The Will of the People does not exist

As you get older, you learn things aren’t always what they seem. A magician isn’t magical, he’s just highly practiced at misdirection and concealing what’s really happening, for example.

The idea of the Will of the People is similar. We take for granted that majority rule is a fair way to decide things. If the majority wants it, it’s the will of the people and it’s fair. Rarely do we question that.

But, in this week’s EconTalk podcast, Rodden on the Geography of Voting, this idea is put to the test. Near the end, I found the conversation on majority rule and the will of the people very interesting (emphasis added):

[Host] Russ [Roberts]: I think a lot of people have a romance about majority rule. Certainly one way that small groups of people settle disputes is they say: Well, let’s take a vote. And whatever gets the most votes wins. And I think to a lot of people that’s obviously the fairest, best way to decide stuff. And so all of these things that we’ve been talking about that mitigate that–whether it’s the Electoral College, winner take all districts–a lot of people say that’s just not the right way to do things. Everything should be decided by a majority vote. And yet, as we know from work by Kenneth Arrow and others, majority vote in the normative sense, meaning leading to outcomes we like, isn’t so strong as it seems. On the surface, nothing could be fairer than majority rule. And yet when you look a little closer you start to see that majority rule’s got some very deep flaws in it.

Guest [Rodden]: Yeah. This is one of the things that when I teach courses to undergraduates on institutions, we do this in the first or second week. It’s a very easy thing you can do to have the students give their rank ordering of their preferences for what type of pizza that they would like; you have each student rank three and then you put them together. And it’s very easy to find groups of students who have what in the social choice literature is called cycling majorities, where you can show that there is no such thing as the majority will. If I set up the institutions in such a way that there’s first a round robin tournament of pepperoni versus vegetarian and then the winner of that is paired off against sausage, I can get a different outcome than if I do the initial pairings in another way. And so I can show that whoever controls the agenda controls what kind of pizza the students are having. It’s kind of something that we’ve known since Condorcet and Arrow, the classics of social choice theory: it’s simply nonsensical to say that the majority has some kind of will that we will then translate into policy. And so the students are always sort of surprised by this. We like to believe that there is such a thing as the collective will. And I think one of the basic lessons of politics and institutions is, unfortunately, it’s possible to aggregate those preferences in very different ways in different institutions and get different outcomes. So we should[n’t] attribute so much importance to something that we believe was the outcome of some kind of majority choice. Often the truth is much more complicated. Agenda control and political power are often used in getting us to the outcomes we see. It leads us to think in a different way about how we interpret the decisions that are made by legislatures and what they actually mean.

Russ: The other problem I have with “will of the people” is majority election. Whether it’s 55-45, or 90-10, the loser obviously felt differently. So it’s not the will of the people. It’s will of those who won that election, whether it’s a majority or whether it’s proportional or whether it’s this weird system we have in the United States. We don’t have referenda on every item. It’s this weird thing called the Legislature, Congress, Senate; we have committees; all this baggage, this incredible superstructure and infrastructure around the way political outcomes are coming out of our preferences. It’s not just a majority rule referendum. But the most important thing to me is that we all have different preferences. And so once you put it into a political process you are basically saying: We are going to get one outcome, and you are stuck with it–because it was the result of a vote. And I don’t see that as necessarily fair at all.

Walter Williams wrote about this, from a different perspective, in his classic Conflict or Cooperation column.

Thomas Sowell also has some excellent thoughts on the topic here .

I like how Russ Roberts finishes the thought in the podcast:

Because political decisions will struggle to reflect anything remotely like the will of the people, I want as few decisions as possible put into that sandbox. I’d rather have the competition of free association and free choice make those decisions and allow for the diversity of outcomes that private markets and private decisions have rather than political decisions, which are inevitably coercive.

Update: Here’s another post relating to the topic: Politics is a group of people making a decision for you.

Electoral College

At some point long ago, I thought I had posted my thoughts on the electoral college, but I can’t find it.

Every Presidential election cycle, there is no shortage of criticism for it.

I think the criticism is rooted in a misunderstanding of the Constitution and our form of government and a lack of appreciation for the weaknesses in democracies that were demonstrated in falls of previous civilizations.

The common criticism for the EC is that it may elect a President that did not win the popular vote, therefore, it could override the will of the people.

But I think this misses two key things.

First, is the name of our country. We call it the United States of America, not the United People of America. We call it this because we recognize the states are represented in the federal government, not just the population.

We see this federal representation of individual states in two key areas — the Senate and the senatorial electoral college vote. Each state is equally represented in both respects, no matter what the population of the state is.

To simplify: In the fall of other civilizations, political power became too concentrated into the centers of population, which led to those centers making decisions in their own best interest. Eventually, the folks in the outer reaches of those empires stopped participating because their voice wasn’t heard and the civilization began to crumble because those population centers didn’t recognize their importance. They produced food for those folks and provided natural land barriers for invading forces. When the folks producing your food stop caring, your civilization is in trouble.

Second, the Federal government has an important place where population does matter, in the House of Representatives. And, it is Congress, after all, where all Federal legislation is supposed to originate. There is also a population component in the electoral college vote as well.

Also, while not originally designed this way, Senators are selected by popular vote. So, while each state gets the same representation in the Senate, who is selected to be a Senator is chosen by the ‘will of the people,’ or the will of the majority of the people anyway.

So, whenever my friends lament that their vote for President counts a little less than some of their friend’s votes in other states, I encourage them to think about these two points above and to more carefully consider how they exercise their Federal political power when it comes to choosing Senators and Congressman.

I bring this up now, because I so rarely see arguments against the Electoral College that addresses these specific points and I rarely see arguments in favor of the Electoral College. However, I was pleased to see that Garret Jones, at Econlog, shares my appreciation for it. Here’s his key line:

As it stands, presidential candidates are trying to appeal to the median voter in each state across a large number of states.  That’s how you get to be president.  This reduces regional tensions because candidates are never trying to get 90% of the votes in a state.   When you’re pitting 90% of one region of the country against 90% of another region of the country, you’re substantially raising the probability of social conflict.

That’s a deeper way of looking at my first point. If Presidential candidates focused on getting 90% of the vote in just the most populous states, the other states would stop caring about the United States rather quickly.