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 the bastards out!”

However, real-world voters face a set of constraints that limit the effectiveness of electoral feedback. Public choice theorists have documented these constraints extensively, but today I want to discuss just three such constraints. Let’s call them the ABCs of Electoral Politics.

A is for Asymmetric information

Ideal theories of democratic politics suggest that voters use their vote 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 poses a challenge because real-world democracies are characterized by asymmetric information.

Consider the relationship between a voter and a politician. The politician will know more about what’s happening in government than the voter. This information asymmetry creates an opportunity for the politician to act opportunistically, perhaps by implementing policies that benefit special interests at the expense of voters. This is an example of a principal-agent problem. The politician is meant to act on behalf of the voter, as the voter’s agent. But due to information asymmetries, there is room for the politician to act against the voter’s interests.

In real-world governments, there are multiple layers of principal-agent problems. 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 specialized knowledge about their bureaus that politicians lack, which creates information asymmetries. This creates space for opportunism by bureaucrats.

These problems of opportunism and asymmetric information become more severe when bureaucrats have monopoly control over the release of information about their activities. This problem is most acute in the national security state, where officials can easily classify information, thereby rendering it illegal to share that information with the public and sometimes even with politicians. Abigail R. Hall and Christopher J. Coyne discuss this problem at length in their book Manufacturing Militarism: U.S. Government Propaganda in the War on Terror, which I previously reviewed for EconLib. Hall, Coyne, and I also discussed the role whistleblowers can play in alleviating these problems in our paper Sounding the Alarm: The Political Economy of Whistleblowing in the U.S. Security State.

While these issues are most severe when politicians and bureaucrats can act secretly, asymmetric information limits the value of voter feedback across all policy arenas. It turns out that what you don’t know can hurt you.

B is for Bundling

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 you vote for a presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, or mayoral candidate, you are not voting in a referendum on any specific policy issue. Instead, you 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 you are voting for a particular candidate based on their foreign policy views but disagree with their views on financial regulation.

This poses problems, because a voter might know about some action or policy by an incumbent politician that they strongly condemn. However, while they strongly oppose the politician on that issue, they may disagree with the politician’s opponent even more strongly on another issue. They may therefore feel that they cannot in good conscience vote against the incumbent, even though they would like to offer negative feedback.

Politicians use their power to influence a wide variety of issues, including foreign policy, fiscal policy, environmental regulation, parks and recreation, public health, and many more. The list is potentially endless. Given the diversity of issues that politicians influence, a voter who cares about policy must vote based on a complex bundle of positions rather than offering neat, legible feedback regarding any specific issue. This means that electoral feedback is a rather noisy signal.

C is for Counterfactuals

Voters face an additional difficulty. They can never directly observe what might have happened had an election gone the other way. For example, pro-peace voter might be disappointed by a candidate’s foreign policy, but still credibly wonder whether the other candidate may have been even more aggressive abroad. Or a voter may be disappointed in economic activity during a given politician’s presidency but have no way to discern how much of that can be credibly attributed to the president. As David Friedman explains in The Machinery of Freedom:

When you elect a politician, you buy nothing but promises. You may know how one politician ran the country for the past four years, but not how his competitor might have run it. You can compare 1968 Fords, Chryslers, and Volkswagens, but nobody will ever be able to compare the Nixon administration of 1968 with the Humphrey and Wallace administrations of the same year. It is as if we had only Fords from 1920 to 1928, Chryslers from 1928 to 1936, and then had to decide what firm would make a better car for the next four years. Perhaps an expert automotive engineer could make an educated guess as to whether Ford had used the technology of 1920 to satisfy the demands of 1920 better than Chrysler had used the technology of 1928 to satisfy the demands of 1928. The rest of us might just as well flip a coin. If you throw in Volkswagen or American Motors, which had not made any cars in America but wanted to, the situation becomes still worse. Each of us would have to know every firm intimately in order to have any reasonable basis for deciding which we preferred. In the same way, in order to judge a politician who has held office, one must consider not only how his administration turned out but the influence of a multitude of relevant factors over which he had no control, ranging from the makeup of Congress to the weather at harvest time. (page 69)

In other words, 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.

These are just a few of the public choice problems that limit voter feedback. To understand these types of issues more fully, you should read more about public choice theory. But knowing the ABCs of electoral politics is a good start for understanding real world democracies.


Nathan P. Goodman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Economics at New York University. His research interests include defense and peace economics, self-governance, public choice, institutional analysis, and Austrian economics.