Voter Conflict of Interest

In situations where a member of a board or committee has a conflict of interest on a particular issue, it is considered ethical for that person to abstain from voting.  Perhaps it’s time we apply this same standard to our democracy, and restrict recipients of government benefits (and government employees) from voting whilst receiving these benefits.

This would reduce conflict of interest, and might even stop politicians trying to buy your vote (since if you accept, say, a first home-owners grant or baby-bonus, you’d be ineligible to vote during that electoral cycle).

This might sounds strange at first, but it makes sense the more you think about it, and is consistent with the views of John Stuart Mill.  In his words:

“It is also important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed.  Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every motive to be lavish and none to economise.  As far as money matters are concerned, any power of voting possessed by them is a violation of the fundamental principle of free government; a severance of the power of control from the interest in its beneficial exercise.  It amounts to allowing them to put their hands into other people’s pockets for any purpose which they think fit to call a public one; which in some of the great towns of the United States is known to have produced a scale of local taxation onerous beyond example, and wholly borne by the wealthier classes…”

“I regard it as required by first principles, that the receipt of parish relief should be a peremptory disqualification for the franchise.  He who cannot by his labour suffice for his own support has no claim to the privilege of helping himself to the money of others.  By becoming dependent on the remaining members of the community for actual subsistence, he abdicates his claim to equal rights with them in other respects.  Those to whom he is indebted for the continuance of his very existence may justly claim the exclusive management of those common concerns, to which he now brings nothing, or less than he takes away.”


45 thoughts on “Voter Conflict of Interest

  1. An ignorant argument to be sure.

    To deny voting rights to citizens based on their receiving benefits is to ignore the fact that every citizen receives benefits of some kind. The wealthy are wealthy for the coercive power of the government allows them to be. They enjoy the power of the police force to provide power to the rule of law that stops their neighbour from robbing them. They drive on public roads supported by taxes obtained from all citizens. They were likely educated in schools that received some kind of funding from the government. The list goes on and on.

    To enforce such a concept and limit it to a handful of the infinite amount of services provided by the government would be extremely unjust. Not to mention, such a program would be a recipe to undermine the legitimacy of a government which relies on the will of the people to allow it to exist and prosper.

  2. Every citizen receives communal benefits, but not every citizen receives direct cash.

    The real emphasis of John Stuart Mill, was that those who don’t pay tax shouldn’t get to decide how to spend it. I certainly wouldn’t call JSM’s arguments ignorant. He was the progressive of his day, and it’s the persuasive arguments of people like him that have helped ensure the (almost) universal suffrage we have today.

  3. It may be a bit harder to tell under our system of churn, but there are a considerable number who pay considerably less than they receive in direct handouts.

    Of course, with GST and sales taxes, even the poorest pay something at some time (incidentally, this was also recognised by JSM – who felt that direct taxes on individuals were preferable since they weren’t hidden, “so everyone might feel that the money which he assisted in voting was partly his own, and that he was interested in keeping down its amount.”)

  4. Fair enough, but the point is still a valid one. The poorest in this country, being heavier smokers and drinkers, likely end up paying more tax as a proportion of income than you might think.

    To apply such a concept to Australia today simply would not work. Those hidden taxes you speak of are part and parcel with our system of government. For example, if a mechanic must pay to become licenced the cost of that licence passes down to the recipient of his services. Couldn’t this be considered taxation of sorts? Where do you draw the line?

    A completely unworkable idea IMHO.

  5. I don’t like this idea at all. It makes sense until you realise that it’s the government that will be deciding who is eligible to vote and who isn’t. That sort of discretionary power is unacceptable. We already disqualify several classes of people from voting, e.g. certain criminals, people of unsound mind, etc.

    A better way to achieve a similar result is to lobby for voluntary voting. That way lots of people uninterested in politics would not vote. Many of these people might currently be voting based on who gives them the largest taxpayer funded bribe. Voluntary voting would also increase the influence of people who are politically active.

