Unwanted Politicians

Here are two positions most any politician can take, yet few ever do:

  1. “If elected, every month I will impanel a new random jury of voters in my district.  I will inform them in detail about my upcoming decisions, and will ask them for their choices.  Then I will just do what they say.  In this way I can assure you that won’t act on my own interests or those of my cronies or donors; I will act as would random informed citizens from my district.”
  2. “I promise that, if elected, I will do X, Y, and Z.  But I don’t just make promises; I show you I am committed to keeping my promises.  My word isn’t my only bond; my house is also my bond.  I have contracted with ABC law agency; they will give my house away to the first person that can prove that I have broken any of these promises.”

These ideas have been around for many years, and they would seem to give voters more of what they say they want from politicians: less corruption and more kept promises.  Yet virtually no political candidates ever take these positions.  I have to conclude that these positions would somehow interfere with voters getting other things they want from candidates.  But what things?  Some possibilities:

  • We elect politicians to raise our status by affiliation.  Anyone can follow a jury, so that isn’t impressive, and our affiliation is weaker if we suggest we don’t trust them.
  • We prefer the hypocrisy of democracy where they tell us nice sounding things, making it look like we support them, but then actually do what we really want done.
  • Voters would reject a candidate whose campaign focused on such meta issues, and prefer to support a candidate who would better help them signal their particular positions on non-meta issues.
  • We elect elites we think are much better than us, and we don’t trust our own judgement relative to theirs.
  • By suggesting that voters might not trust you, you suggest you are especially untrustworthy.
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  • Sarah

    the most obvious explanation to me is that 1 and 2 are both extremely democratic positions. 1 does not allow the politician to make his own decisions; 2 does not allow him to alter them. Either way, voters are wholly responsible for the outcome. And it may be terribly wrong.

    (I myself would not want 1 or 2. If I chose 1, I’d have to trust a jury to get decisions right. If I chose 2, I’d have to trust myself to pick a fixed political platform and vote for the politician who represented it — we the voters, and not the politician, would be responsible for decisions. Both seem incredibly risky.

    I don’t think we do want that much democracy. I think we tend to think politicians and other high-status people have better judgment than we do, and to be willing to give them leeway and responsibility. Myself, I’d rather trust a momentous personal decision to my least favorite Supreme Court justice than to myself.)

  • Bill

    The world is complex. I actually worry about a politician who makes ironclad promises and commitments that could not be modified under the circumstances.

    Take, for example, the politician that says he will vote for a balanced budget and not raise taxes, and cut spending to achieve it.


    Would you elect someone who said: I am going to hop in my car, lash the stearing wheel to the armrest so that it will not be stearable, and drive my car using only my gas pedal and the brake.

    No, what we elect people for is judgement; directional judgment and rational predicability.

    And, no, it is not a good idea to balance the budget if the economy contracts by 15% or there is a war or an oil embargo disrupting commerce or ….

    Good promises are made to be broken.

  • The first of these ideas is a really bad idea. It will result in extremely haphazard policies. Legislation can often takes months or longer to draft. That would become essentially impossible in this context. And problems with the executive branches would be about as bad. Consider executive orders that might flip-flop from month to month based on who happened to be in the pool of people for that month.

  • Yes, it could be that voters are more interested in signaling than in results. But it could also be that mainstream candidates know they can get elected without using these devices, both of which would reduce their own power and autonomy. Since they can get away with not doing these things, they don’t do them. The only candidates who would use these tactics are candidates who are not mainstream, and therefore are unlikely to get elected. I’d be surprised if no one had ever used the first tactic (proxy representation), especially a desperate third-party type.

  • I’ve heard ads for politicians in which they promise not to take a salary if they don’t accomplish certain things. I forgot if those things were enacting certain policies or achieving something like lower unemployment.

  • MattW

    #2 could get very messy. A certain bill may have something in it that the politician said he would vote for, and partway through the house it gets add-ons that the politician said he would vote against.

    #1 on the other hand seems very do-able. I’d vote for the guy that promises that just to see how it goes.

  • Great post. I was going to write something quick about what consequentialist voters would do in scenario #1 but it turned out to be more complicated than I first thought. I’ll write more about this later but for now I’ll just relate an example I was thinking about.

    Let’s say A and B are two activities which some people enjoy but others find disgusting. 1/3 of people enjoy A only, 1/3 enjoy B only, and 1/3 enjoy neither. People have a strong preference for their chosen activity being legal, and a weak preference for outlawing whatever they don’t enjoy.

