Collective Choice: The Power of Participation
Ensuring that public policy reflects the interests of all people requires participation. “A key characteristic of democracy,” writes Robert Dahl, a prominent political theorist, “is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.” One of the ways that governments respond to the preferences of its citizens is by paying attention to who votes. In recent decades, however, the share of people turning out to vote has decreased in many countries. And in many cases, the decline in voting is marked along class lines. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that those who vote are typically better educated, wealthier, and more informed politically than those who abstain, and these very characteristics have been shown to correlate strongly with certain preferences for redistribution, or the lack of it.
Falling rates of voter turnout, therefore, imply that the preferences of wealthy individuals are over-represented in relation to those of the population in general, which places less pressure on public policy for redistribution. In line with this thinking, academic scholarship has shown a rather robust relationship between the rate of voter turnout and the size of government spending on redistributive policies. These studies have found that higher turnout across countries leads, among other things, to higher top marginal tax rates, welfare expenditure and the political leaning of the party in power, and social spending in non-welfare categories such as education and health. Within countries, various episodes of voter enfranchisement have been studied to show that governments systematically target resources to serve the economic interests of the newly enfranchised group. This appears to be true of African Americans, women, lesser educated citizens, and undocumented migrants.
Put plainly, if those with lower incomes participate less in political processes, then public economic policy is likely to be less responsive to their preferences. Measures to broaden participation in political processes can help ensure that markets are structured to serve the interests of all people. In this respect, it is interesting to note that less than 100 years ago, many industrialized nations had tax rates well over 70 percent. Germany, for example, experienced top marginal tax rates as high as 75 percent in the early 1950s and a 90 percent rate in the late 1940s. The United Kingdom set top income tax rates as high as 98 percent in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, while the United States levied a 91 percent tax on top incomes in the 1950s and 1960s and then relaxed the rate to 70 percent or more throughout the 1970s. Figure A.2 in the Appendix shows trends in voter turnout and top marginal tax rates in the countries that comprise the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). As shown, higher turnout in the 70s corresponded with much higher top marginal tax rates. Since that time, both series have trended significantly downward.
Of course, the foregoing discussion highlights the important role of political participation—electoral participation in particular—in shaping economic outcomes. It goes without saying that this is but one form of participation that we may be interested in. Moreover, the empirical evidence cited demonstrates the correlation between rates of electoral participation and various economic outcomes. In addition to strengthening participation in this way, raising the quality of participation is another issue to consider. Perhaps one of the strongest measures to take in this regard is improving education and access to knowledge. In this respect, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that
“public opinion must be directed toward whatever is worthy of this day”.
Accordingly, He explains: “It is therefore urgent that beneficial articles and books be written, clearly and definitely establishing what the present-day requirements of the people are, and what will conduce to the happiness and advancement of society” and these thoughts “should be published and spread throughout the nation, so that at least the leaders among the people should become, to some degree, awakened, and arise to exert themselves along those lines which will lead to their abiding honor”. “The publication of high thoughts” He moreover explains “is the dynamic power in the arteries of life; it is the very soul of the world.”
Originally published from Baha'i World