All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 2001

Rules versus Rulers

Today's U.S. Government Essentially Defines its Own Powers

By now someone presumably has been inaugurated president of the United States. It’s a good time to reconsider voting as a method of making important decisions.

The presidential election has exposed to light a long-known but little acknowledged fact: democratic processes are like a cheap sweater. Don’t look too close, and for gosh sakes, don’t touch that loose thread!

It is not just that party hacks are ultimately in charge of counting the votes or in the most absurd of cases, reading chads like tea leaves. It goes much deeper. Voting no more reveals the “will of the people” than cat entrails would.

Imagine if we voted in order to make decisions in other areas of life. How about shopping for groceries? Currently, we each go to the supermarket of our choice when we wish, take a cart, and proceed through the store picking out only those items we (and our families) want, knowing full well that we will have to pay for what we take at the checkout counter. That system works rather well. We make our choices according to our tastes and within our budgets, and when we arrive home, we have all the things we bought.

Now imagine if we did our grocery shopping democratically.

We would all arrive at our assigned precinct supermarkets on the same day between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Instead of taking a cart and shopping individualistically, we would enter and be confronted by two (or in a really “liberal” society, three or four) sealed shopping carts already filled with items. Those are the “candidates.” We are each given a ballot on which we register our choice. Before marking the ballot, we are able to examine the carts. We carefully look at them, noting that the items in the carts vary. Each of us must determine which cart is best for our own needs, which has more of what we want and less of what we don’t want. Eventually we each make a decision and mark our ballots.

But that doesn’t mean we get the cart we voted for. We have to wait for all the votes to come in. (We’ll assume the decision is made at the precinct level.) At any rate, whichever collection of items receives the most votes is the one we each take home. We don’t have to stop at the checkout counter, because the groceries are free—in the sense that we pay for them through the tax system. In what sense does the result reflect the will of the people?

That’s not the end of the story. When we get our bags of groceries home, we are as likely as not to find that the items are not exactly the ones we saw in the cart at the store. Some are missing, their place having been taken by others not in the original cart. You might say that the winning candidate did not keep its “campaign” promises, or more euphemistically, that it grew in office.

That would be an unpleasant way to buy food and other items. Think how much worse it would be if we used that method to choose our social or religious activities or our medical care. (We are already far along the road in the latter category.)

The point ought to be clear by now: for all the romanticism attached to democracy, it’s a lousy way to make decisions. It is lousy precisely because it is collective. It’s been said over and over again that in most elections, one vote does not count. It’s simple arithmetic. Take any election in any sizeable jurisdiction, subtract one vote from the winner, and see if it makes a difference in the outcome. (This is true even of the last presidential election. At this writing, George Bush was leading Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida. Could an eligible Gore fan who stayed at home election day have made a difference? Yes—if he could have cast 538 votes.)

Powerlessness a Virtue?

The fact that no one person’s vote is decisive is a virtue for those who approach democracy like a religion. They find something almost mystical in the idea that 100 million individually powerless people (about half of those eligible to vote) get together and collectively—magically—elect the president of the United States. It’s the sort of thing that brings people like Roger Rosenblatt and Doris Kearns Goodwin to tears.

But that could be a virtue only if there were a “will of the people” that, first, actually exists, and second, is superior to the individual wills of individual people. There isn’t. There is no reason to believe that an election reveals any such thing. People can have an infinite number of reasons to vote for someone. Like the grocery cart at the democratic supermarket, a candidate holds a hodge-podge of positions to which different voters will respond differently. Some voters won’t be voting for anyone at all, but only against another candidate. The only thing an election reveals is who got the most votes. That’s not terribly informative.

The obvious response to my argument is that individualism works for buying groceries but not necessarily for all things. Government, it is said, is established to provide so-called collective goods that markets fail to provide (or provide sufficiently). Even if that theory is valid, it fails to address the fact that the current government goes far beyond the provision of the few supposed collective goods. One can make a respectable case that the U.S. Constitution set up a government whose powers—“few and defined,” as Mr. Madison put it—were limited to providing only those things that individuals purportedly could not provide for themselves in the marketplace. What does that have to do with the government we find ourselves with today? It is a government that essentially defines its own powers, relegating the Constitution to something of antiquarian interest only; it is a government whose primary activity is the transfer of wealth from those who produce it to those who don’t.

Voting to select officeholders in a government whose powers are constitutionally defined and limited to protecting liberty is one thing. Voting to select officeholders who virtually define their own powers and who will exercise those powers to confiscate our wealth and regulate our peaceful activities is something else entirely.

Yes, voting is a better way to pick officeholders than violence or heredity. But the method of selection is less important than what those officeholders may legally do. In other words, I care less about who rules than what the rules are.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.