In a democracy, some people say that politicians represent the will of the people. While many people see politicians as slimy, they think that voters can keep them in line through periodic elections. After all, if a politician acts badly, we can vote them out!
But, real-world voters face a set of constraints that limit the effectiveness of electoral feedback, which I will try to elaborate on extensively, from an economic perspective.
Everyone believes that voters use their votes to hold government officials accountable. If politicians misbehave, voters can vote against them. If bureaucrats misbehave, then politicians hold those bureaucrats accountable, or risk being voted out by voters.
But if voters are going to hold officials accountable for misconduct, they first need to know about the misconduct. That is where it poses a real world challenge considering the relationship between a voter and a politician.
The politician will know more about what’s happening in government than the voter. This challenge creates an opportunity for the politician to act opportunistically, perhaps by implementing policies that benefit special interests at the expense of voters.
The politician is meant to act on behalf of the voter, as the voter’s agent. There is room for the politician to act against the voter’s interests.
In addition to the relationship between voters and politicians, there is also the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats. Just as politicians are supposed to act on behalf of voters but may instead act opportunistically, bureaucrats are supposed to act on behalf of politicians but may instead act opportunistically.
Bureaucrats have specialised knowledge about their departments that politicians lack, which creates space for opportunism by the former.
This becomes more severe when bureaucrats have monopolistic control over the release of information about their activities. This problem is most acute in national security, trade, and health where officials can easily classify information, thereby rendering it illegal to share that information with the public and sometimes even with politicians.
It limits the value of voter feedback across all policy arenas. It turns out that what we don’t know can hurt us.
Coincidentally, this intersects very well with recent accusations by BERSATU Supreme Council member Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali who claimed that eight ministers in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government had urged the prime minister at the time, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to change secretary-generals of various ministries.
Those ministers might have looked and reflected that “these bureaucrats do not seem to be operating in my best interest. However, they may know better than we do, so we should not question, object, or in any other way challenge them.”
Another constraint is even when voters do know about a political action they find unacceptable or upsetting, their ability to offer feedback by voting is still limited. One reason for this is that in most elections issues are bundled.
When we vote for a candidate, we are not voting on any specific policy issue. Instead, we are voting to elect a politician, who will then have increased power to act on all their policy preferences. There is no way to signal that we are voting for a particular candidate based on their rural development policy views but disagree with their views on fiscal policy.
This poses problems, because a voter might know about some action or policy by an incumbent politician that he strongly condemns. However, while he strongly opposes the politician on that issue, he may disagree with the politician’s opponent even more strongly on another issue. He may therefore feel that he cannot in good conscience vote against the incumbent, even though he would like to offer negative feedback.
So what I think is, given the diversity of issues that politicians influence, a voter who cares about a policy must vote based on a complex bundle of positions rather than offering neat and constructive feedback regarding any specific issue. This means that electoral feedback is a rather noisy signal. Even if candidates win, it only proves their views are popular and popular views are often wrong.
Voters face an additional difficulty. They can never directly observe what might have happened had an election gone the other way. For example, pro-middle class voters might be disappointed by a candidate’s tax policy, but still credibly wonder whether the other candidate may have been even more aggressive in cutting taxes. Or a voter may be disappointed in economic activity during a given politician’s prime ministership but has no way to discern how much of that can be credibly attributed to the prime minister.
As an economist friend explained to me in a conference last week; when we elect a politician, we buy nothing but promises. We may know how three prime ministers ran the country for the past four years, but not how their competitors might have run it.
We can compare 2022 Hondas and Toyotas but nobody will ever be able to compare the Ismail Sabri administration of 2022 with the Anwar Ibrahim administrations of the same year.
I know this seems an odd position for an economist. Aren’t we always advising people to choose their best option, even when their best option is bleak? Sure, but abstention is totally an option.
The point is that voters have no way to compare a politician they have observed with a plausible counterfactual situation involving other candidates. This substantially limits a voter’s ability to offer informed feedback through voting.
The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune