Thursday, March 27, 2003

Berk on Burke

Thursday, 27 March 2003

Edmund Burke's Address to the Electors of Bristol has been on my mind a bit recently. Any idea, however silly, that isn't about the war is a welcome relief at the moment. I first started thinking about Burke's address after reading Trollope's Doctor Thorne which includes a lengthy description of the conduct of an election in the Borough of Barchester. For me, this cast Burke's remarks to his recalcitrant electors in an entirely new light.

Burke's address is supposed to enunciate a principled conservative position on the relationship between voters and their representatives: I've yet to find the "central passage" where Burke clearly enunciates this principle - I keep getting bogged down in Burke's carping remarks about the various accusations that have been brought against him. Having read Trollope's account of an election held several years after Burke's death - a period which saw at least one act of Parliament aimed at electoral reform - I think that there are good grounds for believing that part of Burke's sense of grievance with his electors was that he wasn't getting value for money. Over the years, Burke would have spent a lot of money securing the votes of the Bristol electors and, in some cases, he probably knew how much an elector's vote had cost him down to the last penny. Or, at the very least, someone would be able to tell him.

These days we do things differently - votes are bought by providing schools, hospitals and bowling clubs out of the public purse. This may not be an improvement: public works budgets may be to politics what soap-on-a-rope and horny-as-a-rhino boxer shorts are to Christmas. If nothing else, a return to more straightforward forms of vote-buying would be more economically efficient than trying to win the votes of the many by providing expensive public facilities which, in practice, will only be used by a few. There are probably plenty of voters out there who would rather have an extra few bucks in the kitty on election day than a share in a new gym for the local high school which they don't send their kids to anyway.

The other problem with our modern forms of vote buying is that public works send no clear price signal to either voters or to politicians. A return to simpler forms of electioneering would eliminate this inefficiency. In fact, if some of the institutions which have arisen since Burke's time - such as futures exchanges -were brought into play, it would be possible to arrive at a system which sent very clear price signals to both electors and their representatives at all times. If the member for Bennelong wished to check his standing with his local electorate, he would only need to check closing prices for Bennelong votes on the Sydney Futures exchange. As market price signals are always reliable, much of the needless ambiguity and error associated with opinion polling would be eliminated.

I have a nagging feeling that there's something wrong with this post, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is.

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