May 25, 2010
The Tragedy of the Legislature
How the built-in incentives for voters and politicians in our system create acrimony.
We need governments, the argument has long run, to protect the weak and restrain the nasty. Meanwhile, the just-finished spring session of the legislature suggests it is the very people meant to curb the excess of human imperfection who need the help and restraint. Staff who abuse each other on topics unrelated to the business at hand are the rare exception, not the norm, in any publicly visible Saskatchewan workplace. So why is politics different?
This latest legislature session played no new tune but just a more intense recital of a long established one. To blame the melee on this or that personality for the strategies or mannerisms they bring to the political arena can’t explain the ingrained history of this he-said, she-said bovine manure in our body politic.
Sure, democracy is a method that reconciles competing interests. Also, Westminster-style legislatures are deliberately designed to divide state power between a government and an opposition. Better that than a monarch or dictator. To some extent, the adversarial design of our political institutions makes conflict inevitable.
Nevertheless it should be possible for MLAs to accept the adversarial structure of our institutions as a given and remain civil. It would simply be a matter of saying: “Obviously I disagree with the other side, that’s how our legislature is set up, but still, I don’t need to be rude.”
Stay with me here but a more useful explanation of this behaviour requires a slight diversion into the tragedy of the commons. This theory doesn’t refer to the House of Commons, although that also can be tragic, but rather to the common areas of farmland used by peasants in pre-industrial England.
Farmers on the commons faced a choice of either a) putting one more animal on the commons or, b) voluntarily restricting their herd. Option a) meant less pasture for everybody’s animals including your own, but still one more animal for you. Option b) meant sitting back while others took advantage. The only rational thing to do was to keep grazing more animals and get as much as you could until the commons were overgrazed to destruction, hence the tragedy part.
When it comes to voting, every person faces a choice of spending time either a) getting informed about politics or, b) spending time on work, family, or leisure. Just like putting an extra cow on the commons, option b) is the rational action for individuals but the worst outcome collectively.
Casting a truly informed vote in a party-dominated system would mean laboriously tracking the behaviour of each MLA and the true results of each policy. It might improve the policy environment but that benefit would be spread across a million people; the cost of giving up other beneficial activities is born entirely by the voter.
The resulting logic is that you’re a chump to invest time understanding day-to-day politics; the logic is built into our system and goes some way to explaining the acrimony in the legislature. Why would MLAs behave with civility when they know the incentives of sensible voters lead those voters to largely ignore politicians anyway?
None of this should make anyone want to abandon democracy. Our peaceful way of removing unpopular governments is probably the greatest single reason for Canada’s success. The alternative is the Fijian way where every few years a new military strong man comes to power by coup d’état and claims that, behold, the last guy who did the same thing was an illegitimate usurper. It would be funny if it didn’t set an entire country and economy back years every time.
Democracy is here to stay as the best way to remove bad governments; that doesn’t make it the best way or even a good way to rely on it to make the greatest range of economic and social decisions in the manner we currently do.
The actual tragedy of the commons was solved by privatizing the commons into what we now call farms. In what now seems obvious, farmers have every incentive to plan their activities and strike a balance between maximizing their output and preserving their land. Similarly, the solution to the tragedy of the legislature may be to return as many of their numerous decisions as possible to the control of individuals where the incentives for informed and rational decision making are back in balance. If MLAs can’t play nicely, who’d want to give them more toys?
If you’re frustrated with the legislature, the quickest fix is to vote for them to do less.
direct the Centre’s Saskatchewan office from 2007 to 2011. He holds degrees in Electrical Engineering and Philosophy from the University of Auckland, where he also tutored Economics. In four years working for the Frontier Centre, David carried out extensive media work, presenting policy analysis through local and national television, newspapers, and radio. His policy columns have been published in newspapers in every province as well as the Globe and Mail and the National Post. David has produced policy research papers on telecommunications privatization, education, environmental policy, fiscal policy, poverty, and taxi deregulation. However, his major project with the Frontier Centre is the annual Local Government Performance Index (LGPI). The inaugural LGPI was released in November 2007 and comes at a time when municipal accounting standards in Canada must improve if the municipal government sector is to reach its potential as an economic growth engine for Canada. David is now a policy advisor in Wellington, New Zealand.