What Libertarians Must Learn from Duverger’s Law

What Libertarians Must Learn from Duverger’s Law

A recent episode of Michael Malice’s “Your Welcome,” featuring guest Dave Smith, lamented Libertarian Party politics. Malice notably despises the party and made a great point that it is easier for libertarians to get elected and make some noise from within either the Democratic or Republican Parties than to change much through a third party—namely, the Libertarians.

One reason for this unfortunate circumstance of American politics is Duverger’s Law. In the 1950s, sociologist Maurice Duverger noticed that electoral systems with plurality, single-member district (SMD) voting tended to have two dominant parties. As we know from our civics lessons, the 435 members of the House come from such districts. The Senate is similar, with one Senator being chosen at a time, even though there are two per district (state).

The one politician elected in any one district needs to get a plurality of the votes. The second, third, or fourth party in the contest receives zero seats. Accordingly, a party that finishes third consistently and uniformly across the board will find itself with zero influence in the legislative process. Consider the thought experiment where there are three parties in the U.S. Let’s say the Libertarian Party garnered 20 percent support from across the country, while the Democrats and Republicans split the vote 40/40. Even though the LP might have huge support evenly across the country, the LP would win precisely zero seats if that same proportion existed in each district. In reality, there are geographic pockets of support for Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians. But you get the picture.

Third parties are disadvantaged in a system like ours because voters do not want to feel like they are throwing their votes away for a party that they know will lose, and it is difficult to garner a plurality of support in any one district to elect one representative to try to make a splash in the legislature. Even in SMD systems where strong third parties do take hold—like with the Liberal Democrats in the UK—their influence is far less than their actual support across the country. It would be better for third-party support to be concentrated in one region of the country rather than spread thinly and evenly.

Contrast this process with a proportional representation system (PR), where the number of seats given to a party is proportional to the number of votes cast for that party. In our example above, the Democrats and Republicans would each be awarded 40 percent of the seats, and the Libertarians would be awarded 20 percent of the seats. Under PR systems, Duverger noticed, multiparty legislative bodies tend to emerge.

This law can explain a lot about American history. With a few exceptions, American politics has been characterized by two dominant parties. These parties have changed forms, but the Republican/Democrat split has been fully entrenched—or institutionally sticky—for a century and a half.

I am writing this piece because it seems like a lot of LP optimists are decreasingly so and without a reason for their misery.  Lest the LP completely overtake the Republican Party or the electoral system is completely overhauled to a more PR system (Germany has a mixed PR/SMD system in the Bundestag), there is little hope in any significant electoral progress. Granted, there is a burgeoning movement that seeks to use the LP as a public relations instrument for the liberty movement. These words do not speak to that wing, but we should know that the electoral system itself places all third parties at a disadvantage from the get-go, despite the noble efforts of getting ballot and debate-stage access.

Scott Duryea is Associate Professor of Security and Global Studies at American Public University.  He can be reached at sduryea@protonmail.com. He also hosts the Freemix podcast.

Trump saved Carrier! But what does that mean for the economy?

Trump saved Carrier! But what does that mean for the economy?

At this point, we don’t know exactly how Donald Trump was able to convince Carrier to cancel its plans to relocate operations in Mexico. But even before Trump takes office, he’s been praised for keeping his campaign promise for saving American jobs.

What does this mean for the overall economy, though?

We have to look at why Carrier would want to move in the first place. Carrier saw in Mexico a cheaper place to produce air conditioners and other goods. Relocating naturally would have meant the loss of 1,000 American jobs. So, the protectionists and economic nationalists assume that 1,000 people can retain their wages and spend them on consumer goods to further push the economy forward.

But we have to look at the unseen effects of this inaction.  Carrier would have been able to produce air conditioners more efficiently and at less cost. Say, for example, a consumer could buy an Indiana-produced air conditioner for $2,000.  Also say that the price of air conditioners would drop to $1,500 by moving operations to Mexico. A consumer could then buy an air conditioner and have $500 left over to spend on something else (which would increase demand elsewhere in the economy and thus expand production and employment in those sectors) or save the money and increase capital for other businesses to produce more and employ more workers.

Mind you, the jobs would not have simply disappeared if Carrier moved. They would have just been shifted to a different part of the economy, namely in Mexico. The 1,000 American Carrier employees would feel the short term consequences of the move and may have to be retrained in some other manufacturing skill. But, there will be a net gain in jobs created in the economy as a whole as production expands in other industries because of the increased efficiency and lower consumer price.

But, again, we can’t offer a complete analysis without knowing what Donald Trump promised Carrier. If Trump promised some sort of competition-limiting government intervention such as subsidies, increased import tariffs, or government contracts, then the consumer will not benefit. The government would be preventing firms from taking advantage of the cheapest production processes or extracting resources from consumers in the form of taxation.  However, if he promised a reduction in overall taxation or of previous government intervention, then production costs would legitimately fall, and efficiency of production could be restored to the point where it would no longer make financial sense to move production elsewhere.

The news stories abound with rhetoric of “saving jobs.” But, as Henry Hazlitt warned in Economics in One Lesson that we must look at the effect of this policy on everyone in the whole economy, rather than looking at one individual or one group in the short term.

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