Friday, January 04, 2008

In Defense of Iowa

The caucuses are in the books, and before they fade away into irrelevancy’s vast archive (Mike Huckabee is never going to be president), it is worth answering a few criticisms of the caucus process.

The most important criticism is that they are “undemocratic.” Ted Strickland, governor of Ohio, so characterized them (“hugely undemocratic,” lest there be any confusion) right before his candidate, Sen. Clinton, went down to defeat. But the caucuses are not a national election; they are the method the two major parties in Iowa use to choose their delegates to the national conventions, and can be run on any principles, democratic or not, that party officials favor. (The two caucuses actually differ in some ways.)

The idea that every element in modern politics boils down to “democracy” is a gradual evolution (metastasis?) in our body politic. The Constitution was constructed primarily with the partially cross purposes of creating a government that functions better than that of the Articles of Confederation, but which would not grow to strangle, as so many had before it, the people’s liberty. The democratic franchise (extended only to the US House, and with states determining eligibility to vote) was only a part of this package – a minor part, I would argue, next to checks and balances, separation of powers, and federalism. The modern obsession with turning everything in the sphere of government into majority rule is nothing short of a breakdown of the Constitutional bargain, and democracy has no particular place in how parties in one state go about determining their preferences for presidential nominees.

Second, allegedly, the caucuses favor only the most motivated. It is easy to mock the way their arcane rules, and their implicit requirement that someone have several hours of free time to squander on a cold night, mean that only political junkies show up. (See Gail Collins doing this very badly here). But I think it is the sort of people who need artificial inducements to vote, by leaving registration forms in motor vehicle bureaus and public-assistance offices, or through propaganda on behalf of rent seeking-cum-“civic engagement”, who are least qualified to determine our leaders. Frankly, if you didn’t give a rat’s patoot about who the president is going to be until someone hectored you into doing so, you ought to stick to the life you do care about. The more interested you are in the republic’s destiny, the more valuable your participation is. In that sense, the difficulty and deliberative nature of the caucuses is a blessing, not a curse.

It could be argued that the caucuses promote special-interest pleading because their low participation rates make them easy to manipulate by people seeking special favors, but I suspect the opposite is true. The problem with larger political populations in a lobbying environment is that while special-interest benefits may still be concentrated among the few, costs (via taxes or small but widespread increases on consumer-product prices) are spread out among many. Beneficiaries, with large per capita benefits, will have an incentive to lobby the government, while those who pay the freight pay it in very small amounts per capita, and so don’t find it worth their time and other resources to counter-lobby. But in a caucus/primary comparison, the mechanics are different. In a smaller caucus environment, those who oppose such rent-seeking not just because they pay higher prices or taxes but on general principles will still show up, effectively counterbalancing the chiselers. Caucuses benefit extremists, but they benefit all extremists, including limited-government extremists. Primaries, in contrast, hand out decision-making power to all, to those who care and those who don’t in equal measure. In Iowa, that environment on the right favors social rather than fiscal conservatives, but that is a problem of Iowa (with many social conservatives and few advocates of limited government) going first and not of the caucus structure in general.

Finally, the diversity complaint. Iowa is one of the whitest states in the union (as is New Hampshire), and its failure to match up, genotype-wise, with the nation at large is said to be one of its most grievous flaws. In that this argument only considers one type of diversity (racial/ethnic) to be of importance, and that it reduces the act of individual political participation to mindless group dynamics, I think it unworthy of much consideration.


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