Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Tyranny of the Majority

I have been contemplating on the nature of democracy recently, and it strikes me that there's a fine line seperating democracy from its less desirable peers. In all forms of government, abuse of power is a concern. In democracy, we often worry about our elected officials abusing their office, but we seldom fret about we, the people, doing the same.

What do I mean by that? We love to crone about the influence of money on politics, yet as a polity, we vote on issues where you have an equal say independent of how much the action will cost you. I have ranted previously that contrary to the rheoteric, the rich in America pay a disproportionate share of our taxes. The top 5% that Democrats love to crone about pay 30% of their income in taxes, while the lowest 25% wage-earners pay less than 5%. Why should politicians get to pander to that larger voting block promising freebies, paid for by the smaller voting block? To borrow an analogy from a columnist I can't remember, that would be like you going to a bar and offering to buy a homeless man a drink, and asking the bartender to put it on the tab of the guy across from you.

But the tyranny of the majority stretches past taxes. Think of our medicare system. In a free society, we each should be allowed to make choices, and part of me really dislikes restrictions on smoking or other behavior. If you want to kill yourself, you go right ahead.

But hold on a minute! Unfortunately, it isn't quite as simple as that. Medicare (ok, humanity too, but I'm trying to be economic here!) means I do care about your actions. There was a woman on the news who wasn't thrilled about KFC's recent decision to eliminate trans-fats, worried it might compromise the flavor of the dishes she loves. Good for you, woman... unless you are on a medical assistance program. Overweight and obesity problems cost over $75 billion a year, and over half of it is paid for by Medicare and Medicaid (source) Given that under 10% of the population uses this benefit (in insurance terms) paid for by the entire taxbase, one could argue there's some justifiable outrage at the frequent visitors to your neighborhood artery-clogging fast food joint. The same holds for smoking, which it has been estimated costs Medicare over $20 billion.

By the way, I'm not suggesting that fat people are always guilty for their fate. However, it does help to pause and think about the issues in this light. Democrats would do well to consider the fairness of their proposals on spending and taxes. Republicans may want to consider that their policy avoiding restrictions on businesses that kill, while consistent with a society where individuals make decisions for themselves, fails to take into account that we as taxpayers are having one major decision made for us - the decision to fund other people's behavior.

No comments: