This is your friendly reminder that a government shutdown is a form of political hostage taking wherein non-controversial government services are suspended in order to pressure parties into assenting to legislation they would otherwise not support. Continuing resolutions can be used to fund any program enjoying broad support, thus if an essential service ceases to function during a shutdown, it was shuttered deliberately. Parties dissatisfied with the budget refused to allocate funds which everyone agrees should be allocated, scheming that enough voters would blame the wrong side for their shutdown and would bring enough political pressure to bear against them to make them cave.
Sadly, this is usually the way shutdowns end, which explains why we keep having them. They work. Voters reward the culpable. The hostage takers get their way. We have reached a point where we need to scrap an idea of producing a unified behemoth document called “the budget” altogether, and rather pass each individual program on a line item basis.
In modeling political economy, one of the characteristics required of any system which we deem democratic or fair is that irrelevancies must not modify our decision making process. Whether we choose A or B must be determined solely on the basis of whether we prefer A to B or B to A. Our preference of A or B as it relates to C may not impact our preference of A as it relates to B. Representative oversight of the budget thus requires that the vote to fund Obamacare is to be determined by whether a legislator prefers funding Obamacare to defunding Obamacare, not whether he prefers defunding Obamacare to defunding, say, the military. A shutdown designed to force a particular version of an omnibus spending bill is textbook political corruption. And it’s worth stressing at this point the fundamental truth of politics. Corruption is endogenous. Corruption isn’t caused by electing bad people; corruption is caused by having bad systems, and furthermore, all systems are bad.
A just political arrangement under a democratic ethic is one wherein the state behaves as the people want it to. But a people doesn’t want anything. A people doesn’t have a will. We so often treat “We the people” as if a people is some kind of larger than life archtype or pattern upon which all individual persons are modeled. Since a person has a will, a people also has a will, so it is reasoned. The flaw in this line of thinking should be readily apparent – a people lacks a multitude of aspects belonging to a person. A person has a brain. A people does not. A person is a biological organism. A people is not. A people is a category for conceiving of a lot of individual biological organisms as if they were one, but as such, a people is an idea, and ontologically has less in common with you, dear reader, than you do with your potted plants, which are at least fellow biological organisms. What we have committed when we speak of the will of the people is the fallacy of composition, the fallacy of treating a set as if the set itself has the properties belonging to members of that set.
If the state cannot be held responsible to the will of the people, perhaps the next best option would be to hold it to the wills of the people. But the wills of the people are diverse and usually at cross purposes with the wills of a great many of the rest of the people, and there’s no good reason to assume they can be easily aggregated into one decision justly representing the majority of the wills of the people.
Imagine a city with a hundred and one people. Each prefers the tax rate be set high enough to pay for the services he considers essential, but no higher, and if the tax rate is to be insufficient in his estimation, he would rather it be set at nothing at all. The first man wishes the tax rate set at 1%. If he cannot have 1% exactly, his second best option is 2%, his third 3%, and so on, until his last preference would be for a tax of 0%. The second man wishes the tax be set at 2%. If he cannot have 2% exactly, he’ll take 3%, then 4%, up to 100%. At the tail end, if the tax cannot be 100%, he would rather it be set to nothing, and his last preference is for 1%. Each man in the village prefers each value between 0% and 100% in the following preference order: n, n+1, n+2 … 100, 0, 1 … n-1.
Let’s say the village sets its tax rate to 30%. This decision represents the first choice of only one man in the entire community. Furthermore, everyone who desires a tax rate between 0% and 29% can agree that 29% is superior to 30%, and everyone for whom 30% is insufficient agrees that any rate lower than 30% is superior to 30%. In a vote to change the tax to 29%, 29% would win 100 to 1. However, this again only satisfies one man in the village. Everyone else who desires a tax rate between 0% and 28% can agree that 28% is superior to 29%, and all who prefers 0% to 30%, now joined by the original man who preferred 30% to 0% but prefers 0% to 29%, also agree that 28% is superior to 29% by a 100-1 margin. After this, the man who prefers 27% will be able to get a 100-1 majority against 28%, and so on, and so on, in an endless circle. This is an example of the Condorcet paradox. As an individual, if I prefer A to B and B to C, I must prefer A to C. But when calculating majority preferences between three positions, there’s no reason that a majority can’t prefer A to B, B to C, and C to A.
Any voting algorithm which ostensibly represents the will of the majority of the people will be unable to cope with this paradox, and will not return a result instructing the government what to do. But the government must always reach a decision as a matter of logical necessity – the state will either pass a bill or not pass that bill, and if the voting algorithm breaks due to a logical paradox and cannot instruct the state either to pass or to not pass, this does not relieve the state of its duty to Aristotle’s principle of the excluded middle, and whatever action taken by the state will be in contravention of majority rule. The Condorcet paradox is merely one of several paradoxes which a fair majoritarian voting system will eventually fail to process. The state is thus not subservient to the majority of the wills of the people, but is subservient to whatever rules it selects for interpreting and aggregating the wills of the people. Parties who know and manipulate these rules or are merely inappropriately advantaged from them will wield power which should properly be considered political corruption. And because this corruption arises out of the voting algorithm’s structural insufficiency, this corruption is endogenous to voting. You can’t fix it by electing better politicians. The politicians are only minor contributors in the grand scheme. Democracy is corrupt because it is democracy.