Winner-take-all elections for executive offices create high-stakes electoral conflict that distorts policy-making and constitution-making behavior. When the stakes are high, so long as it increases the chances of victory, office-seekers seek to shift perceived benefits toward and burdens away from potentially pivotal participants. This can entail the strategic allocation of spoils, the strategic selection of public policies that mobilize one’s base or divide the opposition, the strategic shifting of benefits into the present and costs into the future, and the strategic deception of the uninformed. This paper proposes a “turn-taking institution,” an electoral system in which the whole term is only awarded to a sufficiently inclusive supermajority coalition; if no coalition qualifies, the plurality winner and the runner-up take alternating one-year turns for the length of the term. This institution lowers the stakes of electoral conflict by roughly an order of magnitude, and fosters the formation, enforcement and adaptation of mutually productive policy-making and constitution-making behaviors. Critically, these results hold up even when voters and policy-makers are impatient, and when only short-run commitments are possible.
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Scapegoats make diagnosing and solving problems a relatively simple matter. In politics, the undesirable output of a complex system (e.g. a rising price) may be the “true villain” for whom or for which the scapegoat (e.g. greedy merchants and/or an ethnic minority) is made to cover. For a bias to exist, scapegoats need not be entirely innocent, just marginally more innocent than they are perceived and/or treated.
Indeed, we can frame majority rule (or plurality rule) as a special case of this mechanism: the case where the threshold required to win it all is a majority (or plurality).
As an example of a relevant variation omitted here: rather than an absolute threshold of 60%, we might consider a rule where the 1st place team must be at least 1.5 times the size of the 2nd place team to win it all. When there are only two parties, this is equivalent to the 60% absolute threshold; when there are three or more, this version has the virtue of awarding the whole office to any party that stands out enough from the others.
Two other prominent examples are the presidency during the Frente Nacional in Colombia (1958–1974), and the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (1958–2006).
Alternative measures of the “good” would be highly correlated here. The improvement could be reckoned in terms of, for example, the magnitude of supermajority consensus, of economic growth rates, of life expectancies, or of the spread of basic political freedoms.
Both teams of elites may offer a similar “core” of productive public policy that lifts these absolute payoffs above a historical baseline, while still maintaining the marginal differentiation that drives policy conflict.
This is a take-off of the famous description of Buchanan (1972) of “public choice” as an attempt to see “politics without romance.”
This is the sense used by Hardin (1999), who draws on David Hume, David Lewis and Thomas Schelling.
James Buchanan devoted the second section of the first article published in this journal, “The Domain of Constitutional Economics,” to this point (Buchanan 1990: 7–9).
This definition of impatience as some level of time discounting comes from Elster (2007: 154).
This is equivalent to a Markov perfect equilibrium, a useful solution concept for modeling choices by ruling coalitions insofar as it captures the difficulty that such coalitions have in making binding commitments. As Acemoglu and Robinson (2006: 153) put it: “the advantage of the concept of Markov perfect equilibrium is that it incorporates the commitment problem in a simple way: given the state of the system…each party plays the best strategy for itself, irrespective of any promises made before or how the game was played in the past. Therefore, this equilibrium concept already builds in the commitment problem: all players know that each will play whatever is in their interest in the future.”
For a discussion of the how folk theorem is used (and abused), see Gintis (2009: 216–217).
It would be straightforward to adjust the account to allow for quasi-hyperbolic discounting, but it would not qualitatively affect the results here.
The stream of payoffs within the electoral-political context would be different than the choice between a lump sum and a stream of dollar payments, a point made by Brennan and Buchanan (1985: chapter 5).
Here we restrict our focus to the case where players choose 4 years at a time, and their choices are revealed as soon as they are chosen. This greatly simplifies this exposition without qualitatively changing the results. In Durant and Weintraub (2010), players choose 1 year at a time (which happens to be equivalent to the case where they choose continuously).
A different paper (Durant 2010) proposes the application of the “divide and choose” algorithm to decide turn-length within the term in a way that reliably zeroes out the stakes entirely for office-seekers. The 1st place candidate chooses to be Divider or Chooser. The Divider divides the term into two pieces, and the Chooser picks which piece he prefer. In equilibrium, most candidates (and citizens) are likely to be roughly indifferent between the pieces, so that the marginal benefit of being in 1st place is roughly zero.
This would further lower the stakes by limiting the “additional benefits” available to winners.
Even if the incumbent is eligible as a candidate, it would patently unfair to allow him to win it all when his opponent has more votes, though not enough votes to meet the threshold.
See Colomer and McClean (1998) for a history of the deadlocks arising from electing the Pope by a supermajority rule. Often this meant re-running the election dozens or even hundreds of times. Rules emerged to make the process increasingly uncomfortable in order to hasten agreement: locking the cardinals in the “conclave” (meaning “under key”), restricting their access to personal staff, rationing their food, requiring them to sleep in cramped and austere quarters, etc. This is not an approach that can be used to resolve deadlocks in large electorates.
The weight of the second and fourth years is d + d 3. This makes the additional weighted win-share from winning the supermajority (d + d 3)(1 − d), whereas with a winner-take-all election it would be (1 + d + d 2 + d 3)(1 − d). When d = .85 (or .75 or .95), this makes the stakes of the move into or out of the supermajority phase roughly 46% (or 40 or 50%) of a winner-take-all election.
This would be true insofar as (1) elites have diminishing marginal utility for non-policy and policy benefits alike, (2) elites predominantly care about non-policy benefits of holding office that would not double in the supermajority phase, (3) the policy benefits of preventing domination in the turn-taking phase are greater than those of dominating in the supermajority phase.
Notably, emigration allows individuals to choose the history of governance of the polity they choose to inhabit.
A third option is to build a win–win supermajority consensus. This is likely to be similar to finding win–win opportunities through alternating mutual accommodation.
Elsewhere, I intend to argue that the demand of mass-level citizens would shift back as well.
As it happens, while the theoretical norm is to suppose that the whole term of the office-holder is evaluated, empirically it seems that the several months before the election are given dramatically more weight (Achen and Bartels 2004).
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I would like to thank Tyler Cowen, Pete Boettke, Rob Axtell, Mike Munger, Mario Rizzo and David Harper for their criticism of many drafts. The seminar participants at the Colloquium on Market Institutions and Economic Processes at New York University provided many helpful comments. Counsel from Virgil Storr, Michael Weintraub, Ilya Beylin and Taylor Durant has been invaluable. I gratefully acknowledge support from the Earhart Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and the Searle Foundation. This paper is dedicated to the memory of my grandfathers, Richard Durant and John C. Sparks.
See Fig. 7.
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Durant, T.C. Making executive politics mutually productive and fair. Const Polit Econ 22, 141–172 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10602-010-9097-1