Fixing Popular Legislature

As there is always a king of some sort, so is there always a popular legislature of some sort. Whether or not there is an *ostensible* House of Commons, there is always an *effectual* House of Commons (as mediated through their Lords, if in no other way (this, in exactly the same way that even in the absence of women’s suffrage, the interests and judgements of women are politically reckoned via their patriarchs)). And the problem with popular legislatures is that they are ever prone to enact legislation that imposes costs upon the whole polis to the benefit of but a few.

It’s a design problem. Legislatures are commons. They establish a positive feedback circuit, under which it seems to become rational (at least in the short run) for the legislature to vote itself ever more goodies at ever diminishing apparent marginal cost – and at ever increasing real marginal cost. So uncorrected legislatures ever tend toward economic and social disaster. To correct the circuit design, the feedback must be negative. It must be closed, so that costs bear upon those who benefit from them.

So, tell me what’s wrong with this notion, that came to me the other day like a zephyr unbidden: let the whole cost of any legislation be borne only by those districts whose representatives voted for it.

You want freeways? You pay for them. So far, so uncontroversial, perhaps. But then it gets interesting. You want welfare? You pay for it.

My main worry is that under such a system, federation would simply dissolve. Is that a bad thing? I’m pretty sure it isn’t. Subsidiarity, you know. This design constraint would force the local solution of local problems. That might actually end up making federation easier, when it came to problems of federal scale.

Just a thought.

12 thoughts on “Fixing Popular Legislature

  1. Pingback: Fixing Popular Legislature | @the_arv

  2. There is nothing wrong with the idea, except that it wouldn’t work, at least not for very long.

    It reminds me of the Libertarian idea that every person ought to be able to do basically any ol’ thing he thinks he’s big enough to do (individual pursuit of happiness and all that) as long, say they, as he is willing to bear the consequences for his own poor choices (think poverty, health issues and so forth). Which would be all well and good, I guess, IF the bulk of the people would indeed bear the consequences of their poor choices as independently as they recklessly made those choices. A few would, most wouldn’t, so there ya go.

    • There is nothing wrong with the idea, except that it wouldn’t work, at least not for very long.

      Hah! I just *knew* there would be some sort of problem like that!

      You are probably right. The first act of a legislature constrained by such a rule would be to vote to eliminate the rule. To avoid that outcome, you’d need to make the rule part of the constitution of the republic, invulnerable to other than absolutely unanimous deformation.

  3. It was argued by Zippy, I believe, that govt finances are too opaque, perhaps necessarily, that no accurate cost-benefit accounting can be made. He actually framed the argument in terms of govt deficit. But the same arguments carries, even stronger, to the cost-benefit analysis.

    Apart from Zippy’s argument about deficit, which is perhaps not widely accepted, it may be impossible to truly calculate costs and benefits of a proposed legislation. Economics is an inexact sciences, and political economy multiply so.

    • A good point. But, the accounting entailed by the proposal is substantially less complicated than a cost/benefit analysis. It is cost accounting, pure and simple. And the costs don’t even need to be nailed down beforehand. The idea is that, whatever the costs turn out to be, the only people that will pay them are the constituents of the legislators who voted in favor of generating them. The harder it is to pin down the costs of a policy ex ante, the greater the risk to those constituents, and so to their legislator.

  4. Pingback: Fixing Popular Legislature | Reaction Times

  5. Your proposal will, of course, be answered by the “free rider problem.” But when this happens, you should stick to your guns and insist that there is no free rider problem in many federal programs. And the absence of the free rider problem indicates that the program should be handled by a lower level of government. If a county wishes to provide universal health care, then provision should be by the county, not by the federal government in counties that vote for it.

    • Exactly. Legislator X will propose a program, and Y will not oppose it, but neither will he vote for it, because if it passes, his constituents might benefit from it at no cost to themselves (or therefore to him). They will be free riders on the constituents of X. But, realizing this perfectly well, X won’t vote for the program either. Only those bills will pass that a majority of legislators construe as so vital to the national interest that they are willing to suffer some free riders.

    • I’m for counties giving out free health care, free houses and free four wheelers to all its citizens and/or residents, if that is what it resolves to do with its own resources.

  6. Many communities did in fact build community hospitals, paid for by tax dollars, whose mission was to provide free or low cost health care to citizens of those communities. Of course, back then, you could go to the drug store to buy opium and cannabis, and there was a viable free market both in drugs and in medical care. As to the “50 laboratories” mentioned above, that was the original plan, as set out in the Articles of Confederation of 1781. The Anti-Federalist Papers - – make interesting reading for today.

    • Yes. Wherever you see, or saw, a “General” hospital, that was a hospital for everyone and anyone, set up by the town fathers. The other hospitals were established mostly by churches. When I was a kid in Indianapolis, the General Hospital was generally understood as the hospital of last resort – i.e., not so good. Methodist Hospital was the place to go.


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