This section was inspired by Jonathan Swift's (1729) "A modest proposal". It's occurred to me that we have problems today that are in many ways as perplexing as those that faced the Ireland of Swift's day. In the hope that I can, in my own small way, contribute to the dialogue that these problems evoke (at least those that attract sufficient notice), I'm going to take advantage of this site to put forward occasional modest proposals and comments of my own.
The most important feature of the proposal that I'm presenting
here is that it would eliminate the elections themselves. However,
the campaign would start out in the same way as heretofore: Candidates
would announce for the respective offices and begin to solicit
campaign contributions (not necessarily in that order, of course).
It's at this point that the first difference appears. Instead
of the contribution going directly to the candidate's campaign,
it would go into an escrow account. The candidates would presumably
do no advertising, or at least whatever advertising they chose
to do would be directed--not at the general public--but at potential
sources of campaign funds. (And of course, it couldn't be paid
for with funds in the escrow account).
At the appointed time--presumably the traditional election day--properly
constituted authorities would certify the amount contained in
each of the escrow accounts, and for each office the candidate
with the largest account would be declared the winner. Then all
of the money in all of the escrow accounts would be transferred
to the Treasury--presumably to be applied to reducing the national
This system appears to offer at least three advantages over the
First, it would spare the nation the demeaning campaign process.
Second, it would make a considerable contribution to reducing
the national debt.
Third, it would remove the present ambiguity about who the official's
constituents are. Thus, the official would no longer be confronted
with a dilemma about how to keep voters in some electoral district
appeased while meeting the expectations of the contributors. In
fact, it seems possible that districts might be eliminated altogether,
although that probably shouldn't be undertaken without further
study of the possible consequences.
The principal objection that I anticipate might be raised against
the proposal would be that the public would be denied any voice
in the selection of the governing officials. In response I would
First, the election process is unpleasant for the majority of
voters. A large percentage of them don't vote at all. Many of
those who do vote (who're often referred to as being more "conscientious")
find it very difficult to evaluate the candidates (especially
since their characters are more or less effectively disguised
in the advertising agencies' efforts to "define" them
for the purposes of the campaign) and feel genuinely burdened
by the responsibility. Certainly many of this group would be relieved
to be able to cast off the responsibility of struggling to avoid
being outsmarted by people whose profession it is to outsmart
Many of the rest of those who vote appear to regard voting more
as an outlet for venting feelings or an expression of solidarity
with the supporters of a particular cause than an assumption of
any part of the responsibility for the government of the nation.
Voters in the last category might object to being denied a "voice",
but it's hard to see the loss of their voices as a matter affecting
the welfare of the nation as a whole.
Second, I would argue that the results to be expected from the
proposed electoral system wouldn't be very different from those
under the old system of voting. It's true that the role of campaign
managers, "handlers", and advertising experts would
be eliminated, and that these can have some effect. It's true
that sometimes clever campaign strategists can come up with what
are called "issues" that turn enough voters away from
the richest candidate to swing an election. (I'm thinking of such
issues as the so-called "mediscare" issue in the 1996
presidential election or the Willy Horton issue in 1988). However,
I'm not sure that the role of issues in the choice of officials
has played a constructive enough role in the past to justify the
cost of maintaining the old system. In any case, the candidate
with the largest campaign contributions will usually have the
best experts and therefore usually the cleverest issues.
[Incidentally, I'd argue that the potential unemployment of the
people who manage the campaigns shouldn't be a matter of concern.
Advertising and other forms of opinion manipulation so permeate
modern society that the demand for people with such skills is
well-nigh insatiable (and if it weren't, they themselves should
have the very skills that would be needed to manipulate that demand).]
How would such a change affect the role of the media? The media,
of course, have attempted to give some reality to electoral campaigns
by making them appear to be something like imitation sporting
events. That is, they talk about who's ahead, which stratagems
are proving effective, what the trailing candidate's strategists
may be planning to attempt to improve their position, etc. However,
I see no reason why the same kind of reportorial analysis might
not be applied to money raising--which interests the candidates
are seeking to represent--what kinds of promises they're making
or hinting at, what kinds of problems loom ahead when they try
to balance the interests of one big-contributor constituent against
those of another. (In fact, this kind of focus might well give
the public at large a better idea of whom the respective candidates
will be representing than the present kind of coverage with its
concern with strategies for lining up voters).
[In any case, I don't think any potential unemployment of people in the news media should be a cause for concern. They could continue to practice their customary analytical skills on jury trials, the legislative process, foreign relations, etc. If all of that somehow failed to be enough, they might be able to devote even greater resources to reporting sporting events themselves.]
There is one point that I haven't attempted to decide: namely, should foreign governments be allowed to make campaign contributions to U.S. candidates? In favor of allowing this is that it would provide another source of money which might further reduce the national debt. However, there is the objection that there are a few countries (although not many) whose economies are so large that their gross national product exceeds that of even the largest multinational corporations. To permit them to contribute would be to permit government to compete with the private sector (a "no-no"). We've been repeatedly told that it's not good to let governments interfere with the operation of market forces.
Maybe the best solution is to wait a couple of years more until the leading corporations have surpassed even the largest national economies. Then we can throw the door open wide, confident that the corporations will rule unchallenged.
|Home Page||The Ethnolinguistic Notes||The Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 1 and 2||Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 3||The Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 4||Reflections: Language Evolution|
|Reflections: Knowledge of Language||Personal Page||The Human Predicament||Why Write Unpublishable Things?||Modest Proposals||Odds and Ends||Pictures|
Put on the Web 11 May 1997
Last updated 11 May 1997