    Now we have four possible policies. A can be legal or illegal, and B can be legal or illegal. If we had a single vote to choose from all four policies, then there is a Condorcet cycle involving all four possibilities. So there’s no easy way to say which outcome will win.

    On the other hand, if you vote separately on A and B, then people will surely vote to make both illegal.

    • There are a few different methods of resolving a Condorcet cycle, for example the Schulze method.

    • Aaron

      I don’t know that I’d call that a Condorcet cycle involving all four possibilities — rather there are two Condorcet cycles that share an arm.

  • nazgulnarsil

    a preference for hypocrisy is probably built in. you want to credibly signal that you can behave in one way towards in group members and in a drastically different way towards out groups. how can one justify the cognitive dissonance of murdering other tribes and plundering their resources/women?

  • Vladimir M.

    One reason why these proposals wouldn’t make sense is that the personal authority of elected politicians in modern Western political systems is almost zero, despite their nominal insistence on democracy. A modern politician can’t pre-commit to anything, simply because he has no significant personal influence on government policy — which instead emanates from opaque and impersonal bureaucratic processes and (to a lesser extent) compromises struck in complex power plays within the upper crust of influential politicians and their cronies and camarillas.

    Even the U.S. president, which is probably vested with the most personal authority of all political offices in modern Western countries, mostly just signs papers that land on his desk coming from the opaque bowels of bureaucracy. (If you doubt it, a visit to the “Presidential Actions” page on whitehouse.gov should be enough to convince you.) The disconnect between individual legislators and the many thousands of pages of legislation they vote on every year is of course far greater, except for the bits where they struggle for their local share of the pork. (Not to mention that most legislation contains only extremely vague guidelines, which are subsequently shaped into concrete policy by non-elective bureaucratic agencies and courts.)

    The only institutions of personal authority in the present U.S. political system that I can think of are judges and presidential vetoes. The former are not elected democratically, so the latter is the only example where a candidate could even try to formulate a sensible commitment. But besides that, what concrete, well-defined, and measurable action could other politicians even try to promise?

    • The only institutions of personal authority in the present U.S. political system that I can think of are judges and presidential vetoes. The former are often not elected democratically

      Fixed that for you. It really varies from place to place whether judges are appointed or elected.

  • Bill, obviously there would be *some* situations under which a politician would want to break any given promise that they made. But at the moment the only disincentive they have for breaking promises is the threat of being accused of a ‘u-turn’. By increasing their commitment, by putting their own money/housing/whatever on the line, they guarantee that they will only break the promise if they are really convinced that breaking it is necessary – by changing what they are willing to stake on their promise, they can signal exactly how committed they are to that particular pledge.

  • Larks

    Because doing so signals that you don’t expect people to trust you, which suggests people haven’t trusted you in the past, which suggests you’re not trustworthy.

  • “I have to conclude that these positions would somehow interfere with voters getting other things they want from candidates.”

    A proposed alternative solution: candidates need well-funded sponsors to compete effectively with other candidates – and so the candidates voters see as being viable are a biased sample of possible candidates – biased in the direction of the interests of the sponsors.

  • Tracy W

    Well personally I’m hoping that whatever party gets in power after the next UK election has been lying about their intentions left, right and centre. So I don’t want to see them making any expensive commitments.

    Which may explain the problem – you might attract those voters who really care about the policies you promise, but put off those who, like me, are hoping that you’ll break your word. Swings and roundabouts.

  • Sarah, Larks I’ve added your suggestions to the list.

    Bill, Matt, we now make promises enforceable via contract law, and let courts interpret when breach of promise is acceptable. Why not apply the same process to see if politician promise breaches are acceptable, so he/she can keep her house?

    Joshua, you could limit the jury decisions to official votes, and exclude bill drafting.

    John, there are lots of wannabe politicians who now can’t get elected; the are hungry for an edge that could get them elected.

    TGGP, people may say they won’t take a salary, but do they ever bond themselves to that promise?

    Vladimir, legislators can promise how they will personally vote, even if they can’t promise their side will win.

    • Bill

      Robin, Under contract law, contracts can be broken or will not be enforced. The Uniform Commercial Code has provisions for uneforceability for unconscioniability, mutual mistake, unforseen circumstances–and, as a practical matter, even if the court were to seek to enforce, there is bankruptcy, high transaction cost resistance, counterclaims, etc.

      Ever here of someone settling an enforceable claim for 50 cents on the dollar? Why is that…they have an enforceable contract?

