H.L. Mencken once said that Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods. The rest of the study of politics is little more than a footnote to this truth. In democratic republics, officeholders need to appeal to voters, and the best way of doing so is to identify a crisis and then to promise to end it when (re)elected. The measures promised typically entail an expansion of government power, but the constituencies being courted never expect to bear the brunt of that expansion. The burdens are assumed to fall on someone else.
What helps to create this dynamic is the nature of democratic voting itself. Casting a vote is virtually costless. Most voters realize that the mere act of punching one chad rather than another will have no material impact on their lives. When an individual votes for Jones rather than Smith, Smith is not thus precluded from being elected. Thus the opportunity cost of voting for Jones is negligible. It takes many votes to elect Jones, but each person controls only one vote. In major elections, a persons one vote is like a grain of sand on a beach: its presence or absence is inconsequential.
This creates a problem. When people believe their actions can make a practical difference in their lives, they have an incentive to choose those actions carefully. But when they believe their actions will make little or no difference, that incentive vanishes. Since people intuit that their individual votes wont affect the outcome of elections, those who wish to vote anyway will have other reasons for doing so. They may vote out of civic duty or because they feel good about supporting a candidate perceived as standing for social justice or a clean environment or a strong national defense. Imagine how the incentives behind voting might change if only those who voted for the winner had to pay the cost of the victorious candidates programs. Better still, what if at the time of voting, citizens had to make a cash down payment on their favorite candidates proposed budgets?
Given the impotence of one vote, voters tend to embrace rational ignorance, the sensible decision not to acquire otherwise relevant information. If casting ones vote cannot alter ones condition, why invest time, effort, and money to become informed about the consequences of the candidates ideas? Candidates and political parties thus have an interest primarily in mood-setting and public-relations gimmicks, particularly relating to the solutions to the crisis of the season. The result is electoral superficiality, where the dominant parties cater to the ideological center in order to appeal to the greatest number of voters. This explains why, rhetoric aside, political differences among the major contenders are largely insignificant and why government tends to grow no matter who is elected.
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