In Politics, Everyone has to Eat the Olives
By Steven Horwitz
In a recent post, Sarah Skwire argued, quite rightly, that one of the great features of the market is that it makes a lot of stuff she doesn’t like. It also, of course, makes a lot of stuff that she does, including the very specific kinds of weird things that individuals like Sarah might wish to consume. For Sarah, the fact that markets produce things like olives and death metal, neither of which she wishes to consume, is great because it means that other people can get their wants satisfied even if she wants no part of them. All that markets require is a commitment to tolerance. If we want the weird stuff that we like, we have to accept the fact that the very same processes that will produce that stuff will also produce things we can’t stand.
I can assure you from first-hand knowledge that Sarah finds olives highly objectionable. This works to my benefit sometimes, because when they are served at a meal or I buy some at the store, I know they’re all for me, and I really like them. In the market, Sarah is not forced to either buy or consume what she sees as revolting little fruits.
However, this isn’t true of the political process. What Sarah didn’t address is how her examples might play out under a different set of institutions than those of the market. The nature of collective choice in markets, especially the voting process, which most closely mimics choice in the marketplace, is such that we choose among “package deals” and that everyone must accept the choice of the majority. Electoral politics, by its very nature, cannot abide the tolerance of minority tastes the way that markets do.
In the most simple case, the candidate getting the most votes (or the amount otherwise dictated by the rules) wins, and he or she is everyone’s president/governor/mayor etc. Those who preferred a different candidate don’t get an opportunity to “consume” their political preference, as there can only be one winner. We are all stuck with that person. When we look at policies, the same sort of story applies. Particular candidates or parties will offer a platform full of a variety of policy proposals. Individual voters might like some of those proposals but also dislike some of them. Some voters might dislike nearly all of a candidate’s positions. Whichever candidate wins, or whichever party wins a majority, everyone will be subject to their attempts to put their preferred policies in place, regardless of whether we liked those policies or not.
Imagine going to the grocery store and rather than picking out the individual items you wish to buy, each store offered a pre-selected bundle of groceries that were available for purchase. Kroger might offer a different bundle than Whole Foods or Aldi, but each store offers only one bundle and you have to buy everything that’s in it. If we push this analogy to its limit, imagine further that you are required to eat everything that’s in the bundle. Similarly, we could imagine restaurants working in this sort of way.
You can easily see the problems. First, the stores would cater to the median shopper and diner, in a pretty good replica of the median voter theorem. Minority tastes would be largely shut out. Second, very few people would be anywhere close to fully happy with their bundle of groceries or their meal. And if you’re required to eat what you buy, some folks are going to be very unhappy about their meals. I would not look forward to watching Sarah try to choke down some olives. (Though she would be looking forward to it even less!) The overall level of preference satisfaction in politics will be far less than in the market because there’s no way to either satisfy minority tastes or offer specialized versions of common goods that better match people’s preferences. This is the problem with the institutions of collective choice: in politics, everyone has to eat the olives.
The collective choice processes of politics, by definition, don’t allow for the possibility of the tolerance of others’ preferences that is the foundation of the marketplace. This is why so many political battles, especially recently, seem so high-stakes. It’s a winner-take-all game, so those who perceive themselves in the minority have every reason to fight hard, if not cheat.
The more goods and services that are provided through political allocation, the more we will deal with this sort of problem. One need only think about extending the grocery analogy to health care, for example. If we think it’s important that no one is forced to eat the olives, and if we think it’s important that people are able to acquire the particular goods and services they want, we need to rely on markets to the largest extent possible. And doing so requires that we extend a degree of tolerance to the preferences of minorities that politics does not require. As more of our lives are centered around those winner-take-all political choices, the tolerance necessary for markets might become increasingly hard to come by.