How universal suffrage entrenches vested interests, and what to do about it — by Gavin R. Putland.
Does Tony Abbott expect to win votes by promising to give away Australia's mineral resources more cheaply than Kevin Rudd? No, he expects to win material support from the mining industry, which in turn will help him to win the election on other issues, with the result that the mining industry gets the policy it wants.
(The Resources Super Profits Tax is based on the theory that "super" profit is a crude approximation for economic rent — that is, an economic return which cannot be justified as an incentive, but which depends on a privilege, such as the ownership or exclusive use of an asset that cannot be replicated by private effort. The most respectable arguments against the tax focus on the crudeness of the approximation — as if that were a reason to prefer existing taxes which don't even try to target economic rent, but which blatantly punish productive effort. Don't expect the mining companies or Mr Abbott to explain how to tax economic rent more precisely; their aim, as far as possible, is to leave the rent untaxed.)
Many complain of vested interests hijacking democracy, but few acknowledge the flaw that makes our so-called democracy susceptible to the hijackers. The culprit is universal suffrage. By maximizing the number of electors to whom candidates must present their messages, universal suffrage maximizes the cost of successful candidacy and therefore maximizes the influence of money on the selection of our legislators. Those who would be our masters if the franchise were restricted to the landed gentry, or subject to payment of an exorbitant poll tax, are still our masters, and are the more firmly entrenched because the extension of the franchise gives them the appearance of legitimacy.
Moreover, by maximizing the number of voters, universal suffrage minimizes the influence of each voter on the outcome, and therefore maximizes the influence of rational ignorance. If you are one of (say) 100,000 voters in one of 100 electorates, your probability of influencing the outcome is so small that it is not rational to spend any time studying the issues to inform your vote. Even if your interest in the outcome is (or would be) purely altruistic, there are more efficient ways to exercise your altruism than to study issues in order to inform your vote. You may have other reasons, altruistic or otherwise, for studying some of the same issues, and the knowledge thus acquired may influence your vote; but you will not seek such knowledge for the sole purpose of voting. Hence most voters, on most issues, will not seek such knowledge at all, and their ignorance will leave them maximally susceptible to well-funded propaganda.
The gatekeepers of public debate — the mainstream media — do not counter the influence of money but rather reinforce it, because they are moneyed interests and are beholden to other moneyed interests, namely advertisers, who want a big audience for their ads, especially among people with money to spend. And the media try to retain such audiences by telling them what they want to hear. Note the vicious circles within vicious circles. Public funding of election campaigns is just another vicious circle: funding depends on electoral success which depends on funding!
If we want democracy instead of plutocracy, we must eliminate the cost of taking the message to the voters. How? By bringing the voters to the message. For each election, in each electorate, invite a random sample of the enrolled voters to gather in one place (or one video conference). Pay them generously for their time, so that they can easily accept the invitation. Let them listen to the candidates and cross-examine the candidates over a period of several days. Then let them vote as an electoral college — choosing the candidate(s) that the entire enrolled electorate would have chosen if it had heard the same arguments.
This arrangement, which one might call convened-sample suffrage, not only bypasses the gatekeepers but also ensures that ignorance among the voters is no longer rational. If you are selected as one of (say) 100 members of the college in your electorate, giving you the chance not only to vote in the college but also to question the candidates in the hearing of all 100 members, your chances of influencing the result in your electorate are significant, and your chances of influencing the overall result are not negligible, especially in a close contest. So you suddenly have nothing better to do than to get informed.
Convened-sample suffrage is compatible with any voting system (e.g. plurality, preferential, or proportional). To avoid muddying the waters, whatever voting system is presently used under universal suffrage can be retained by the electoral college under convened-sample suffrage. Reform of the voting system can be another debate for another time.
Paying the delegates to the electoral college would probably be cheaper than paying the army of officials needed to set up and conduct a universal-suffrage election and to count the votes — to say nothing of the campaign costs.
The only downside is that the selection of the delegates would introduce a random sampling error. But that's better than the existing systematic bias.
While opponents of the political status quo are divided into innumerable irreconcilable factions, they all seem to have one thing in common, namely the belief that their policies would prevail if only they could get a fair hearing! Convened-sample suffrage would give them a fair hearing — and is therefore a cause that should unite all opponents of the existing order, even if they agree on nothing else.