Democracy vs. Capitalism, II

mon15oct2007—42w288d78%— 20h34m00s—0utc

A fairly unique thing about democracy and capitalism is that —as opposed to, say, monarchy or theocracy— both are formal systems for collective decision making, both specify clear rules for obtaining and aggregating the ends of differing individuals.

As such systems, they both necessarily hinge in what we shall refer to as ballots. Usually the paper in which votes are cast, we will here use the word ‘ballot’ to mean “an external expression of preference.” The key part is ‘external’. Externality has problems all its own but is also our only hope of finding out what others think — telepathy, guessing, and revelation are our other options.

In democracy, votes are the ballots. In capitalism, it’s money. In democracy, a clinic will be built if the majority of voters vote in its favor. It will keep in operation as long as people don’t vote it out of existence. In capitalism, a clinic will be built if enough people pool the money for its construction and it will keep in operation as long as it makes a profit — that is, as long as it ends up receiving more money than it gives away.

Seeing votes and money as instances of the same concept begs an intriguing question: How then do they differ? How is a vote different than a buck? What specific changes do you need to make to a vote ballot to turn it into a money ballot?

Of the many differences, four strike me as the most fundamental. From least to most important:

Votes are binary

For aggregating purposes, all ballots have to be ultimately numerical (how do you sum anything else?) but in most democracies votes are usually restricted to the rather brutal constraint of all or nothing, yes or no, 0 or 1. When there are more than two candidates you are allowed at most one 1.

Things need not be necessarily black or white in voting though. Numbers are after all differentiation tools and many different schemes have been proposed for democratic voting that involve allowing more possible values. In approval voting, for instance, you are allowed as many 1’s as you like. In range voting you grade candidates on a scale. In preferential voting, you rank candidates, which is equivalent to assigning a unique number (from 1 to the # of candidates) to them.

Money, on the other hand, has always been numerically open-ended, allowing for differences as many and as subtle as money’s medium has permitted. With the advent of digital banking almost all practical hurdles to open-endedness have been overcome: payments as big or as small as desired can and do take place.

Votes aren’t universally castable.

This may come as a shock to those who were drilled that voting was a universal right in their civil education lessons but votes are far from being universally castable. My little, 16-year-old sister can’t vote for instance. Nor can a tourist. Nor can a prisoner. Nor can an illegal immigrant. All of them however, can and do pay with money just as everyone else. So yes, voting may be universal for citizens, but that’s almost like saying that voting is universal for those who can vote. Almost, because citizenship carries with it not only the right to vote, but the obligation to abide by the decisions of the voting, as we will see soon. Truly universal voting would entail the creation of a global government.

Votes are apportioned equally.

I bet one of the first things you thought of when you started looking for differences was that voting was more fair than money. In a democracy, at least, equality is enforced: every citizen gets exactly the same vote as everyone else when she reaches legal age and, save from getting in jail or renouncing her citizenship, she will always have that same vote, no matter in how many elections she “uses” it. With money, on the other hand, inequality is the norm and you have the rich, the middlers, the poor, and then the destitute.

It isn’t, though, as if inequality were enforced in capitalism. It’s more subtle than that. What happens is that the transfer of money is allowed, and with it some usually end up having more than others, who might even be left without any.

Votes are “compulsory.”

This, oddly, is the crucial difference. You can make votes open-ended, universally castable, even transferable, and still talk about votes, still talk about democracy. If you abandon compulsion, though, you cross the dividing line: you’re no longer dealing with votes, you have money.

Most democracies stipulate that voting is both a right and an obligation and in general abstaining is frowned upon wherever voting is called upon. This is not the compulsion I refer to but rather a symptom of the true compulsion at play. When a citizen abstains from voting she can indicate disinterest and an unwillingness to give the legitimacy of her vote. What she can’t do is be unbound by it.

Voting is a way for a group to act in concert, to take decisions where we must all stand together. Weekends, for instance, when we go out as a family to dinner, we vote for a restaurant and agree to be bound by the decision of the majority because the whole point of our outing is to spend time together.

If you take this tension away from votes, these teeth, the dynamic of the ballot changes completely. The group splinters. “Elections” become a matter of only the directly interested parties — often no more than two people. Abstention becomes commonplace, the likeliest outcome in fact. Every election has now to be won unanimously. To get people to do what you want, you now have no option but to resort to alluring them with something they want.

This last difference, finally, allows us to see why democracy is a form of government —perhaps the best one yet invented— while capitalism is something else. After struggling with many definitions, I think compulsion is government’s defining quality too: gov’t is simply that organization that decides where we must all stand together. Within it, by its very nature, contributing becomes taxation, volunteering becomes conscription, dissenting becomes sedition. That there are cases where this approach is desirable and perhaps necessary may be true (national security and global warming come to mind). That even when democratic it can’t but be a crude and rough-handed approach in a society of our scale and diversity is clear.

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