One of my friends disagrees with my thoughts on the MP expenses scandal in Britain. I’m not entirely sure, but I believe that part of our difference of opinion starts at a disagreement over what it really means to be a politician.
So here is my question to the world at large (yes, I recognise that it might be a false dichotomy): Is “politician” a job title just like any other, or is being a politician to have some sort of sacred, noble trust? Is there is something more to the role than simply maximising the returns to your constituents or the country as a whole?
Let me propose a thought experiment (for any American’s in the audience, parliament = congress and MP = representative).
Suppose we change the law so that a) voting for your representative to parliament is mandatory; b) each member of parliament represents exactly the same number of people; and c) in addition to electing a representative to parliament, everybody is permitted to vote directly on any matter brought before that parliament. If you choose to vote directly on an issue, then the weight of your representative’s vote is decreased proportionately. In this way, we would have the possibility of anything between 100% pure direct democracy and standard representative democracy, depending on what people choose.
How many people would choose to vote directly on some issues? How many on every issue? Clearly the answer is that we’d have a distribution. Some people would vote directly on everything, some would do so occasionally and some never at all.
So what do we make of that distribution? I’ll grant that I’m thinking like an economist here, but I think it’s a perfectly normal, mundane choice between trade-offs. Should I pay attention to the debate on fishing regulation or should I do something else? Everybody faces a different combination of available options, preferences over those options, incomes and relative prices between those options, so any range of attention to parliament might emerge.
In that situation, choosing to not vote directly is entirely equivalent to taking your shirts to the dry cleaner or hiring a maid to clean your house once a week. It’s an economic decision like any other, which in turn makes “politician” just another service industry job title like “financial adviser” or “maid”.
[Side note: This scenario is currently my ideal. If I could, I’d have MPs paid per parliamentary vote per person represented, with a negative hit to anybody that introduced a bill to parliament so as to discourage frivolous votes.]
Update (1 June ’09): Put another way, why should a backbench opposition MP, who has only an abstract and indirect power over my life, be subject to more stringent ethical standards than the person performing heart surgery on me, who has direct and absolute power over my life?