Streetwise Professor

November 13, 2016

Let Them Use Canvas! A Vignette on the Dangers of Majoritarianism & the Benefits of the Electoral College

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — The Professor @ 12:55 pm

In the aftermath of the stunning election result, we are witnessing much wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. One common whinge is that the result is illegitimate because Hillary apparently won (barely) the national popular vote, but was trounced in the Electoral College vote. I will pass over some of the issues this raises (e.g., that campaign strategies would have been different had the election been a national referendum/plebiscite) to focus on the benefits of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is a departure from majoritarianism, one of many that the Founders deliberately incorporated into the Constitution. Meaning that the real debate is not over this particular deviation from national majoritarianism, but whether there should be any such deviations at all.

Put me down as a deviant, because I strongly believe that pure majoritarianism is a disaster. The tyranny of the majority is a real concern. To get all geeky about it, the core is empty in pure majoritarian games: no stable coalitions can form, and the outcome is chaos and shifting alliances of Peters conspiring to rob Pauls. The dangers of this are particularly great when there are few checks on the power of the state to transfer property and power from one group to another. There is also much greater potential for conflict and a greater incentive to spend resources to win the popular vote because small changes in the popular vote lead to discontinuously large changes in the distribution of power–including the power to expropriate. The stakes are much bigger, especially in closely divided polities.

If you want to see an example of what happens when there are fewer checks on the majority, look at California. It is no accident that California is Whinge Central post 11/8/16. The state voted strongly for Clinton: I may exaggerate only slightly that the net-wits called California for Clinton within 30 seconds of the polls closing.

But as Victor Davis Hanson has movingly shown, there are two Californias. (Joel Kotkin has written in a similar vein.) The coastal region, with Silicone Valley and Silicon Valley. Urban, expensive, and wealthy–with large pockets of plutocratic wealth. It draws its wealth disproportionately from high rent industries–entertainment and software tech. But there is another California, the interior. It is far poorer, and far grittier. It is heavily agricultural, and agrarian. It wrests what wealth it has from the earth, with sweat and toil. The only rents are to the land.

This is reflected in the electoral map, which is a microcosm of the US. There is a blue California on the coasts, and a red California in the interior. Even some places with large numbers of Mexican immigrants (e.g., Kern County) went for Trump. But the coast was solid Clinton.

In terms of population as well as wealth, Coastal California dominates. This means that in terms of state legislation and government, the interior of California is largely disenfranchised, and the governing elites have little reason to take the interests of the interior into account. This problem is exacerbated by the heavy use of referendums in California. Referenda are a strongly majoritarian institution, which do have a purpose, namely, placing a check on minorities that can use government to advance their interests. But this comes at a cost of allowing majorities to run roughshod over minorities.

There were several referenda on the ballot in California on Tuesday. Most were advanced by the coastal majority and involved issues that can and should be decided on a local basis, but which a highly ideological majority wanted to force on everyone. One example is the gun control measures that passed. But the example that is most telling to me is the referendum which banned the use of plastic grocery bags.

This is an issue that is virtue signaling par excellence. Around the world (e.g., France) liberals have made the banning of plastic bags a major environmental issue, despite the fact that the environmental benefits of the ban are far more asserted than proven. In California in particular, most major coastal metropolises have banned plastic bags. Bully for them. But that was not enough for the coastal denizens: they had to force their preferences on the entire state.

As Tim Newman wrote several months ago in several excellent posts, the plastic bag ban imposes substantial inconvenience on many normal people, hits lower income people the hardest, and is basically yet another effort by the better thans to instruct the benighted proles:

And that was my point about the Soviet Union: the privileged imposing artificial material restrictions on society which hit those at the bottom hardest, all the while saying it is for their own good.

In summary, I’m not necessarily saying the ban on carrier bags is a bad thing.  I just take objection to people making the assumption that plastic use is in itself bad, alternatives better, and the ban good as if it these were self-evident truths; and the lifestyle preferences of the wealthy middle-classes being imposed on everyone else with nothing but condescending dismissal of the costs and inconvenience to those not so fortunate.

