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George Will / September 21, 2014

Cashing in on Voting

The pursuit of perfection is usually foredoomed, but the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, which has a latitudinarian understanding of ethical behavior, has a perfectly awful idea. It is urging the City Council to consider ways of paying – starchier ethicists might call it bribing – people to vote. Some ideas are so loopy that they could only be conceived by governments, which are insulated from marketplace competition that is a constant reminder of reality. And governments are generally confident that their constituents need to be improved by spending the constituents’ money. The supposed problem for which the “pay the voters” idea purports to be a solution is this: Few Los Angeles residents are voting.

The pursuit of perfection is usually foredoomed, but the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, which has a latitudinarian understanding of ethical behavior, has a perfectly awful idea. It is urging the City Council to consider ways of paying – starchier ethicists might call it bribing – people to vote.

Some ideas are so loopy that they could only be conceived by governments, which are insulated from marketplace competition that is a constant reminder of reality. And governments are generally confident that their constituents need to be improved by spending the constituents’ money. The supposed problem for which the “pay the voters” idea purports to be a solution is this: Few Los Angeles residents are voting.

Especially alarming to those who choose to be alarmed is the fact that only 23.3 percent of those eligible to vote did so in last year’s mayoral election. Well.

Since the days of Hiram Johnson (1866-1945), who was governor 100 years ago, progressivism has intermittently made California an incubator of dubious ideas. One of which is that government should fine-tune political partisanship – disagreements about how government should behave. If this looks like a conflict of interest, you have not embraced progressivism’s default assumption, which is that disinterested government has only the interests of “the people” at heart.

Los Angeles, in order to get things just right, has a nonpartisan primary. In it, all candidates of all party affiliations for a particular office are listed together on primary election ballots. If no one receives a majority, the top two finishers then face each other in a runoff election. The rationale for this system, which is favored by people whose moral micrometers can measure such things, is that there is “too much” partisanship which produces “too much” polarization.

Los Angeles is a one-party city in a one-party state. It is a state in which one power – organized labor, especially government employees’ unions – is the dominant political force, no matter who is chosen to govern from a coterie of candidates representing faintly variant shades of progressivism.

Predictably, the March 2013 mayoral primary produced a general election choice between two progressive Democrats. Predictably, this did not produce a stampede to the May runoff. So now Los Angeles’ problem is too much apathy. Reformers’ work is never done because their ideas have such unanticipated (by them) caroms.

Now, partisanship is surely healthy: People have different political goals and sensibilities; like-minded people cluster; we call these clusters political parties; in our two-party system, their polarity defines the competition for power. But fine-tuning partisanship to produce just the right amount of polarization requires subtlety beyond the ken of most of us. Progressivism, however, is all about bringing to bear on society the fabulous expertise of a disinterested clerisy.

Although the ethics commission is sad that so few Angelenos are expressing their political opinions, the commission should cheer up. Not voting is an expression of opinion. Democracy is a market: Political products are offered; people examine them and decide whether to purchase this one or that one. Or neither, which is often a sensible decision after careful scrutiny of progressive Tweedledum and progressive Tweedledee.

Obviously, some level of financial enticement would draw to the polls a significant number of those who hitherto have not been moved by normal political exhortations or moral shaming. (“Men left bloody footprints in the snow at Valley Forge in order to secure your right to select the candidate you prefer from a pair of progressives.”) Whether the city, in its parlous financial condition, can afford this expenditure is a decision to be made, alas, by the political class that got the city into its condition. But when making the cost-benefit calculation, that class should ask: What benefit might result?

Regarding voting, more often means worse. If money is necessary to lure certain voters to the polls, those voters will lower the quality of the turnout: They will be those people who are especially uninterested in, and hence especially uninformed about, public affairs. Why is it intelligent public policy to encourage their participation?

One suggested measure to conquer nonvoters’ lassitude is to create a special lottery and give everyone who shows up at the polls a chance to win, say, $100,000. Lotteries thrive on the irrational hopes of people not thinking clearly about probabilities, which is why governments love lotteries to raise funds. And why there would be nice symmetry in using a lottery to further decrease the reasonableness of our politics.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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