Promises and why we vote the way we do

John Blundell in The Business comments on the 2005 UK general election

I SAT out the UK general election in a cabin on a mountain top in West Virginia. Consequently, I think I can claim to have seen Britain a bit more clearly from a few thousand miles away.

Three main groups jostled for our votes by, broadly, promising the usual cocktail of promises..."free" health care, "free" schools, "free" police and jails and "free" roads. These generosities were laced with a few familiar fears...the MRSA bug haunting the NHS's wards, Asylum seekers troubling the Home Secretary, and a wide misgiving that despite the worn mantra of "education, education, education" a high proportion of the "schooled" seem not to be able to read, write or count.

There is a body of economic analysis termed Public Choice Theory which tries to examine both the behaviour of politicians and of voters. Nominally MPs and ministers are anxious to serve their nation. Nominally we want wise and judicious politicians. But just below the surface something else is going on too.

I think I chuckle as much on hearing the well tried joke "A camel is a horse designed by a committee" as I did when I first heard it. Like all good jests it includes a strong dose of truth. The behaviour of committees is worth study.

A scholar who got little reward for his efforts was the Scots economist Duncan Black. He tried to see how committees reach their decisions. Calm deliberation is exceedingly rare. Informally matters are about the distribution of power amongst the participants. Black's work has been refined and extended. James Buchanan got his Nobel Prize in 1986 for elucidating what it is that politicians really get up to...and why we vote, or don't vote for them.

The results of this work are in one sense heavily conservative. Most vote-seeking behaviour is performed by promising to extend public provision of goods and services. In short our politicians are "captured" in a sense by the diverse producer groups. We saw how the electorate-wooing of the last few weeks deviated very little from the standard promises to spend more on schools and hospitals.

If a candidate were to offer more specific bribes he would break the law but also break the spirit in which the game is played. Eighteenth Century scoundrel politicians used to offer a bottle of gin and a fine steak pie for any Rotten Borough elector who put his cross in the right place. The modern politician could not offer a free new conservatory or even a set of cutlery if we voted for him. Yet it is not only legitimate but near obligatory to demonstrate your compassion and moderation by promising ever more to the client groups of the State.

The comedy of "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" are very good primers in Public Choice Theory. We can see Jim Hacker behave as we know politicians behave...seeking out good publicity and evading controversy. We see Sir Humphrey as an authentic echo of the entire public sector...anxious for status, budget, awards and security or as economists coldly term such behaviour "rent-seeking".

We all acquiesce in the polite friction the civil service is dedicated to the commonwealth and "good administration" where as the blunt truth is it entirely lacks the feedback of the marketplace. A retailer, or any trader, has to respond to his or her market. The entire public sector is immune from price information and usually from alternative provision.

One of my favourite maxims is that if subsidies have to be deployed subsidise the customer not the supplier. For example, the British school system would be utterly transformed if vouchers or credits up to the current spending levels were given to each parent rather than to the LEAs. Parents, with the power to choose, would give municipal schools a great jolt. Some would prosper. Some would improve rapidly.Others would fold. As matters stand education supplied by local monopolists is plainly flawed but as it is no