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Democracy’s Disadvantage: Candidates Over Issues

November 3, 2010

Richard Epstein writes:

Candidates represent what might be called tied purchases of a market basket of goods. The only choices that are given to hapless voters is to pick one such basket over another. Anyone who offers the menu at a Chinese restaurant gets to choose one from column A and one from column B. Yet that form of flexibility is denied in choosing people for political office. It is not because of any inherent defect in the political system. It is simply because the person is the smallest unit for which it is possible to cast a vote for holding public office. The only comfort that one takes is that no voter is required to vote for the entire slate of candidates from either party, but can pick and choose among them.
Nonetheless the maximal level of individual choice puts those of us who care primarily about issues in an odd position. I like to look at my purchases one at a time. As a classical liberal, I find that there are few candidates for public office whose preferences track mine on the many issues about which I have strong views. Worse there are many candidates whose policies I largely support, but whose personal temperament and mettle are, to say the least suspect.

By increasing our ability to vote with our feet, we can find a basket of goverment provided goods that more closely align with our tastes and values. (See Charles Tiebout’s seminal model.) The Chinese menu is an apt metaphor. But we can widen it further. In our current political circumstances, we can’t even choose the restaurant, much less the menu. Bon appetito.


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