      There is a part of law and economics which actually deals with this; and the point is that in the commercial world, contracts get modified for the above reasons.

      Just as in the political world.

    • Vladimir M.

      legislators can promise how they will personally vote, even if they can’t promise their side will win.

      Yes, but what’s this promise worth if they don’t control what will be up for voting in the first place? Important legislation typically runs over hundreds or even thousands of pages of meandering, horse-by-committee text, which is itself only raw material to be subsequently turned into concrete measures by the bureaucrats and courts. An average legislator has neither the time nor the intellectual capacity to even comprehend it, except in the vaguest terms (and except for the parts relevant for his local pork). I really can’t imagine concrete and coherent pre-election promises that would make sense in these circumstances.

      I’m not saying this is a complete explanation of the puzzle from the above post, but to even begin to answer it, we should start with a realistic picture of modern politics, not an idealization where politicians act as independent and autonomous agents.

    • Bill


      I would also challenge the assumption that people vote on what a politician PROMISES, but rather vote based on what a politician DOES.

      I promise is made before an election; VOTES are actually made based on performance–that is, how a politician ACTED during office.

      One is prospective; the other is retrospective.

      I would argue that we vote RETROSPECTIVELY and should all but ignore promises–because we want, under some circumstances, for promises to be broken.

      In other words, even if a politician kept all his promises, the retrospective look at whether they should have kept them will lead politicians to be kicked out of office for keeping their promises–deservedly I might add–because, if they keep a promise when, under the facts, they should have broken it.

      So, in the end, what we do is give directional signals to elected officials and vote retrospectively based on their conduct.

      Not consistent with the promise hypothesis.

  • #2 – I agree with what Steven Landsburg said when he proposed this in The Armchair Economist: the Bill of Rights is not flexible even though we could imagine some situations where we want it to be. The trade-off of lower flexibility may be worth the extra commitment.

    I have a feeling that the main reason these ideas are not implemented is simply their “kookiness”. Candidates who propose radical changes like these get written off. An interesting question is why this is the case. Is it just a standard status quo bias, or perhaps it is an “averageness”-type effect where voters rationally discount radical ideas when they lack the ability to properly evaluate them on their merits.

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  • I think the status-over-instrumental-goals explanation is a stretch here. I’d argue that we’re simply seeing excess prices due to imperfect competition.

    So politicians promise X with probability Y, and the question is why they don’t take steps to increase Y, in order to increase X*Y. One could say they don’t really care about X*Y, or one could say they face differentiated candidates who haven’t competed X*Y to the perfect competition level.

    This argument would suggest that politicians avoid guarantees (“read my lips”) unless they feel they need to increase X*Y. Noting Obama’s (wise, IMO) widely-commented avoidance of particulars during his campaign, I think the hypo that politicians keep X*Y only as high as they need to is, casually, observed.

    • Vladimir M.

      So politicians promise X with probability Y, and the question is why they don’t take steps to increase Y, in order to increase X*Y.

      That’s very strong idealization over what I see in the real world. In reality, politicians rarely promise anything concrete enough that you could even say what “X” is with any certainty.

      If you go to a typical electoral campaign website, you won’t see a list of plainly stated promises. Instead, you’ll see vague and emotionally charged statements of ideological affiliation, whose practical implications are mostly left to the voter’s imagination. Why this is so, should be pretty clear when one observes the reality of the modern political system that I described in my above comments.

      • @VM

        Exactly. Politicians go out of their way to /not/ commit to things precisely because they do not need to compete X*Y up to the credible guarantee level.

        Now if we had Knightian, perfectly indistinguishable candidates in every respect (same blow-dried hair, same southern twang) but for their promises (X) and credibility (Y), we might observe creative forms of guarantee.

  • I’ve been very interested in meta-parties for a while now. I think it’s worth noting that there already are some examples – Demoex, Senator On-Line, and the Party of Internet Democracy to name a few. These aren’t quite a jury, but they still involve a candidate whose hands are bound.

    They’re still struggling, and of the three listed above only Demoex has been elected to public office. Based on what I’ve read, the reason they haven’t wildly taken off is a lack of trust – not in the candidate to meet his half of the bargain, but in the meta-system itself. Even a corrupt official is “the devil they know”, and people are afraid of how these strange new machines may malfunction. Once Demoex had proven its competence during its first term, it was re-elected by a much higher margin.

    • Cool – I didn’t know about those three real examples. It would be great to see a survey asking ordinary folks why they don’t want to vote for those parties.

