October 19, 2016

Donald Trump and America's Incomplete Contract with Itself

Writing about web page https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2016/press.html

Last week's Economist has three articles that struck me by their connections. One of them looks at how US presidential candidate Donald Trump is undermining the unwritten rules of American democracy. Another deals with the business of outrage -- the money being made by political entrepreneurs selling racism and conspiracy theories. And a third examines the work of the 2016 Economics Nobel winners. That's where I'll start.

This year’s Economics Nobel was shared between Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström. (At Warwick we’re proud of this because Hart has two Warwick degrees, an MSc from many years ago, and more recently an honorary degree.) It turns out that the field of research that Hart has pioneered can throw light on the disturbing state of American politics.

Hart’s central contribution has been the idea of an incomplete contract. A complete contract writes down how the parties are to share the gains and losses arising under all circumstances. When the possible contingencies are too many and too varied to foresee them all, the contract is incomplete. When unforeseeable contingencies arise, there are unexpected gains and losses, and these have to be allocated among the parties. Who should gain and who should lose? Re-reading the contract does not help. Instead, the parties have to take responsibility for renegotiating their partnership. Hart pointed out that the possible outcomes depends on the relative bargaining power of the parties. In turn, telative power depends on many things, including resources, information, customs, beliefs, values, and incentives.

In that setting, how do unwritten rules arise? When the parties bargain with each other in mutually predictable ways, it is because they are following unwritten rules. If the rules they follow are consistent and agreeable, the partnership underlying the contract can persist in a state of harmony. An everyday example of a partnership based on unwritten rules is marriage. The marriage contract is always incomplete. On marriage, you promise to love and cherish each other for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, till death you depart. But exactly how you should do that under all circumstances cannot be written down in advance. There will be many unexpected blessings and tragedies that must be shared or shouldererd. To deal with these situations, marriages that last generally evolve unwritten, even unspoken rules that the parties follow to maintain harmony.

Another example is democracy. It turns out that democracy too is an incomplete contract. That’s generally the case, even for a country like the United States that has an apparently robust written constitution. The constitution has the written rules. These state who can play the game of democracy, how to tell who has won and who has lost, and the limits on what the winner can do. But it does not dictate the spirit in which the players should play the game. Just as a bad but not technically unfaithful spouse can undermine a marriage by violating its unwritten rules, a bad politician can undermine democracy without breaking the letter of the law.

What are the unwritten rules of democracy? The written rules are clear enough. In a democracy, when society is divided, victory goes to the side that can muster a majority (or a plurality). In a democracy, victory is always temporary. The majority party governs for a term. These are the written rules, but they are only the start. They imply, but do not requre, the spirit in which the competing parties should play the game. The spirit of the game is that it is never played for keeps. The ruling party should not aim to limit the rights of the minority or entrench itself at their expense. Between elections, the minority must be free to oppose, to criticize, to try again to mobilize a majority and so win the next time. When this works, it has an interesting result, one on which we place too little value. This is that every election has low stakes. It is the opposite of winner-takes-all. The election decides who rules for a few years, not for a thousand years. The winners do not take all and the losers do not lose everything.

In the outcome, democracy is based on a conjuring trick of self-fulfiling expectations. When politicians and their followers expect an electoral contest to be low-stakes, they becoming willing to accept defeat. Because defeat is temporary, and not too costly, they do not try too hard to win, for example, using threats and bribes. And so they become willing to keep within the unwritten rules of democracy, and these in turn sustain the written rules -- the constitution.

You can see this clearly if you think for a moment about politics without democracy. Without democracy, the stakes are always terrifyingly high, because politics is deadly. We won? Be afraid. You lost? Go to jail, or go to hell. In contrast, democracy has this magic property that it makes politics polite: We won? During our brief term we will seek to govern for everyone. You lost? Thank you for the contest. The low stakes might be the single most important reason to prefer a democracy.

For democracy to work, most people have to subscribe to the unwritten rules. But developing those unwritten rules was historically a long and difficult process; embedding them in the societies of western Europe and north America took centuries. Although the rules took so long to create, they can be torn up relatively easily. Today the US constitution may look robust, but the shared beliefs underlying it are threatened. In the election campaigning, the threat is expressed in the high stakes that the parties attach to victory over defeat. Donald Trump has said that, if elected, he will seek the prosecution and imprisonment of the loser. If not elected, he will not accept the result or postpone his hopes until the next election. Rather, he will reject the outcome, claiming that it is “rigged,” leaving his angry followers to take the law into their own hands.

Now it goes without saying that corrupt politicians should go to jail, and ballot-rigging should be exposed, especially in a democracy. But it undermines the unwritten rules when a candidate for executive office campaigns as prosecutor, judge, and jury. In turn, to allege corruption and ballot-rigging, whether for electoral advantage or to make money, breaks the same unwritten rules. It does this by raising the stakes. The stakes can hardly be higher when one of the campaigns threatens to take all in the case of victory, or to take up arms in the case of defeat.

American politics is becoming high-stakes in a way that has not been the case since the Civil War. The atmosphere is eating away at the incomplete contract of American democracy. Free speech, even lying speech, is a core value of democracy, meaning that no law can make politicians tell the truth, or protect voters from their lies. There is no solution other than the self-restraint of politicians and the good sense of the electorate.

But this is no time for European self-congratulation, for the same has been happening across Europe. In the best outcome, it will take many years for the West to recover.


- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. John C. Andrews Jr

    While candidates belong to parties when they run for office something changes when they attain office. They still operate withing the framework of their party but now they are responsible for all people living in their district, State and Nation. Including those belonging to other parties. The need is cooperation to find a win-win situation for everyone. It is not to gain advantage for one group which penalizes everyone else. When the other side is demonized such cooperation breaks down and threatens the existence of our republic. The period leading up to the our Civil War clearly demonstrates this break down. All of our candidates should be prepared to work together for the common good and to unify us in tolerance and mutual respect.

    20 Oct 2016, 18:39

  2. Mark Harrison

    John: As a citizen, I agree. As a social scientist, I can’t help but note the following. In the long run, a healthy democracy can be win-win for the community. In the short run, an election is always win-lose for the candidates. Donald Trump is just the latest in a long line of candidates for office to have discovered that there can be votes in dividing the community on lines of intolerance and contempt for some, the opposite of what you recommend. My final point was to say that if that wasn’t an option, we wouldn’t be living in a free society.

    21 Oct 2016, 11:19

  3. Paul Thompson

    My apologies for being late to the game, but I would like to put forward the view that democracy is not a contract at all. Democracy is rather a system of values, of which freedom of the individual is the most important. Therefore, democracy imposes obligations on its adherents, which these adherents can attempt to express through a contract, but which will never be limited to the terms of the contract alone. Therefore, the stakes in a democracy are always catastrophic, because the majority in any democratic society must always be prepared to bear new or unusual obligations in order to preserve freedom. Modern Western democracies were founded by people who fully understood this and who sought always to safeguard democracy by the systematic use of force against the adherents of slavery. From the Dutch Watergeuzen to the Ukrainian activists on the Maidan, democrats always imposed their system of values by the weight of superior force. This force was rooted in an ideological mobilisation of the populace, which was made to understand that slavery is intolerable among man. The needs of modern Western societies can thus be simply expressed: to make the absolute priority of freedom clear to the majority and then to mobilise this majority to use overwhelming ideological and physical force against the enemies of freedom.

    10 Jan 2017, 18:07


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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