A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Being Popular And Being Right. Politicians Can’t Be Both.

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on August 25, 2010 at 11:35 am

By Stephen Wan

When you ask someone what they would rather their MP did, what was good for the country, or what would get them re-elected, they almost invariably go for the former. People have an impression of politicians as self-interested, vote-grabbing, populists out to climb the greasy pole, more interested in good press than good policy. However, bad sounding though that caricature is, do we really want politicians to be any different? And in fact, doesn’t democracy require exactly that kind of attitude to exist?

The only power we the people have over the government is election time, at least every 5 years, when every Parliamentary seat is up for grabs. This is our one chance to keep our MP if we like the job they’ve been doing, or kick them out if we don’t. Everyone has one vote exactly, making it as fair as possible (let’s ignore the electoral system for now). And this is the time when the parliamentary candidates compete and offer whatever they think will get them elected, whether they believe in it or not.

Now, for some reason people seem to hate the idea that politicians will say whatever they think people want to hear in order to get them elected again. People would rather have ‘principled’ politicians, who ‘believe’ in what they stand for. I argue otherwise – in actuality, our democracy would be a lot stronger if politicians stood only for what will get them elected again. In other words, we would have a better democracy if politicians were complete self-serving and self-interested, rational actors.

Why? Because representative democracy is effectively the establishment of a ‘political free market’, where everyone has equal purchasing power, which they use to ‘buy’ a politician who they believe will most improve their own life, or do what the voter thinks is best for the country. Whoever gets the most purchases gets elected as the MP, and they need to ensure they do exactly what they said they would or else they won’t get elected again, in much the same as how a manufacturer needs to make sure their products don’t break down otherwise consumers will not buy from them again.

If, on the other hand, we had politicians with so-called ‘principles’, and we voted for them, how do we know they’ll do what we want them to do? They could, for example, take us into an unwinnable war in a middle eastern country which we have no interest in, strategic or otherwise, apart from perhaps some natural resources we would like to exploit, leading to the deaths of hundreds of our soldiers. Hypothetically mind you – surely this could never happen in real life?

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