class have too much power. I wish you had to give-up something of value to get unearned assistance.