30 May 2015

Why Capitalism Might Yet Topple Democracy (It's Not How You Think)

In just the last decade, you can walk into frozen yogurt shop and make a dessert that has exactly the mix of nuts and berries and candies and yogurt that you want. You make it. It doesn't matter if you want 44% granola and 18% syrup and the rest yogurt or 77% berries with a topping of yogurt and nuts. It's yours to customize exactly as you want. During that same time, pizza places have emerged that let you instruct folks about exactly what sort of toppings you want and in what quantity. And then they cook it with surprising speed: fast food customized.

You might have terribly obscure tastes and yet you can find what you want in the modern market. You like Afro-pop? You can find hundreds of songs online, even if no one else in your dorm or suburbs has even heard of the genre. You think it's a shame that Hank Williams and George Jones don't get enough play on country stations? You can train Pandora to play them often on your custom radio station.

The market caters to individuals and as the costs of manufacturing - anything from songs to cars  - drops, it is easier to make custom or niche products for people of fairly modest means.

Every year the market comes closer to giving you exactly what you want, no matter how antiquated, futuristic, marginal or mainstream are your tastes. It really is a triumph.

But of course that makes politics look bad by contrast. Politics is the art of compromise, the practice of translating individual desires into group consensus. In that sense it moves in the opposite direction of capitalism. While capitalism caters more and more to the individual, politics pulls us into a wider world full of people who have very different sensibilities than us.

Your odds of walking away from the cash register happy are very high. Your odds of walking away from the polls happy are fairly low. In the US, after a presidential election, roughly 49% of voters wake up the next morning horrified and gut sick. In the UK, where voters recently got to choose between about a half dozen parties, it was 63.1 percent of voters who woke up shocked and dismayed that the conservatives won an outright majority with just 36.9% of the vote. We often think of democracy as a "majority rules" government but in the UK, it is a majority who are guaranteed to lose. (David Cameron's Conservative Party had only to win the most votes in a majority of voting districts in order to make him Prime Minister. Given the average voter could choose between about a half dozen parties, "the most votes" could work out to about 30 to 40%. Do that in 51% of districts and you are the ruling party.)

You think that climate change is a hoax? Well, the good news is that you can find a rich stream of talk shows, articles, books, and videos that confirm your belief. But when it comes to voting, you'll have to reconcile your worldview with that of people who are convinced that it is the biggest threat to human life since the Black Plague.

You think that commuting is horrendous and we need better public transportation and less reliance on fossil fuels? Or that commuting is horrendous and we need to drill more freely and remove regulations on expansion of freeways? Or that commuting is a problem faced only by people stupid enough not to work from home? Well, in order to get what you want you'll have to convince people with a host of opinions about commuting. Or you'll have to change what you want.

The best bet for political activists - from Occupy Wall Street protesters who camp out for months in public places to Koch brothers who fund chosen candidates with millions of dollars - is that they won't get what they want. Even if your candidate gets in, chances are that at some point he'll make a decision you find reprehensible.

All of this means that the likely outcome of voting is the opposite of the likely outcome of shopping: you will not get what you want. Or, more precisely, you will at best get some vague approximation of what you want. Your vote will get smudged together with hundreds of million other citizens (and when it comes to international policy, it's more like billions). Your policy pizza might not have the toppings you wanted. If might not even be pizza.

So as markets become more sophisticated and evolved, politics looks more crude and alienating by contrast. Which turns off more and more people from politics.

For now, markets are making governments look bad. And this means that voters whose naive expectations of getting what they want has been shaped by markets are going to become more disenchanted by politics. The consequence? The average person will have less and less influence over outcomes in politics and will put more and more energy into markets.

If markets topple governments, making your vote ineffectual, it will likely be because they have made your dollar so very effectual. Every decade we become less able to think about ourselves as part of a group and think more of ourselves as individuals. The market is made for that. The polls are not. This simple fact could make democracy an experiment that lasted only centuries in the long history of civilization.

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