Democracy is often understood to mean “one man, one vote” in the sense that every voter counts the same. This is almost never the case. While it often means that each voter gets to drop one vote in a box, that vote is then put through a function rule which calculates its weight towards the distribution of political power. The results are rarely one to one.
The recently concluded British elections show this clearly. The Daily Mirror notes that while UK Independence Party attracted 3.36 million votes against the Scottish National Party’s mere 1.45 million votes, the UKIP votes netted only 1 MP and while the SNP votes got 56 members into parliament. “By 7.40am, the SNP had amassed 1.43 million votes, and earned 56 places in Westminster, with all of Scotland declared. By contrast 3.36 million votes for UKIP only converted into 1 MP at time of writing.”
In terms of input-output, a UKIP voter counted about 100 times less than an SNP voter. The function rules are defined by the voting systems in force. “Common voting systems are majority rule, proportional representation or plurality voting with a number of variations and methods such as first-past-the-post or preferential voting. The study of formally defined voting systems is called social choice theory or voting theory, a subfield of political science, economics, or mathematics.”
The function rules in Britain favored the SNP voters, being distributed in such a way that they could win 56 elections, much more than the inefficiently scattered UKIP ones. The immense importance of function rules mean that political success is often less about convincing the most voters to vote for you than about changing the game in your favor.
One of the better known attempts to rig the system is gerrymandering, “the process of setting electoral districts… to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries.” Once you can create a district consisting entirely of your minions you are in power forever. This is undesirable but it turns out to be particularly difficult to draw up an electoral district without in some way advantaging, or disadvantaging a political party. Someone is always going to cry foul.
One man’s gerrymandering is another man’s empowerment.
Edward Blum of the American Enterprise Institute contends that the Voting Rights Act has long been diverted from its mission of voter enfranchisement into a factory of safe-seats for the Democratic Party. “The VRA, he argues, is no longer a law designed to protect individuals’ right to vote, but a gerrymandering tool used to further the electoral prospects of incumbent politicians—regardless of their race.”
The other way to achieve the same effect is to leave the district boundaries intact but to engage in a form of demographic re-engineering called the Curley Effect, after four time Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. Mark Hendrickson writes, “a politician or a political party can achieve long-term dominance by tipping the balance of votes in their direction through the implementation of policies that strangle and stifle economic growth. Counterintuitively, making a city poorer leads to political success for the engineers of that impoverishment.”
Here’s an example of how the Curley effect works: Let’s say a mayor advocates and adopts policies that redistribute wealth from the prosperous to the not-so-prosperous by bestowing generous tax-financed favors on unions, the public sector in general, and select corporations. These beneficiaries become economically dependent on their political patrons, so they give them their undivided electoral support—e.g., votes, campaign contributions, and get-out-the-vote drives.
Meanwhile, the anti-rich rhetoric of these clever demagogues, combined with higher taxes to fund the political favors, triggers a flight of tax refugees from the cities to the suburbs. This reduces the number of political opponents on the city’s voter registration rolls, thereby consolidating an electoral majority for the anti-wealth party. It also shrinks the tax base of the city, even as the city’s budget swells. The inevitable bankruptcy that results from expanding expenditures while diminishing revenues can be postponed for decades with the help of state and federal subsidies (“stimulus” in the Obama vernacular) and creative financing, but eventually you end up with cities like Detroit—called by Glaeser and Shleifer “the first major Third World city in the United States.”
The Curley effect is extensive. Perhaps you have seen the chain e-mail listing the ten poorest U.S. cities with a population of at least 250,000: Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Miami, St. Louis, El Paso, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Newark. Besides all having poverty rates between 24 percent and 32 percent, these cities share a common political factor: Only two have had a Republican mayor since 1961, and those two (Cincinnati and Cleveland) haven’t had one since the 1980s. Democratic mayors have had a lock on City Hall despite these once-great and prosperous cities stagnating on their watch. This is the Curley effect in action. …
What is most troublesome about the Curley effect is that it is spreading beyond its historical setting of cities. Entire states—most notably our most populous, California—are manifesting all the symptoms of the Curley effect: Democrats enjoying electoral hegemony; businesses and middle-class individuals, more Republican than Democratic, emigrating to states with less oppressive tax regimes; reduced job opportunities; a budget careening toward bankruptcy.
This is like packing the hall — on a national scale. The process would seem unstoppable, except for the fact that a political system run for the benefit of a faction eventually runs out of money — and smarts. When James Curley found Boston assailed by a force he couldn’t fix, the weather, he wrote to MIT president Karl Compton asking for advice on using flamethrowers to clear the streets of snow. Rahm Emmanuel isn’t there yet, but give him time. Give him time.
The reason why gerrymandering or the Curley Effect, once begun, must continuously expand to fill all available space is because as the taxpayer milk cows flee the district, cream begins to run short. Therefore the area of dominance must be constantly expanded from district to town, town to county, county to state and state to country, to bring the competence and money back into the fold.
The process need not stop on earth. Already a narrative is forming that “This Elon Musk’s Mission to Mars to save Humanity sermon is White Colonialism Interstellar Manifest Destiny Bullshit. There, I said it!” Today Chicago, tomorrow the Universe.
Canny politicians realize that the biggest bang for buck is in changing the rules, rather than simply attracting more voters. As the UKIP vs SNP example shows, geometric progression beats arithmetical progression most every time. Sadly “one man, one vote” only very rarely obtains. All men may be created equal, but voters never are.
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