Exactly right.

In California, the coastal majority succeeded in imposing its will on a less wealthy minority. It did so with plastic bags (and bullets) by referendum: it does so on myriad other matters via the state legislature which it dominates. These elites are throwing a post-Trump temper tantrum–which has gone so far as for many to advocate California’s secession–precisely because the Electoral College has thwarted their ability to do the same in the US as a whole.

If you look at what California does to the political minority in the interior, you will see that the tyranny of the majority is a real thing. The majority doesn’t have to pay any heed to the rubes in the Central Valley–let them use canvas! The genius of the Electoral College is that it forces the popular majority to temper its ambitions and moderate its program in order to attract at least some support from–or at least, diminish the opposition from–other constituencies. The urban must make some accommodations to the rural and suburban. The coastal must make some concessions to flyover country.

This serves to reduce conflict between constituencies, and mitigates centrifugal and fissile forces in a large and extremely diverse nation. These are very good things. If you think that politics in the US is contentious and divisive now, you have no idea what it would be like without the Electoral College.

One of the left’s arguments against the Electoral College is that it was adopted in large part as an accommodation to the slave states. There is an element to truth in that, although it should be noted that small non-slave states (e.g., Connecticut) also supported it because they feared being ground under the heel of large states like New York and Virginia. But the role of slavery actually illustrates the politically and socially beneficial role of the institution.

Absent departures from majoritarianism like the Electoral College, it is unlikely that highly disparate regions like the North and the South could have come together to form a nation in the first place, or would have long avoided secession and armed conflict if they had. The Civil War occurred precisely when demographic and economic changes threatened to permit the majority North from imposing its will on the minority South. Anti-majoritarian institutions (not just the Electoral College, but the Senate) permitted a nation to be formed in the first place, and prevented secession and military conflict for over 70 years.

In the instance of slavery, the anti-majoritarian provisions of the Constitution protected an evil institution for decades.* But that fact does not mean that anti-majoritarian features are inherently bad. To the contrary. Pure majoritarianism can be oppressive, and that increases the potential for political division and conflict. The Electoral College requires a party to moderate its appetites and broaden its appeal. It does not eliminate conflict, but it does temper it. And it does so precisely because it constrains the ability of arrogant majorities to impose their will on diverse minorities. The Electoral College gives greater voice to minorities: without voice, the minorities are more likely to resort to exit or combat.

Which is exactly why the left in the US is currently freaking out about the Electoral College. Their hysteria is the best advertisement for this institution that I could possibly imagine.

* As a practical matter, a purely majoritarian Constitution, or a Constitution with fewer anti-majoritarian features, would not have shortened the life of slavery, and likely would have extended it. One possible result would have been that there was no United States, and the Southern states would have been free to perpetuate their institutions without interference. The Northern states would have had little or no incentive to interfere. (One strong economic motive for the North to fight secession was that the tariff system redistributed income from the South to the North, and secession undermined that. That provided an economic incentive for Massachusetts and New York to cohabit with South Carolina and Alabama, and to oppose their moving out.)

If through some miracle a nation embracing North and South had formed under a more majoritarian Constitution, it is highly likely that a more purely majoritarian system would have resulted in secession at a far earlier date, when the economic (especially industrial) and population balance was much closer, and the North probably would have been powerless to prevail over the South militarily. The Civil War came in a non-purely majoritarian system only when the economic imbalance between the sections became so pronounced that military advantage rested with the North, and even given that preponderance, it was barely able to prevail, and then only after epic bloodshed.

Thus, adopting the William Lloyd Garrison position that the Constitution was a bargain with the devil and the North would be morally purified by a separation with the South might have salved his conscience and those of other (primarily evangelical) abolitionists, it would not have freed one person from bondage, and may indeed have cursed many more to suffer from it for much longer.

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  1. Seriously, Silicon Valley and Hollywood are parasites leeching off of hard-working farmers? Now you’re just being lazy.