  6. Unworkable or only workable by leading to an outcome whereby people can fiddle with their taxes and the arbitrary outcome of this determines who can vote and who can’t. And how is this to be policed? It might change from year to year for each person depending on how savvy they are or become. Of course you’d argue some people wouldn’t bother – in which case why not just introduce voluntary voting and leave it at that. That allows self selection to almost achieve the same outcome. What really is the marginal benefit of doing it more perfectly by having to change the electoral roll every so often?

    Plus it would only make libertarians look bad for a very marginal improvement in governance in any. Plus what Sukrit said.

    Better to focus on introducing voluntary voting and creating the right institiutional incentives for smaller government through competitive federalism. some rabbit holes are just not worth diving into.

  7. and btw the most effective advocates of a bigger welfare state are not on the dole, they are people who earn 200 grand or more a year. some of them are even bloggers.

  8. The way this could work is to allow people the option of “declaring dependency” on the state — where they then receive direct government welfare and forfeit their right to vote. This would be easy to enforce, and it is individuals (not the government) who determines who does and doesn’t vote.

    This idea will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming CIS publication.

    I think it’s a good idea. But I think voluntary voting is a better idea and more important.

  9. I like the thought experiment and would like to add a version of my own. How about the concept of obtaining additional votes via a tax liability. For example for every $2000 an individual pays in taxes (lets simplify it and just do income, I am aware there is also a heavy VAT) they obtain an extra vote. Pay $20,000 a year in income taxes and you get 11 votes. I don’t understand why in government everyone only has a single vote yet pays disproportionately to fund the outcome of the election. Hell in business ownership the people who own more shares of a company have a larger say in company operations and to obtain those shares they probably had to purchase them at one point.

    The idea being that as government taxes certain people more and more they now want to use these extra votes to restrict government spending and taxation. Granted this system, like all political systems, can eventually be exploited but I would just like to throw the thought experiment out there.

  10. An extension to this might be true proportional representation, where you get more votes in proportion to the amount of tax you pay. Those who pay the most tax should have the most say in how it is spent.

  11. A good idea, but which politician would be brave enough to advocate it? “You’ll get the same services as now, but you won’t get to vote!”. The average person might well think, “I don’t like being told to vote, but not being able to vote sounds unfair!”
    When Mills proposed it, it might have been feasible to implement it, but these days it would mean a loss at the polls.

  12. Come on now, someone like Packer might choose to pay more tax to maintain his stifling media oligopoly.

    That is actually classical oligopolist behaviour – the preference of certainty of profits over the rate of return.

    I think this is a bad idea even before we get to the obvious point it is not sellable. A better idea perhaps is a taxpayers Senate. I think fairness and efficiency of such a system still depends on efficiency and fairness as preconditions – as a bunch of whinging libertarians would agree does not exist.

    Just have voluntary voting. Restricting franchise isn’t intertemporally considerate.

  13. fleeced makes a valid point, which is the issue of why would any govt propose reducing its size when so many voters would lose out. this is a valid criticism of democracy today. i dont believe the answer lies in restricting the vote – Mark’s idea of a separate taxpayer Senate is a better one.

    However, why anyone pins any hope on voluntary voting is beyond me. It will make absolutely no difference whatsoever and is a red herring. The UK has voluntary voting – and yet its state is nearly twice the size of Australia’s and it now employs or pays welfare to 51% of its electorate.

    Compulsory voting may be illiberal but it prevents extremists from dominating govt – i am very happy knowing that agnostics like my wife are being forced to vote.

  14. Shem — you seem to think that democracy is better than feudalism. Why? The benefits of the last few centuries came from liberalism, not democracy.

    Democracy means that two people can tell a third person how to live. Freedom means each person decides how they live. They are not the same thing, and freedom is infinitely better than democracy.

    As for salability — who cares. If we can only talk about currently popular ideas, then we won’t have much to talk about.

  15. Democracy means that two people can tell a third person how to live. Freedom means each person decides how they live. They are not the same thing, and freedom is infinitely better than democracy.

    This is something that needs often repeating… Our notion of western democracy is more than simple majority rule. Reading the Declaration of Independence, you can see democracy in that context was simply a means to an end. They saw the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as fundamental rights – and that democracy was therefore necessary to hold government accountable in ensuring these rights.

