God Help Us All, George Will Is Right About Something

Albeit for the wrong reasons.

By Nathan Pippenger

I stopped reading George Will’s column with any frequency about five years ago, after he penned such an absurdly misleading column about global warming that two reporters at his own newspaper took the extraordinary step of contradicting it in a news story. They might not have felt compelled to do so if a fact-checker had fixed the column before it ran, or if Will’s editor hadn’t stubbornly stood behind him (and actually allowed the misinformation to continue). It’s one thing to have your doubts about a writer, while still trusting their editors to correct basic errors and ensure integrity. But once you’ve lost faith in the integrity of both a writer and their editors, it’s hard to think of reasons to keep reading. There are only so many hours in the day, and there’s too much good stuff out there.

All that is simply to stress how strange it was to find myself not only reading, but agreeing, with the conclusion—if not the argument—of Will’s latest column. The reader is forced to wade through a lot of sneering and conservative boilerplate to get to the point, but the gist is as follows: Los Angeles, facing anemic voter turnout rates, is considering paying people to vote in city elections. Will dubs this idea “perfectly awful,” which it is. But his reasoning is backwards.

I’ve always found it puzzling to see how excited people get when they discover new things to incentivize. Consider the spate of articles in recent years reporting educational improvements that were recorded after students started receiving payments for higher grades. On one level, this isn’t terribly surprising: people will do lots of things for money. And it’s a little worrisome, too—since, as I’ve noted on this blog several times, market logic is difficult to control once it’s been unleashed. I think most people would want to think hard before making this a core message of American schooling: “Study hard so the teacher will give you $50!” Something similar, I’d argue, is true of political life as well. But Will’s objection to the pay-for-votes idea takes the opposite form:

Although the ethics commission is sad that so few Angelenos are expressing their political opinions, the commission should cheer up. Not voting is an expression of opinion. Democracy is a market: Political products are offered; people examine them and decide whether to purchase this one or that one. Or neither, which is often a sensible decision after careful scrutiny of progressive Tweedledum and progressive Tweedledee.

Will is arguing that the city shouldn’t pay its residents to vote because democracy is a market—and therefore their decision not to vote is, just like picking Candidate A over Candidate B, already an expression of choice. But I’d say just the opposite: Paying for votes is wrong because democracy is not a market. If democracy were simply a market, and each person’s vote worth a certain dollar amount, I could see no problem (in principle) of people buying and selling their votes in whichever way they pleased. If someone valued the price commanded by their vote more than their ability to participate in choosing the mayor, why shouldn’t they be able to sell it? And if someone else were willing to pay fairly for ten citizens’ votes because they had a special stake in the outcome of an election, who could object?

Of course, people make exchanges in democratic politics. Horse-trading makes the system work. But not all forms of trading and exchange are market relations. And markets aren’t a neutral form of exchange: If you started keeping your friends on retainer for $100/week, you might soon notice a degradation (or an outright transformation) in the relationship. Most of us think about politics in the same way: it violates our best sense of democracy to imagine votes as exchangeable commodities, or political decisions as purchases in a marketplace.

Consider, after all, whether most of us aspire to relate to politicians in the marketized manner Will describes: by evaluating them as “political products” that we “purchase.” That metaphor misunderstands the goods we hope to achieve in democratic politics. In a market, consumers seek maximum personal satisfaction at minimum monetary cost to themselves; their relationship to goods is largely passive; their desires are manufactured, and their knowledge received, through manipulative advertising. Now, a pessimist might argue that politics actually is like this, but hardly anyone wants things to be that way—that’s not the politics most of us aspire to. We want to achieve the public good, even if it costs us personally; we want to take an active role in building up our own civic life; and we want to learn about politics through common deliberation, not manipulative advertising. The choice not to vote is an expression of an opinion (and a bad sign for democratic politics), but it’s not a market choice. And that’s the best reason why we shouldn’t pay to change it.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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