Ripple Effect: Democracy and agriculture, Part 2

The act of drawing electoral districts prioritizes rural interests. For example, in the United States, the Democratic Party has a built-in disadvantage in legislative elections because most of their support is inefficiently concentrated in urban areas. There are many lopsided districts where Democratic candidates receive overwhelming support. All votes above the 50 percent mark are essentially wasted. There are then relatively fewer Democratic voters in less urban districts. In short, the geographic concentration of urban voters weakens the power of their vote, while the geographic dispersion of rural voters increases theirs — even though the districts are of roughly equal population.

It stands to reason, then, that just as rural voters are more powerful, so too are rural interests — above all, agriculture.  This logic holds true in just about every democracy where representation is determined by geographic districts, but is especially relevant for the United States, where representation is extremely spatial.

In America, every one of our states gets two senators, regardless of population. This means that your political power is largely determined by where you live. The vote of a Wyoming resident is more powerful than that of a Californian. It is technically possible to elect a Senate majority with just 17 percent of the national popular vote.

The Electoral College illustrates the same dilemma. Recent history has demonstrated that it is quite possible to win the U.S. presidential election by winning key states, i.e. geographic areas, rather than the largest section of the population.

This lopsided electoral power can explain the spectacular success of America’s agricultural lobby. Both the agribusinesses they represent and the voters whose livelihoods depend on them are spread across a vast geography, greatly enhancing their political power. While relatively concentrated industries like steel, textile and car manufacturing have declined domestically, American agriculture has successfully resisted the pull of international comparative advantage — cheaper labor, land and capital overseas.

The political and economic logic of massive agriculture subsidies is not unique to the United States It is a feature of practically the entire developed world. The geographic power structures which keep American, European and Japanese agriculture competitive have also kept farmers in the least developed nations poor.

I do not write this as a condemnation, but rather as an observation. Rural voters can hardly be blamed for voting their livelihood, especially since rural regions, despite their outsized political power and the government largesse they receive, tend to have weaker economies than their urban and suburban counterparts. Nor can elected representatives be faulted for promoting the well-being of the businesses their constituents rely on. That is their responsibility, after all.

This is not a story of individuals so much as of a system in which nearly everyone involved can justifiably feel they are doing the right thing while still causing suffering. Only by changing the spatial biases of our democracies can we address political, economic and moral incentives which appear to keep so much of the world in poverty.