    I’m sure you all know this… it’s just that over many years of constantly promoting “democracy”, we’ve got to a stage where it’s promoted for it’s own sake. When Bush “spread democracy” to Afghanistan, he left out the important aspects of liberty – so now a muslim can be sentenced to death for converting to Christianity, or a journalist can be sentenced to death for circulating pro-freedom information from the Internet.

    There’s more to democracy than purple thumbs, and there’s more to democracy than majority rule.

    For the record, I don’t believe in the multiple votes idea suggested in these comments… and in truth, I’m not sure the initial idea would work in practice either – but I like the idea in principle – and look forward to hearing what the CIS has to say on the topic.

    I’ll respond to some of the other individual points made in separate comments, when I have time.

  16. Well there are a lot of old age pensioners who don’t pay taxes and receive benefits. Try stopping them from voting. JSM is living in a different era he can’t be taken at face value, otherwise we might as well take the bible literally.



  17. @19, maybe you should enlighten us as to you thoughts regarding the superiority of of feudalism? I would have thought it’s demise and almost total absense as a political system today would indicate that it was unsustainable.

    “Democracy means that two people can tell a third person how to live”
    A gross exaggeration. There are all kinds of things that protect people from oppression, take freedom of religion, it’s off limits as far as the state is concerned in all democracies . You are confusing freedom with free will I think.

  18. Patrick, I disagree that taking JSM at face value is the same as taking the bible literally. JSM is not making faith based arguments, but is making quite logical statements.

    The problems you and others point out (eg, old age pensioners, etc) is essentially that the welfare system is too well entrenched. I agree – but I don’t believe this is a good thing. Had we followed JSM’s advice in the beginning, it may not have been so well entrenched… he was precisely trying to avoid the situation we now find ourselves in. Can we unwind the welfare state? Should we try?

  19. @22 – John didn’t state the feudalism was superior – he simply questioned the conventional wisdom that democracy was always better. As I pointed out with my Afghanistan example – without liberalism, it is not.

    “There are all kinds of things that protect people from oppression, take freedom of religion, it’s off limits as far as the state is concerned in all democracies”

    Clearly false, as I’ve already shown. These freedoms come from a liberal constitution which ensures individual liberty – a constitution which binds both people and government (even a popularly elected one). Of course, these values are meaningless without a government to back them up, and it’s my view that democracy is the best method of holding that government to account – but you would be very much mistaken in thinking that democracy as an ends unto itself is always a good thing.

    PS: Which nimrod put a comment limit on the ALS blog… it says I’m commenting too quickly. Shouldn’t at least the author of the article be exempted?

  20. Fleeced- A very good idea. Also the ‘declaring dependency’ concept by the above poster.
    Of course those living on government benefits must include all who receive benefits without returning a service: farmers who tend to perpetually receive emergency farm relief, academics and ‘artists’ who receive government grants, those on a disability pension, small business owners in certain relief situations, etc
    I think you’re going to extremes to take their whole vote away when the issue is only about welfare. Dole bludgers still have the right to be heard on issues of crime, the environment, censorship, foreign affairs, etc. Would not a more acceptable situation be that those who are to be categorised as ‘dependents’ be removed from their normal electoral rolls and instead placed in special electorates (drawn anywhere that would cover 90,000 dependents) where the winning election candidates have restricted parliamentary voting privileges.
    In fact all Australia’s electorates would then have to be redrawn so as to retain 150 equally populated electorates, eg. 110 normal and 40 so called DEPs.
    Those new ‘DEP’ MPs would not be allowed to vote on any type of appropriations bill where the govt was not getting a service in return, but otherwise could vote on non-fiscal issues of public concern.

  21. No exageration Patrick… 2 people telling a third what to do is exactly democracy. Freedom of religion is a wonderful idea — but it is not a democratic idea, it’s a liberal idea.

    We have had liberal democracy for a while, and so some people are confusing the two issues. But they are not the same.

