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"Indeed, the rage of theorists to make constitutions a vehicle for the conveyance of their own crude, and visionary aphorisms of government, requires to be guarded against with the most unceasing vigilance."
     -- Joseph Story
     Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States
     Book III, § 1857.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Steven Den Beste has had another string of posts lately about the Tragedy of the Commons. The timing of those posts brought another example to mind, but it's taken me a while to find the time to write this up, so here it is, late.

First: We have a thing -- whatever it is -- that is a benefit to all persons, provided it is properly maintained, but no direct obligation for that maintenance lies upon any person. Second: the measure of the benefit to any person is related to the overall standard of maintenance, rather than that person's own contribution thereto. Third: If a significant fraction of the persons enjoying the benefit of the thing do not contribute toward its maintenance, the cost of that maintenance to those who do contribute outweighs the benefit they receive. These three points, together, produce what is called the Tragedy of the Commons.

The canonical example is a pasture held in common: Everyone has the right to graze their animals there, but the pasture will, in the long term, support only so many animals' grazing. To maintain the pasture requires that the number of animals grazing there be limited. Everyone figures out right away that the man who throws in an extra animal or two gets, at least in the short term, a free ride on the responsible stewardship of his fellows; the only question is, can he get away with it? If the answer is yes, it doesn't take long before everyone is grazing as many animals as he can. In the long term the pasture will be destroyed, and no single person's restraint will change that fact, so all that remains for anyone is to get what he can while the getting's good.

Here's my transformation: For the pasture, substitute elections; for limits, informed votes.

Consider the election we just had here in California. It is quite likely that buried somewhere in that enormous roster there were candidates better suited to be Governor than any of the front-runners; I mention for completeness' sake, it's also within the realm of possibility that there were some on that list who would have been worse than the incumbent. How, though, would anyone ever find out? With only his one lost-in-the-maelstrom vote riding on it, who in his right mind would bother to inspect all of them, sifting patiently through all the vacuousness, mendacity, and just plain viciousness coming in from all directions? and, given the size of that ballot and the shortness of the campaign, who could possibly have enough time to do it, even if he wanted to? No one who cast a ballot in this last election can say anything more than that he was playing a vague hunch, and the collective total of that hunch, more or less, is, Gray Davis committed vulnerability, the ultimate political sin, and Arnold Schwartzenegger, well, he makes for a good story line.

(I will freely admit, I did not pay much attention in this election. California's woes are legislative, not executive; the fact that we have thrown Gray Davis out, no matter how good it felt to do so, is not going to fix anything, and no one we could put in his place can possibly force the Legislature to clean up its mess. As to Davis' corruption, every revolting bit of it offered in justification for turning him out of his term was already public knowledge long before the people voted him in.)

Granted, this was an extreme case. But much the same applies even in the case of the best-behaved election. Let's take the most obvious case: An election for President, with only two candidates, and the contest receiving more attention than any other ballot can manage. Have you drunk in the candidates' statements? They're crafted -- not even by the candidate, but by professional handlers -- for your vote, not for you, and it will take more effort to dig through all the misdirection and lies; for every box you open to reveal something worth seeing, you'll have to sift through dozens containing only styrofoam squiggles. Have you looked over the official party recommendations? Their thoughts don't go much beyond the lure of power: more effort. Have you wallowed in all the press coverage? They're grinding their own axes: more effort. Have you sniffed through the mountains of endorsements? They're after inimical legislation: more effort. And what good does it do even to watch on as the candidates go through Hell's own proctoscopy, when the doctors can't be trusted?

We can picture the voters of the early Republic, looking upon their candidates, and giving the matter all the pains it deserved. We are only imagining it; after all, if they were, such men as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr would never have come as close as they did to high office. Still, the idea is out there: We used to be more careful about this. More and more voters, though, are drifting along on the work they think others have done; which others, though, they couldn't say. Far too much rides upon the weak supposition, "Well, if there were something wrong with him, he wouldn't have gotten this far."

Now if only a few voters take the lazy way out, relying upon proxies to direct their votes, it wouldn't be any problem at all. The more that do it, though, the less value those proxies have; their value is extinguished at the point where the votes they direct wind up carrying the election even over the proxies themselves, and we've long since reached that point.

The man who spends the necessary effort to inform himself thoroughly on the merits of all the candidates for all the offices on the ballot facing him, is, so far as the election itself goes, wasting his time. No amount of effort will give his vote any additional weight; it will be lost in the noise of those voting on the basis of party-line-media-gotchas-sex-appeal-tarot-cards-throwing-darts whether he spends that effort or not. There are those who make that effort, though their numbers dwindle; while it may do wonders for their peace of mind, it does nothing for the election. That the long-term health of the Republic depends upon a well-informed electorate, cannot make any man seek that information.

So here we have it, by far the world's most successful common-without-stint, and too many are just grazing.

-- posted by Clayton 10/13/2003 01:56:00 AM

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