Shutdown shows the Tyranny of the Minority

Alexis de Tocqueville was wrong. Last night’s US government shutdown showed the tyranny of the minority, not the tyranny of the majority.

A year ago, I began an alternative election roadtrip through the US heartland. It was shorter and a lot less incisive than the peripatetic Frenchman’s. I attended Tea Party rallies. Of all the things I failed to appreciate before hitting the road, the bottomless pit of hatred towards “Obamacare” was the most apparent. For those of us born in a country where public healthcare is the feted norm, this may seem bonkers, especially since it affirms the current private insurance model. But it is true.

ā€œIā€™m more scared about the future of our country than at any point in my lifetime,ā€ one woman told me. ā€œI believe the president is taking us in a dangerous direction. I believe he has a hidden agenda, which is frankly socialist.” Hers was one of several such statements.

Many people I met felt that the law was the political manifestation of their worst fears. Compared with the implementation of “socialism”, for a minority of Americans the idea of shutting down the federal government is probably a panacea. Indeed for some, it is a Randian experiment worth trying. I cannot help but feel that some dreams are coming true. The shutdown is the ugly yet logical consequence of the Tea Party’s ascent.

Tocqueville feared the effect of the overbearing masses of American politics. James Madison spotted this, too. In part, shared sovereignty between states and the national government, and the balance of powers, was designed to protect America against the mob.

However, the structure of American government also makes last night a case study in some of the problems identified by public choice theory. Scholars such as Mancur Olson pointed out that, contrary to the idea of a “tyranny of the majority”, a small group can defeat a larger group when the personal incentives of the former’s members take it in a different direction to the common interest.

It is easy to look at national polls – a slim majority against “Obamacare” and a fat majority against a shutdown – and become confused. But consider the incentives of the incalcitrant House Republican or Senator Ted Cruz. There is little perceived personal downside to shutting down the government. So long as it proves popular in a gerrymandered district, where primary elections are all important, the media is bilious and biased and super-Pac money abundant, why does the national impact matter? (Conversely, this is one of the reasons why Senator Cruz would struggle to win a national race.)

After Barack Obama’s second presidential election victory, the idea that the Republican party would need to move to the centre to win nationally in 2016 became commonplace. Some progress has been made, by reformists at the state level, and indeed by some libertarians such as Rand Paul. But the shutdown shows that this will continue to prove difficult when enough voters genuinely want it to happen and when there are few perceived costs to enough politicians when it does.