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The Economics of Voting

The Economics of Voting

By Christopher Freiman

Why do even the most enthusiastic defenders of markets stop short of defending vote markets? After all, the central argument for markets in general applies to vote markets in particular: an exchange takes place only if both the buyer and seller expect to benefit. We’ll exchange my Mountain Dew for your dollar only if I value your dollar more than my Mountain Dew and you value my Mountain Dew more than your dollar. And we’ll exchange my vote for your dollar only if I value your dollar more than my vote and you value my vote more than your dollar. It’s win win. So why the reluctance to endorse a vote market?

Debra Satz and Michael Sandel argue that the universal rejection of vote markets speaks to the moral limits of markets as such: efficiency isn’t all that matters. But what exactly is wrong with a market in votes, if anything? I attempt to answer this question in a forthcoming article titled “Vote Markets” (Ungated Preprint / Gated published version). I conclude that the case for vote markets is, at a minimum, far more reasonable than commonly assumed.

There are four arguments in favour of permitting vote sales. Firstly, as noted, vote markets enable mutually beneficial exchange. Even if that’s not all that counts, it surely counts for something. That vote sales leave both buyers and sellers better off by their own lights is a reason to permit vote sales. Of course, vote sales can also impose costs on third parties. If Sally sells her vote to Brent, who proceeds to use it in support of an unjust, harmful, or otherwise bad candidate or policy, then citizens who are not part of the vote sale can be made worse off. But this point brings me to another reason to allow vote markets.

Secondly, citizens enjoy significant discretion in their use of their vote, including the ability to use their vote in ways that can generate negative externalities. After all, the state doesn’t ban Sally from voting directly for unjust, harmful, or otherwise bad candidates and policies. Since the state generally allows you to use your vote as you see fit, shouldn’t it allow you to sell your vote if you see fit to do so?

Vaibility of vote markets

Votes reflect the power of people to choose their leader. The tool of Economics can be employed to manifest this power in a different manner. | Photo Courtesy:

Thirdly, some economists have argued that vote markets enable electoral outcomes to reflect the intensity of citizens’ political preferences. Suppose 51% of the electorate just barely supports Candidate A over Candidate B. The remaining 49% strongly prefer Candidate B to Candidate A. A vote market would enable supporters of B to buy votes, thus leading to the election of B—which is plausibly the preferable outcome in this election.

Fourthly, vote buying and selling is similar to other legally permissible democratic practices like earmarking, whereby candidates (promise to) allocate funds to specific projects or recipients to win a given portion of the electorate’s support. If a candidate can “buy” the support of voters by offering them $1,000 worth of subsidies, why can’t that candidate buy the support of voters by offering them $1,000 directly? (Even opponents of vote sales like Sandel recognize this similarity.) At this point, you’re probably thinking that candidates shouldn’t be allowed to buy the support of voters with pork. Fair enough. But if pork barreling and other forms of political favoritism are eliminated, then potential vote buyers would have no incentive to bring about the negative outcomes associated with vote markets—there would be no profit in buying up votes.

So what are the objections to vote markets? I could only find two in the philosophical literature. The first is what I call the equality argument. Here’s Satz: “A market in votes would have the predictable consequence of giving the rich disproportionate power over others since the poor would be far more likely than the rich to sell their political power” (Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale, 102).

I don’t think the equality argument makes for a decisive objection to vote markets.

Direct vote buying can certainly disrupt political equality, but so can other forms of electoral spending like campaign contributions and political advertising.

This is why many democratic theorists endorse regulations that limit these forms of spending. The same can be done for vote sales: the state could simply limit the amount of money you can spend on votes or limit the number of votes you can buy. (You might have doubts about the effectiveness of campaign finance reform and the like—but these are doubts about electoral regulation as such rather than doubts about a special problem posed by vote markets in particular.)

The second objection to vote markets is what I call the republican argument: we should ban vote markets because votes should be used to serve the common good.

Allowing citizens to buy and sell votes as though they were commodities is inconsistent with the republican idea.

According to the republican argument, the state should restrict a given use of the vote when there is good reason to doubt that this use will serve the common good. But this claim implies further restrictions on political liberties that most would find unacceptable, like an abridgement of equal suffrage. For example, to cast a vote that is likely to serve the common good, voters must have sufficient knowledge about economics, political philosophy, political science, the records of the candidates, etc.

The republican argument seems to imply that the state should ban citizens from voting unless they have demonstrated this knowledge. But I doubt that many democratic theorists would support disenfranchising citizens who do not pass a voting exam.

I don’t claim that these considerations make a conclusive case for vote markets. For instance, if we had good reason to believe vote markets would cause sufficiently bad electoral outcomes, we might be justified in banning them. But as things stand, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that vote markets would worsen electoral outcomes at all. And even if the case for vote markets isn’t conclusive, it’s at least worth taking seriously.

This article was originally published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Christopher Freiman is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary. Some of his recent publications include “Why Poverty Matters Most: Toward a Humanitarian Theory of Social Justice” (Utilitas, 2012),  and “Cosmopolitanism Within Borders: On Behalf of Charter Cities” (Journal of Applied Philosophy, 2013).

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