By Siddharth Gundapaneni
In grade school we were taught that democracy is a system whereby constituents of a nation are able to voice their opinions, and have a say in their nation’s affairs. This idea first began with a direct democracy. We were then taught that the United States, and many other developed nations, use a representative democracy because most adults do not have time to vote on every policy everyday. Thus, we elect people who think similarly to us in order to vote for policies we would likely support.
Following the 2016 and 2020 elections, there were calls across the aisle to abolish the electoral college. Further, Congress’ approval rating has not reached 50% since 2003, and fell as low as 9% in 2013. Policy-specific bills are few and far between, and we now see massive omnibus spending plans with tons of policies, so that more special interest pandering can be hidden in between. Few aspects in politics are clearer than how corrupt Congress is. So how well are we being represented?
Direct democracy as we know it is implausible, since each of us have better things to be doing throughout the day than voting. This is what economists call “comparative advantage.” Societal growth would stagnate were we all to quit our jobs and vote on every policy. So clearly that won’t work. But what if we privatized Congress?
We start with a system of direct democracy, where every citizen has the ability to vote on every given policy, with one augmentation: constituents are able to buy, sell, and trade votes. This will lead to a market for voting, and private representatives to arise, since most people would not have the time to vote for every policy. Voters would be able to hire someone to represent them, having new found access to the money that was originally going to pay their Congressman and Senator, and “give away” your votes to them. Of course, those with the time are also able to do the voting themselves. Perhaps deals can even be made with your private rep to allow you to vote on certain policies, and for them to vote for the rest. The market allows endless possibilities.
The foremost benefit to such a system is far greater control of your representative. If your congressman votes for something you disapprove of in the status-quo system, you must wait however many years till their re-election in order to elect a new rep. With a privatized system, your representative would act similarly to a lawyer, where unless your contract specifically states otherwise, you are able to hire someone else if you’re displeased with their work. This forces your representative’s voting to be in line with what you believe.
Now where this really gets interesting is the vote-trading aspect. One big issue with today’s Congress is that they are often out-of-touch with voters’ priorities. When you vote for a politician, you’re voting for everything they support, whether you support those things or not. With how inaccurate/inconsistent public policy polling can be, politicians have little signal to know whether they were voted because of a policy, or in spite of it. This leads to further misalignment with voters’ and politicians’ desires. One possible solution is a system of vote-trading, also known as logrolling, which was popularized by Nobel Prize winning economist James Buchanan and his co-author Gordon Tullock in their 1962 classic The Calculus of Consent.
Buchanan and Tullock understood very well the issues plaguing American democracy. Their work on logrolling served as inspiration for much of the rest of this piece. They proposed a system of vote trading to allow constituents to trade away votes on issues they don’t care about, in exchange for more votes on issues they do care about. While this has taken place unofficially in most democratic systems, such a system would function much better if made into a legalized practice. Currently, if three people slightly support a given policy X, and two people who are directly affected by policy X strongly disagree, there’s a good chance policy X will still pass. A system of logrolling allows those in opposition to policy X to garner more votes in their favor, in exchange for giving up their votes on some issue they care less about.
Furthermore, logrolling would get rid of the idea of “strategic voting,” where constituents vote for something they originally may not have, in order to coordinate their votes to prevent something like a third party candidate winning. People should not have to vote for something that they do not support, if that’s the case I view that as a flaw in the system.
Critics of these ideas may assert that corporations will buy thousands of votes on pressing issues, and may exploit workers or even citizens at-large. I find this hard to square with reality. People would never be forced to sell their vote. The only scenario someone would trade their vote is if it were to benefit them, or if they make a poor judgment, in which case the corporation would not be to blame. While corporations/wealthy individuals may offer cash for votes, I must reiterate that no voter has to make such a deal unless they value the cash more than they do the issue at hand, in which case who are we to question the individual’s personal choice?
I believe the status-quo system does not adequately represent constituents, and reform is needed. While ideally further decentralization is used to improve the representativeness of politics, that is not always palatable for many. The ideas expressed in this piece were essentially the equivalent of “shower thoughts” and are not meant to be a be-all end-all solution. I encourage readers to weigh the benefits and shortcomings of such a proposal, and consider how they can be improved upon in the system we have today. Any and all criticisms are welcome!