Undercover Economist

Your vote doesn’t count

Talk about a baptism of fire: my first experience with a televised panel debate put me up against Tony Benn, a leftist former cabinet minister famous – in part – as perhaps the most formidable debater in the country.

“You’re going to get killed,” said my wife, ever supportive. And rhetorically, perhaps I was – he masterfully trotted out his favourite sound bites, regardless of whether they pertained to the question or not.

This was almost two years ago, and one of Benn’s sound bites has had me thinking ever since. He pointed out that “in a democracy, everybody gets a vote. In the market, the poor and the homeless don’t get a vote.” Ergo, government provision of, well, anything, is preferable to leaving it to the market.

But the concept of a “vote” is meaningless when it comes to the market. If Benn’s claim means anything at all, surely it means this: that a poor person has more influence over the service he or she receives from the government than over the service he or she receives from the market. That claim means something, but it is also hard to sustain.

I am not making an argument about the miracle of the market, but about the limits of politics. Democracy has many virtues, but giving influence to the individual voter is not one of them. Notoriously, an individual’s vote makes no difference to anything. According to the British election watcher David Boothroyd, in 24 general elections since 1918, each spanning hundreds of parliamentary constituencies (most recently, 646), there has only ever been one valid election where your vote could have made a difference: A.J. Flint was elected as Labour MP for Ilkeston in 1931 by just two votes. (The other two-vote victory, in 1997, was declared void.) Even in 1931, the Ilkeston swing voter would not have influenced government policy: the Tories won about three times as many seats as all the other parties put together.

In the US, there is a similar story: the closest presidential race in history, Bush-Gore in 2000, still had a margin of more than 500 votes in Florida.

So my vote gives me no power to influence the government. That might explain the cavalier behaviour of government agencies. I’ve twice received government threats over my presumed late payment of tax. In one case the tax was paid in good time but that didn’t deter them; in the other, I asked for a statement of all tax owed, paid it, and then heard nothing until the court summons a year later. (Their statement had been wrong, so I’d paid the wrong amount of tax – but tell that to the judge.) Never was there an apology – not even the regretful tone that most good corporate bureaucracies are capable of producing if they have to.

These big corporate bureaucracies are equally capable of stuffing things up, of course. The difference is that when they do, you can usually have them grovelling, because they know that you can take your business elsewhere. Most of us do not enjoy the luxury of choosing which tax bureaucracy to do business with. (Those who do, tend to secure favourable results.)

It is true, as Tony Benn would no doubt claim, that a billionaire’s threat to take his business elsewhere carries more weight than a poor person’s does. But businesses still cater to the poor, and do not want to lose customers, even poor ones. And the poorest participants in a market society have more influence over what they receive as consumers than they do as voters. The government could nationalise Tesco, and rich and poor alike would get the same level of individualised service: not much.

Published at ft.com.