    Feudalism is no good either if it is not liberal. And it’s not relevant if it is liberal. Like all government.

  22. The point of democratic voting ought in my mind to be about creating some sense of public good which politicians are expected to work towards during their deliberations over what to do or not to do. Take the most perfect set of libertarians and appoint them to run the country as a dictatorship and I’m sure they would soon enough lose touch with notions of the public good, which they profess their philosophy should maximise, and instead drift off towards more earthly objectives (like self gratification and agrandment). Of course for a time the commitee of libertarian wise ones might hold it together but ultimately they too are also just human. Of course being human they may also get lazy and tend more towards neglect which is half way towards lassiez faire and not necessarily an entirely bad thing.

    Ways in which we should restrict the vote:-

    1. Restrict the apathetic by making it voluntary.
    2. Restrict the foreign by making the delay on citizenship longer (eg 12 years in Switerland).

    Other than that I’m quite happy with every citizen over 18 being allowed to have a vote. The problem with democracy is not so much with faulty voters as it is with entrenched limitations on choices and poor voting systems (eg first past the post in England). And of course with elected governments not being adequately limited constitutionally. In essence voting assigns too much power merely because there is too much power sitting on the table to be assigned.

    Excluding groups (eg children) from political access only really works when the political insiders (eg adult voters) have a significant degree of empathy and regard for the outsiders and where the outsiders see the barriers to political access as delayed rather than perpetual. The idea that you can exclude the poor from political access without disruptive consequences ignores somewhat the history of revolution and the very messy alternatives to voting. Especially in western cultures with strong democratic traditions.

  23. Pingback: Why Democracy? « LDP

  24. Giving the state the power to pick and choose who gets to vote is not libertarian, nor is it liberal or democratic. Best to limit the role of the state and to allow voting to be voluntary. When the state is small and has little discretionary power to dramtically change the circumstances of any given voter, then the only point of democracy is to vote out bad governments, not elect the best pork barrellers.

  25. Best to limit the role of the state and to allow voting to be voluntary

    Brendan – the whole point of fleeced’s post is that this just aint going to happen with the present vested interests. allowing voting to be voluntary will achieve precisely nothing.

  26. Proposing massive electoral reform to rig the game is not libertarian. You want to jerrymander the electoral role to enable only those who may already agree with you the ability to vote. Why don’t we just come out and declare that our solution is a one-party state (LDP natch).

    The fight is to convince people that liberty and freedom are inherently good and the most utilitarian solution to promoting the common wealth. I don’t the game is rigged against us, I just think that we have a very hard sell. But in the long run, selling the idea of small government and continuing to sell it is a much better and more likely to suceed than to use benevolent authoritarianism to achieve libertopia.

  27. “Giving the state the power to pick and choose who gets to vote is not libertarian, nor is it liberal or democratic.”

    They wouldn’t be able to decide on a whim (otherwise I might agree)… they could offer people money – but it would be up to the individuals to accept it.

    Your objection to the idea seems to be with possible side effects of a bad implementation. Any serious policy on the matter would obviously need to address these issues.

    “When the state is small and has little discretionary power to dramatically change the circumstances of any given voter, then the only point of democracy is to vote out bad governments, not elect the best pork barrellers.”

    That seems an incredibly naive statement to make. Firstly, government isn’t small. Secondly, it isn’t small precisely because people vote based on vested interests. That’s OK – people should vote on vested interests – and yes, pork-barreling works. Had the vote-restricting proviso been part of the deal from the beginning, then maybe government would have remained small…

  28. “You want to jerrymander the electoral role to enable only those who may already agree with you the ability to vote.”

    On the contrary – I agree with JSM that taxes should be levied as broadly as possible, so that suffrage would be as universal as possible.

    I do however agree with Phillip James’ comment that welfare recipients should still have a say on non-spending issues… I can’t really think of an easy way to separate these though.

  29. Of course we don’t Fleeced, but denying our opponents the vote is not the way forward either. Even given the status quo of big government, we are getting richer, if at a slower rate than we potentially could. If we steadily get richer, government steadily becomes less of an issue for us. We send our children to private schools. We buy private health insurance. We employ private security services. We drive on private roads and live in private estates.

