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By Glenn Harlan Reynolds : BIO| 15 Nov 2020
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So the elections are over, and happily my fears of last week weren't borne out. A cynic may say that it was because the Democrats won, but for whatever reason there weren't major complaints of fraud or miscounting. That said, I hope that these issues will get addressed more thoroughly before 2008.

But enough on that topic, which I've been hammering on for a while. This week I want to explore a feature of electoral turnover that doesn't get enough attention: Its effect as a limit on political parasitism.

We always hope, when an election rolls around, that the better candidates will be elected. It often seems, however, as if it's a choice between dumb and dumber, or crooked and crookeder, or something equally unappetizing. This leads some people to wonder why they bother voting at all. But it just may be that voting and elections have benefits that go beyond just selecting the right candidate.

As I argued in a law review article some years ago (you can read it here), democracy serves some of the same interests that sex does.

Evolutionary biologists, I noted, have only recently begun to appreciate the importance that parasites play in evolution. That makes sense: Predators are visible, and when they kill and eat their prey it's pretty dramatic. But when you look past the surface, it turns out that predators are vastly outnumbered by parasites, and the arms race between parasites, which try to adapt to get around their host's defenses, and their hosts, which try to make life tougher on parasites, turns out to be an important one.

This, it is thought, explains why sex is worth all the trouble and expense. (Explains it at the species level; we all know why it's worth the trouble and expense at the individual level. . . .) Reproducing by fission is easier, cheaper, and conveys virtual immortality -- but a population that reproduces by fission is an army of clones, and a parasite that's well adapted to one population member is well adapted to them all. Sexual reproduction, by jumbling up genes every generation, forces parasites to try to adapt to a moving target, giving the host organisms an advantage that justifies all the metabolic energy they put into this more troublesome form of passing on one's genes.

My thought has been that elections play the same role for the body politic that sex plays for the body physical: Every so often, the voters throw the rascals out, and vote in a new set of rascals, meaning that the special interest groups, lobbying outfits, etc., that parasitize the body politic have to adapt to a shifting target. As scientist Thomas Ray has said, one rule of nature is that every successful system accumulates parasites. The American political system has been successful for a long time.

It's not perfect, of course -- neither is sex, since parasites remain a problem -- but it does mix things up and help prevent special-interest relationships from becoming too fossilized. When the Democrats come in, Republican interest groups lose influence, and vice versa. The question is, does it mix things up enough?

Power tends to corrupt. The new guys always promise reform, but -- as the history of the "Republican Revolution" of 1994 suggests -- those promises generally don't get as much attention once the new guys are in power themselves. Mixing things up via elections helps, but -- especially when there are only two parties to choose from -- it may not stir the pot enough over time.

This makes me wonder if we don't need some additional anti-parasitic measures. But what kind of measures?

Two proposals that we often hear are term limits and campaign finance reform. The former may have some merit -- particularly in light of gerrymandered House of Representatives districts that tend to make turnover less likely. The latter, it seems to me, is more likely to foster parasitism than limit it: If you make donating money to politicians complicated and obscure, the process is likely to be mastered by people who have the incentive and ability to deal with complicated and obscure laws.

Transparency would seem like a good idea: Making it easy for people to find out what politicians are doing for whom, and what they're getting in exchange, is likely to have a strong anti-corruption effect, and likely to enhance the turnover created by elections. This suggests that information on who's behind every legislative provision, and who's getting contributions from whom, would be very helpful. So would amending the Freedom of Information Act to ensure that it applies to Congress.

Will we see anything along these lines from the new Congress next year? I hope so, but -- even though Democrats ran against the "culture of corruption" in Washington -- don't hold your breath. Still, politicians respond to pressure. So if there's sufficient attention to the issue, who knows?

If not, I think that we may see a renewal of pressure, a la Ross Perot, for a third party. And it's possible that technology and the Internet will facilitate the growth of third parties in ways that weren't previously possible. Perhaps having a third party in the mix will enable us to mix things up more.


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