Against the Electoral College (people, not cows)
By Scott Sumner
Ross Douthat recently made this comment on the politics of trade wars:
If you expect this to lead to good policymaking, you haven’t been paying attention to how this White House operates. But the fact that Trump has this particular incentive to focus on free trade’s Midwestern losers is not itself a bad thing. One of the strongest arguments for the countermajoritarian element in the Electoral College is that it provides a point of leverage for regional populations that have suffered particularly at the hands of an overreaching bipartisan consensus. And the bipartisan consensus on trade with China really is ripe for an updating, since the domestic costs have been higher and geopolitical benefits more meager than the expert class predicted 20 years ago.
I disagree with several of these claims:
1. While the domestic costs of China trade have been greater than anticipated, the same can be said for the domestic benefits. The net benefits from China trade are probably larger than most economists would have estimated 20 years ago. For 230 years the US economy has been based on Schumpeterian creative destruction, to a greater extent than most other countries. We should celebrate that fact.
2. The ability of the Electoral College to empower regional interests against the interests of America as a whole is a flaw in our system of government. In well-functioning countries, the government is able to adopt policies that boost the general welfare, even if certain specific groups suffer from increased competition. This is what differentiates a country like Denmark from a place like Greece. Throughout modern American history, the president (of either party) was more supportive of free trade than the Congress, precisely because he represented something closer to the national interest. The recent election was unusual, as the candidate with 2.9 million fewer total votes won due to the disproportionate influence of working class voters in rust belt states. That’s a flaw in our system, (and would still be a flaw if Clinton had beat Trump despite having fewer votes.)
3. I would add that the Electoral College also leads to a sense that one’s vote doesn’t matter, in about 80% of the country. I know that I felt that way when I voted in Massachusetts. If we had the sort of electoral system you see in other countries, where the president is the person who receives the most votes, then voters in both deep red and deep blue states would have been more motivated to go to the polls. Their votes would have mattered.
4. It’s still early in the Trump administration. The only other president in the past 100 years to be put in office due to the Electoral College overruling the majority vote was Bush in 2000. That administration is generally viewed as a failed presidency, especially in the foreign policy area where presidents have the greatest influence. Thus there is little empirical evidence for the superiority of the Electoral College (although admittedly there is also little evidence the other way.) Still, it’s an odd system that would never be adopted today if it weren’t written into the Constitution. The burden of proof is on its supporters. The default option should be majority vote, which best represents the “wisdom of crowds”. That’s how other countries select presidents.
Some people point to the importance of land, not people. They argue that 500,000 people in Wyoming should have more political influence than 500,000 people in the Bronx, because they occupy more land. Under one-man one-vote, states like New York would have more influence that Wyoming. In my view that’s a feature of one-man one-vote, not a bug. Each voter should have equal influence, not each acre of land. After all, nearly 45% of the continental US is used for either livestock grazing, farmland producing feedstock for US cows, or land producing food for foreign livestock. Should we give more weight to the political views of cows?
PS. This link also has some other interesting maps, showing land use in the US.