Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Fewer Representatives or More Monitors?

Matt Yglesias saw Lawrence Lessig speak about the problem of money in politics concluded his concern on the influence of money in politics was “too narrow”. I tend to agree that Lessig’s focus is a bit too narrow — that’s why I started the PCCC — but I was shocked by Yglesias’ “broader” solution: fewer elected officials.

Matt’s focus on institutional reforms is definitely a well-needed antidote to most political journalists’ tendency to focus on personalities and other small-picture details, but in this instance it’s just crazy. In what sense is the number of elected officials broader than the influences that come to bear on them?

Matt seems to be arguing that countries with fewer elected officials are better run because voters can monitor the performance of those officials better. I don’t see how this argument can possibly survive engagement with the details of our political system.

Let’s take health care, since that’s in the news lately. Health care has basically been talked about nonstop by every news outlet, yet even voters who follow these things in detail have no clue what’s really in it. (This is true even of my friends who are political junkies; they know a public option isn’t in the bill, but they basically have no idea what the exchanges are or how they would work.) When election season rolls around, campaigns will begin running lots of ads about the health care bill. None of these ads will help inform them what’s in it. And the press will continue not to inform them about what’s in it.

I don’t see how having fewer elected officials will change any of this. The problem is not that voters try to monitor their elected officials but are simply overwhelmed; the problem is that voters have no tools for actually monitoring their elected officials in any meaningful sense. Yes, one can point to a Chris Hayes flowchart here or an Alec MacGillis guide there, but there’s no way any significant number of voters know how to find those things. And even if you tell them about those, there’s no system for finding similar documents about issues in the future.

And that’s the biggest issue Congress is considering this session! And that’s just its broadest outlines! The health care bill has thousands of pages of detailed provisions and it’s just one of thousands of bills Congress is trying to pass. There’s nobody who’s even reading all of those provisions, let alone trying to figure out which ones are good ideas and which representatives are fighting for the good ideas.

Instead, there’s a vast industry of lobbyists, each of which care really deeply about a handful of those tiny issues and are willing to spend vast amounts of money and effort persuading members of Congress to take their side. On most issues, they face no opposition. So naturally, the members take their side.

What’s needed is not fewer representatives, but better monitoring systems and institutional incentives to make monitoring less necessary. Better monitoring systems is what I’m working on and better institutional incentives is what Lessig is fighting for. If Matt thinks that fewer representatives is a better or “broader” solution, I’d like to hear him explain how it’s going to help.

Disclosure: I’m on the board of Lessig’s group, Change Congress.

You should follow me on twitter here.

January 30, 2010


Sadly, campaign finance reform and improved monitoring are both inadequate. What is needed is a change from single-winner elections to a more representative electoral system.

Yglesias’ provocative suggestion points toward the sole deep issue in government which is the meaning and quality of representation. From the citizen standpoint, you only need one good representative. From the social standpoint, the number of representatives in a body ought to be related to the number of political positions we want represented. The solution is to weight the votes of the representatives.

Erdman and Susskind’s The Cure For Our Broken Political Process shows how negotiation of difficult issues is impossible given our electoral system. Meaningful representation is necessary for the principal-agent trust that allows negotiation to succeed. Both authors are Cambridge-based, fwiw.

I would add that single-winner systems encourage a power/dominance model of politics which is inferior to a negotiation-based approach.

posted by Paul on January 31, 2010 #

I feel almost stupid for saying this, but isn’t less government a good option, too? All of this discussion about money in politics begs the question why? When the government is responsible for apportioning so much money, it is no wonder this is the case. (I would stretch to argue that this is why corruption is so rampant in many - not all - countries where the government consumes large portions of the GDP.) The same could be said about the argument of representation. Using a surrogate to make decisions that you should be responsible for yourself leads to necessary inefficiencies and the impossibility of representing the will of the represented. I am not saying we can’t make improvements, but there are implicit problems in proxy decision making that will be there regardless of the representative to represented ratio.

posted by Steve Fettig on February 1, 2010 #

Much of your argument seems orthogonal to the one Yglesias is making.

Do you think electing judges is a good idea?

posted by Jeremy on February 4, 2010 #

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