    At some point enough citizens will be rich enough such that the state will be struggling to come up with consumers who will be willing to use their services, even if a vast majorit think that the state has a role to play in providing them.

    Our wealth will make the state irrelevent, and promoting policy that encourages wealth creation is much easier than trying to convince the electorate to vote for freedom. Once this tipping point is reached, the state will naturally recede. We should promote policies that

    1. maximise growth
    2. minimise state interference in civil liberties
    3. minimise damage of the welfare state

    All this can be done in the current framework, even if libertopia is never acheived.

  30. Our wealth will make the state irrelevent…Once this tipping point is reached, the state will naturally recede.

    Huh? what evidence exists for this? The State is getting bigger in every country you care to name – and the rich ones are no exception.

  31. Huh? what evidence exists for this? The State is getting bigger in every country you care to name – and the rich ones are no exception.

    Kind of, yet not. It seems to me more like the state is trying to watch over more of our behaviour and engineer it- yet is allowing us to do more. Tariffs have been removed a lot of things have been privatised, there’s a lot of stupid old laws regarding sex and race that have been abolished- marijuana and gay marriage are likely to be legal in my life time. Overall I’d say people have more rights now and there is less regulation- despite a bigger state. If anything I see the world heading more towards a Scandinavian direction. It could be worse than that (could be better, too).

  32. Shem, how can there be less regulation, and we have a bigger state? And are you aware that the Scandinavian countries are moving away from the Scandinavian direction- Sweden is trying to reform its’ welfare system, because it’s getting too cumbersome?
    The world not only could be better, it should be! Who first said, “Plenty of philosophers have tried to describe the world. The point, however, is to change it!” (He has a grave in London)

  33. Nicholas- a government can either regulate or tax.

    A high taxing (ie big) government can be a low regulating government. A high regulating government can be low tax.

  34. Shem – the State is indeed trying to watch over our behaviour more and more – fingerprinting, CCTV and biometric identity cards for starters. Yes – tariffs have come down and industry privatised – great news for all. But the trend is for more interference (e.g. Swan’s bullying of the RBA), more nannying (pokie bans, ciggy bans, binge drinking bans, junk food bans etc etc), less personal responsibility (did you see the demands for those who leave employment of their own accord to still be entitled to the Newstart Allowance !!), and more regulation.

  35. The nanny state is primarily what motivated me to investigate libertarian ideals. If we can fight stupid laws and fight for civil liberties for all, while at the same time promoting liberalisation of the economy, then life will get better.

    The state consumes 30-40% of the GDP not because of regulation and nanny statism, but because of the provision of services and social security. 60% of the state’s spending is on social security, welfare and healthcare services.

    Wealthy people don’t shop at public healthcare providers, nor do they educate their children at public schools. They’re also not satisfied to rely on the dole, so they get employment insurance, mortgage insurance, they provide for their own welfare. Lets get rich so that private providers of “public” services can out compete the state and thus whither away half.

    Neither fighting the nanny state or promoting liberal economic policies require changes to the fundamental voting system in Australia. Beating ourselves up that people are selfish and will vote themselves pork is counter-productive. Let’s get them so rich that the pork the state has to sell looks like second class offcuts.

  36. Mark-
    True, but irrelevant. All governments expand. Even Thatcher’s government ended up bigger, despite privatisation.
    Brendan’s comments about the rich not falling for pork-barrelling is not provable. We are, in fact, immensely rich compared to 100 years ago, and the pork is still being believed, after all! Any change would be too long-term for us now.

  37. Nick,

    Do you have health insurance? Do you, or would you, send you children to private school? Do you rely on the state for funding your retirement? The wealthier you are, the less direct interaction you have with the state for many things.

    I don’t doubt that going down the path of the welfare state was wrong, and that Australia would be richer and more free if we hadn’t, but we can’t undo the past. People have come to rely on the state for many services, and only when they have the wealth to opt out of the welfare state will they act to minimimise the state in other ways.

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