  • Lo Statuz

    Explanations involving hypocrisy, status affiliation, or voters distrusting their own judgments should also account for initiatives. In California, each election brings several specific propositions, for example a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

  • bgreen

    interesting that Direct Democracy was not mentioned until the 20th comment. the Demoex model appears to need no changes in legislation to implement.

    Technologically, communications are so good now that leaders merely hinder progress. When individuals take responsibility for themselves, we will no longer need pseudo leaders.

  • Lars Petrus

    Another possible reason is that the position as elected official is not very attractive with these restrictions. Perhaps no credible candidate is interested in that job?

    Promise #1 has a few problems.

    ➢ Being on that jury seems like a real pain! Lots of unpaid work and difficult decisions. Part of why we elect representatives is to not have to go through that.

    ➢ Given that the elected representative gets to frame the issues, he still has a lot of influence over the “verdict”

  • David C

    Voters would reject a candidate whose campaign focused on such meta issues, and prefer to support a candidate who would better help them signal their particular positions on non-meta issues. – Robin Hanson
    This seems like it would make the biggest difference. Voters are used to thinking about non-meta issues, so there’s a strong status quo bias towards them.

    I think lack of awareness is probably a strong reason. Most voters don’t follow their candidates for long enough after an election to be aware of whether they kept or broke their promises, so politicians have very little incentive to keep them. The Presidential election might be the one exception. I’m reasonably certain Politifact’s Obameteris going to be an important talking point in the 2012 election.

    • noematic

      Perhaps voters are used to thinking that they think about non-meta issues?

      We can separate politics into the election/ policymaking process, and the actioning process. As you say, voters focus on the election/policymaking process (more valuable signaling opportunities) and tend to lose interest afterward. The actioning process is far less useful for signaling opportunities and as voters are rarely involved in the actioning process, they demand fewer assurances of their politicians during this process.

  • Doug S.

    For some reason, I thought of this quote:

    “Remember, you can’t be wrong unless you take a position. Don’t fall into that trap.” – Scott Adams, Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook

    • Robert Koslover

      Clearly, Scott Adams was wrong about that.

  • Bill

    Pre-nomination political commitments are designed to hold the base which nominates the candidate; after nomination in a two party system, the middle is forced to choose between the decisions of the base, which sought the committment, and the other party, which has its own base, and may or may not have commitments on the same issues..

    To illustrate:

    The way this question has been framed has been to ignore the interests of the middle, which does not make its choice until later. The middle prefers no commitment, but is forced to make a binary choice.

    Unfortunately choices are made in an incomplete set of options.

    For example, Candidate A will commit to never raise taxes, but is strangely silent on whether to balance a budge or run a huge deficit.

    Candidate B commits to balance the budget, and is silent about taxes and spending.

    Candidate A is also silent about what is a tax…is a copay for medicare a new tax on seniors, is it a cost shift rather than a tax, is mandating state spending by the federal governement which shifts costs back to the state a tax increase at the state level; is a private mandate a tax increase?

    The point is: you get fooled just when you think there is a commitment or promise, because there is a vast open set of non-commitments which get you back to the starting point or accomplish the same thing, or give you something you would never have chosen in the first place if it was set against the thing that was “promised”.

  • I have a feeling that the main reason these ideas are not implemented is simply their “kookiness”. Candidates who propose radical changes like these get written off.

    A politician could campaign with very little emphasis on this aspect of their platform, and then hope that their increased fidelity to their promises would get them reelected. This isn’t a great strategy for a newcomer, but you might expect it would have succeeded *somewhere*.

  • Khoth

    Another possible reason for not doing (2) is that unless the politician is a single-issue fringe candidate, voters will often like parts of their platform but dislike other parts. If there’s a promise you hope a politician will break, a binding commitment could discourage you from voting for them.

  • Politicians don’t do what you suggest because politics isn’t about social change, it isn’t about keeping promises, it isn’t about doing the people’s will. Politics is about the politician — It is about obtaining *power*, then keeping the *appearance* that one is doing “something” for as long as necessary.

    Your hypotheses about why politicians do not back up their promises with risk for them certainly sound very nice, but you neglected to mention the most obvious one, the one most congruent with the facts: politicians are hypocrites (many of them Social Dominant / psychopaths) — they know they make grandiose promises and they have no intention of fulfilling them once they are elected.

    Sometimes the most obvious answer is the correct one. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    • Not all politicians only seek power. Even when given alternative options similar to cases 1 and 2, most voters still support power-seekers. Why?

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