Do Elections Really Matter?

vote3When allegations of corruption continue year after year, when campaign promises become meaningless, when the word “change” means one thing to the voter and another thing to the candidate, we must wonder whether elections really matter at all.

This year, the following countries are having presidential elections: MarshalI Islands, Kiribati, Taiwan, Moldova, Finland, Turkmenistan, Russia, USA, France, Serbia, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, South Korea, Egypt, Venezuela, Sierra Leone, Iceland, Slovenia, Ghana, and Mexico. The following countries are having parliamentary elections: Egypt, Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Sierra Leone, Kuwait, Iran, Belarus, USA, Belize, Slovakia, El Salvador, South Korea, Bermuda, Lithuania, Papua New Guinea, Georgia, Angola, Libya, Congo, Greece, Armenia, Ukraine, Syria, Algeria, France, Romania, Mexico, and Mongolia. That’s not counting state and local elections, which are plentiful.

The Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA International), lists the voter turn-out by country. The statistics are surprising. Regarding parliamentary elections in Mongolia here’s the data in the form of year to percentage of voter turn-out: 1990-98%, 2000-82%, 2008-74%. Regarding parliamentary elections in USA here’s the data in the same format: 1990-56%, 2000-64%, 2010-42%. Regarding parliamentary elections in the UK, here’s the data: 1992-78%, 2001-59%, 2010-66%. Regarding parliamentary elections in the Republic of Korea, here’s the data: 1992-72%, 2000-57%, 2012-54%. The statistics can be interpreted in one of two ways: (1) people are caring less and less about politics in those countries; or (2) people are becoming more and more disillusioned by the whole electoral process.

The decline in voter turn-out around the world seems to be the rule. However, there are exceptions. Take, for instance, Russia’s parliamentary elections. In 1993, there was a 50% voter turn-out. In 2003, there was a 56% voter turn-out; and in 2011 there was a 60% voter turn-out. Then, take Rwanda, which has the highest percentage of female parliament members of any country in the world. In 2003, there was a 96% voter turn-out for parliamentary elections; and in 2008 there was a 99% voter turn-out. Does this suggest that if more people voted, there would be more women in parliament? Hardly; however, it does suggest that Rwanda is doing something right. Since 2003, voters in Rwanda must feel empowered by their new constitution, which decries discrimination and genocide. They must feel like their vote actually does make a difference. But, is it true? Does voting really make a difference?

Professor of Economics Bryan Caplan at George Mason University has written a book entitled, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.” In Caplan’s book, he proposes a radical new idea, which is the idea that voters are generally not rational. In classical economics the postulate has been that voters are generally rational. Caplan goes against the grain by suggesting that while people are generally rational regarding just about everything else in their lives, they are generally not rational when it comes to voting. He points out that elected officials sometimes have to choose between what they know will be better for the public in the long term, and what will bring immediate and positive results to the public’s pocket books. By way of a simple illustration, politicians may vote for lower taxes, knowing that they will have to borrow money and put the country deeper in debt, so that they can keep their jobs and be re-elected. Caplan, therefore places all the blame of bad policies on the shoulders of the irrational voters and the indifference of those who don’t vote at all.

Whether the blame is to be laid upon the shoulders of irrational voters or upon corrupt politicians, it is clear that the so-called “democratic system” is not working. What, then, is the solution? Nobel prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman, has been quoted thusly, “I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.”

While Mr. Friedman establishes a good point, he does not indicate how we can establish a political climate of opinion that will make it politically profitable for politicians to do the right thing? Furthermore, he also is quoted thusly, “I think the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem and very often makes the problem worse.” In other words, we shouldn’t expect government to fix the problem; rather the people need to fix the problem. But how do we do that?

Since so-called democratic governments are made up of people, perhaps we all should read Lao Tzu’s, “Tao Te Ching.” In that book there is a lot of great advice for rulers of a nation. Herein below is some of what Lao Tzu wrote:

“A wise ruler, pure and still, will rectify the world.”

“The wise ruler will say, ‘As I refrain, the people reform. As I am quiet, they will keep order. When I forebear, the people will prosper. When I want nothing, they will be honest.”

“Lackadaisically govern, and happy your people will be. Govern exactingly, and restless your people will be.”

“Rule a large country as a small fish is cooked.” [Don't over do it.]

“The wise ruler, does nothing great, and yet achieves greatness.”

“The wise ruler is up above, but is no burden to the folk. His station is ahead of his people, to see that they come to no harm.”

“If people do not dread [respect] their leaders, a greater dread will come upon them [the people]. Therefore, do not cramp their dwelling places, or take their children, or their livestock, nor anger them in any way.”

And lastly, my favorite, “Only one who bears the nation’s shame is fit to be its hallowed lord.”

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