Applying free market ideas to politics: How fares the US?

For optimal function, a free market requires (among other things):

  1. Low barriers to entry
  2. Large number of both buyers and sellers

What if we apply these ideas to politics? What sort of market would our political systems be? Imagine that the sellers are elected officials and parties while the possible buyers are all citizens who can vote.

We are ‘buying’ the society that we (in theory) want.

How does the USA look from this perspective?

The United States has a very unhealthy political market. As most of us know very well, there are only two major parties. In economics terms, this could be termed near-monopoly or even monopoly situation for each party. Together they are certainly an oligopoly. There is also no effective regulation that could limit their ability to work together against their ‘buyers’ since they control all regulation. The only option in this case is market entry of a third-party.

Attempts to create third parties in the US have been consistently blocked by the enormous barriers to entry into their political market. A notable and relatively recent example was when Ralph Nader ran for President as the head of the Green Party in 2000. He was completely ignored in the media, and was even barred from even attending the debates as a ticket-holding guest. The split nature of US politics also meant that the 2,883,105 votes (2.74 percent of the popular vote) that the Green Party garnered represented vastly more votes than the difference between Republican Bush and Democrat Gore, especially in swing states. This led to the active blaming of Ralph Nader for the Bush presidency since a greater number of his supporters would have otherwise voted democrat. (See the great documentary “An Unreasonable Man” for the whole story of Ralph Nader.)

Moral of the story: Third parties will be stonewalled in the media as well as politically as much as possible. Also, if you succeed at all, you will be attacked for the ills perpetrated by one of the monopolistic / oligopolistic two parties.

My only real hopes for US politics are:

  1. both the big parties shatter into several smaller ones, or
  2. wealthy philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett invest billions of dollars into the creation of a meaningful third party including the necessary support structure and media outlets.

Choose one of two ideologies

In a more democratic system, voters would choose their positions on individual issues (direct democracy). In a system as unhealthy as that in the US, the best a voter can do is try to support the party that has a general ideology that agrees with them.

A huge amount of effort in the US is expended on connecting every political issue to the party lines. Every issue is framed so that it can really only be approached in two ways. This leads to the false dilemma of voting for one of two parties. You may agree with neither.

Statistically speaking, every major party is going to do some things that a given voter will disagree with. Quite likely they will do a fairly large number of things that the same given voter will disagree with. The point of voting in the US is more about support for the ideology you want to put in power, imperfect as it is. A gritty realism also demands that voters will often choose the party that they believe is the lesser of two evils.

This is similar to the concept of the overton window, which is basically the range of politically acceptable positions to take in a discussion. In the US, the overton window is effectively limited to whatever positions the two major parties take. Anything outside of that is regarded as being extremist and not contributing to the discussion. This is very important in many areas of governance, where the people in fact disagree vehemently with the positions of both parties.

An unhealthy political market also leads to voter apathy. If there are no meaningful choices at the ballot box for the voter, what is their incentive to vote? This is one of the reasons why voting numbers are relatively low in the US and elsewhere.

What is needed

What is desperately needed in the US is a major movement towards breaking the hegemony of the two parties. Perhaps the gang of 70 (a large group of progressive democrats) will break off from the right-drifting democratic party. Perhaps the fiscal conservatives, and/or libertarians will break away from the increasingly socially conservative GOP. Perhaps the Tea Party will forge out on its own. Hopefully several of these will happen. Even a transition from two to four major parties would inject a tremendous amount of life into the decaying American political spirit.

It is my hope that the people of the United States embark on a new push for freedom. I hope that Americans everywhere make incessant demands for positive changes in their political market. When sufficient demand exists, we can only hope that market forces will be allowed to act so that more ‘sellers’ will appear on the market. I believe I speak for much of the world when I say that I truly hope that Americans succeed in gaining for themselves more political freedom in the coming years.

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

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