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Monday, June 15, 2015

Nudging Voters to Make the Right Decisions

A Modest Proposal to Improve Democracy

Editor’s note: Some readers were confused about whether or not this article is satire. Please be assured that it is.

In politics, as in commerce, consumers cannot always be trusted. Sometimes they’re duped, or foolish, or just make decisions for the wrong reasons. That’s when we need government to step in and take the decision out of their hands.

I propose the passage of the Control and Help Upgrade the Market in Politics (CHUMP) Act to eliminate the inherent flaws in the political market.

A little nudge

Many intellectuals realize that consumers need to be nudged toward certain decisions.

This idea, called “libertarian paternalism,” consists of bureaucrats “self-consciously attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better.”

Take cigarettes, for example. Consumers aren’t rational enough to research the dangers of cigarettes on their own, so governments insist that tobacco companies include graphic warnings to “nudge” people away from buying them. This light touch retains for users the option to buy cigarettes but gently moves them toward a wiser decision.

We need to move this idea into the political marketplace. Under the CHUMP Act, government will be empowered to nudge voters by asking them to read a few positive facts about certain candidates before they vote. Like cigarette buyers, voters will still be free to choose their candidate. We’ll just be offering a little guidance. recently put this idea into practice, releasing a poll with positive statements about Elizabeth Warren (and no statements about any other candidate). Warren won the poll by several points. That’s the political market at its best.

Subsidizing good ideas

We have long realized that unregulated markets produce the wrong distribution of resources. As Senator Bernie Sanders recently argued, why should we have 23 brands of deodorant when we can’t feed our children? Or, to put it another way, why does Kim Kardashian always have a show while NPR struggles to make ends meet? The market may reflect the desires of consumers, but it leads to the wrong outcomes.

We deal with this market failure by subsidizing NPR. But we don’t just need better shows; we need better politics, too.

For that reason, the CHUMP Act will subsidize some political groups. Judging by Sanders’s poll numbers, many Americans don’t care for big-government rhetoric. But so what? All that means is that there’s insufficient demand for his views. Some ideas, like NPR’s brand of reporting, are downright unpopular in the market. But we need them. What’s wrong with helping them along?

Certain policies, or rather the candidates who endorse them, should be subsidized. Each candidate should be rated on a scale of 1 to 100 (or from Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders) and receive funding equal to $5,000 multiplied by their score. Hillary Clinton might score a 55, and receive $275,000 in subsidies for her presidential campaign. Sanders, who might score a solid 100, would receive $500,000. Who can say that money wouldn’t be put to good use educating Americans on the benefits of bigger government?

Cruz, as the scale suggests, would score 0 and receive no funding. Some ideas just shouldn’t be encouraged.

Banning bad politics

We need more than subsidies for good ideas: we need to protect people from themselves. Again, the blueprint lies in commerce, where wise bureaucrats protect people from businesses like Lyft, Airbnb, or Tesla. No matter how much people may say they like these companies, some products and services are just bad all around. I don’t care if you want to take an Uber. It’s too expensive, it’s disruptive, and its rating system is deeply flawed. If your city has banned ride-sharing services, it’s doubtless for your own good.

In the same vein, why should the government stand idly by while underinformed voters succumb to the rhetoric of extremist malcontents? We need to step in to save these misguided folks from themselves. They may say they want lower taxes or fewer regulations, but that’s only because they don’t understand the long-term consequences of casting their votes for smaller government.

But what about freedom?

Now, some naysayers may claim that political and commercial markets are different, that we should subsidize companies but not ideas. They claim that political freedom, the ability to choose freely between competing political ideas, is sacrosanct.

But a century ago, during the dark ages of the Lochner era, we said the same thing about economic freedom: “freedom of contract” was a right enshrined by the Supreme Court. Can you imagine if we still lived in an era where economic freedom was recognized as inviolable? It would be a nightmare of worker exploitation, child labor, and Kardashian shows. The Supreme Court struck down this freedom for the good of us all.

Right now, this “libertarian moment” we’re in is as dangerous as the Industrial Revolution was before reformers curbed its excesses. We no longer have child labor, but we do have people who want to eliminate welfare. We have reduced exploitation, but we still have extremists claiming that health care is not a right.

These residual reactionary views remain with us because we still believe that the political consumer’s choices are sacred. But that belief allows demagogues to be elected with no thought to the consequences.

Like toddlers who refuse to eat their veggies, some people just don’t know what’s good for them. We need to help them make the right choices. Political freedom is no more sacred than economic freedom — and should be dispensed with as easily, for the good of us all.

  • Julian is a former political op-ed writer and current nonprofit marketer. His work has been featured in FEE, National Review, Playboy, and Lawrence Reed's economics anthology Excuse Me, Professor.