    Comment by aaa — November 13, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

  2. Enforcing one group’s set of values on another unrepresented group is not ‘leeching’ it is tyranny.

    At some point in this debate you may hear that the electoral college system is unusual amongst democratic countries. It is in mechanics but not in concept. Gaining a majority of regional elections is the norm.

    Of course there are examples of first past the post elections of leader. I understand that Sadaam Hussein was very proud of his 90 per cent plus achievements in that area.

    Comment by noir — November 13, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

  3. @aaa. You need a remedial reading class. I didn’t say leeching. At all. I said ramming their preferences down the throat of rural California. And they are screwing them economically with regulations on water in particular. Again this is a matter of forcing their preferences on rural California. This reduces the money income in rural areas, but increases psychic income in urban ones.

    In the future, before sharing your deep insights, try reading and comprehending.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 13, 2016 @ 4:41 pm

  4. Could you recommend some books on game theory for a student of political history? I can handle any mathemathics short of algebraic geometry and category theory, but I’m after practical applications rather than elegant theoretical results.

    Comment by student of political history — November 14, 2016 @ 12:51 am

  5. Even if the polity was just three people, there will always be the problem of someone getting somebody else’s views rammed down their throat. This means a sensible politician will show concern about minorities, in the broadest sense of the word. The fact Trump lost the popular vote means something, and he should temper some of the more controversial policies he has. To be fair, it appears he is doing that.

    Comment by Person_XYZ — November 14, 2016 @ 3:39 am

  6. Had I been a generation older I would have had four votes in British general elections: one for me, one for my business, one for one of my universities, and one for the second of my universities. All this was scrapped in 1948.

    Not all voting reform is good. People praise highly the Great Reform Act of 1832 but one of its effects was to remove the vote from women in those constituencies where they had had it. Women didn’t get to vote in General Elections again until 1918.

    Comment by dearieme — November 14, 2016 @ 8:39 am

  7. I said last week I was giving it till Friday for this to come up :-)

    The height of naivety is to imagine that the electoral system does not change the way votes are cast. The most obvious difference is between votes where there is a second preference and votes where there is none. Clearly the votes won’t be cast the same way because one system effectively gives each voter two.

    Comment by Green As Grass — November 14, 2016 @ 10:06 am

  8. Professor – read more of the Garrisonians and you’ll find that they had thought long and hard on the point you raise and had come to the opposite conclusion. They believed the South would not be able to hold its slaves for very long without active Northern support. The Nat Turner Rebellion, for example, was not put down until regiments from Ohio arrived on the scene. You can argue with the Garrisonians’ evaluation of the situation but they had plenty of arguments on their side, too. It makes interesting reading. I recommend the “Speeches and Lectures of Wendell Philips” (1860) as a good place to start. His speech on “The Philosophy of the Abolition Movement” is particularly apt.

    Comment by Victor Aagaard — November 14, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

  9. For the distressed, I seem to recall that the Constitution has a mechanism for
    amending it. Maybe it’s Art. V. I believe it may have been amended a few times,
    several of which might involve “voting.” To occupy themselves in their misery,
    those incapacitated by the election can get busy on a new mission, rather than

    Comment by eric — November 14, 2016 @ 8:49 pm

  10. @eric. They are neurotic. They wallow in their unhappiness.

    And they won’t like the amendment process, because that’s also not purely majoritarian–even less so than the EC, in fact. 2/3s of the House and the Senate 3/4s of the states need to approve a change.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 14, 2016 @ 11:34 pm

  11. Meanwhile in a place without such abstract discussions … Russian minister of economic development arrested, allegedly for taking a bribe for okaying the Bashneft deal. I’m sure Sechin’s mansion is already surrounded by a SWAT team. Not

    Comment by Ivan — November 15, 2016 @ 1:18 am

  12. @Ivan-About to post on this in a few minutes.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 15, 2016 @ 11:22 am

  13. Dear Professor,
    Adding insult to injury, you are disavowing your own argument. Your post says black on white that one is a “high-rent industry” while the other “wrests what wealth it has from the earth”. If that’s not an accusation of leeching, then I don’t know what is.

    Comment by aaa — November 16, 2016 @ 12:35 am

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