John Hopkins’ student government recently ‘banned’ Chick-fil-A, the chicken sandwich fast food restaurant based out of Georgia, from opening a franchise in the school’s new student union. The school’s LGBTQ group and aligning activists hailed the decision as a victory for social justice and democracy despite Chick-fil-A having no immediate plans to open a franchise at John Hopkins. While I completely sympathize with the LGBTQ movement, I question the self-imposed legitimacy of student government, and by extent, democracy. The behavior of student government provides a good case study of how even inclusive political institutions still create anti-social and rent seeking behaviors, problems that plague modern democratic states in the developed and developing world alike.
Student governments like John Hopkins’ claim they act in favor of the majority of the student body, but they typically lack any substantial evidence backing the claim. The banning of Chick-fil-A actually shows how democracies create political institutions that encourage lobbying by special interests while the majority of the population remains uninvolved and/or uninformed of the issues decided. If Chick-fil-A was planning to open a franchise at John Hopkins, it was only because a large segment of the student body wanted a Chick-fil-A, but because of the politicking of the LGBTQ aligned groups, the student government now claims the exact opposite.
A 2012 study in the Eastern Education Journal, “Are You Voting Today? Student Participation in Self-Government Elections” reveals that the average participation rate at colleges falls along the 17% mark. The study sampled approximately equal amount of private and public colleges, but did not give separate averages for the separate categories. Private colleges, which are significantly smaller in size, had on average a 20% greater participation rate than most public colleges, and I would assume that the majority of American college students participate closer to 15% or less in student government. Overall, the picture for democratic participation and civil engagement, characteristics championed by proponents of student government, remain non-existent.
On the contrary, student government fosters an environment for ‘technocratic specialists’ who make decisions for the many by the few. Those involved in student government respond to the select few that engage them, and many students participate in student government because of the benefits gained from the institution, a pattern mimicking democratic states. Acting as politicians, students gain a reputation and respect that can go on a resume, while also providing favors and relationships with peers they assist. The groups that engage the system have everything to gain, and the time invested in student government pays off for them.
Democratic governments provide themselves as inclusive political institutions that attempt to redirect private interest to work towards the collective social good. With any democratic system, legitimacy stems from the assumed consent and participation of its citizens, yet participation remains around 70% for most developing countries. In the United States, this rate drops off closer to ~50% for voter turnout. In turn, only around a third (~25% for US) of the populace ends up determining the winning parties and leaders, poking a major hole in claims of government legitimacy. The results only get direr with lower level elections at the municipal/state and local levels. Public choice theory provides a powerful explanation for this behavior by using economic analysis to explain political activity. At the end of the day, the majority of people do not face the right incentives to encourage political participation. For many voters, working, spending time with family, or just relaxing all hold higher value to them than the act of voting. This mentality occurs for good reason: regardless of how much you study up on your politicians, their records, and potential policies, you only have one vote like everyone else, even those who do not understand the issues at all. When put into context, you as a voter have no real influence on the outcomes of elections, and economists claim this behavior is rational for people to exhibit.
However, for groups that can receive concentrated benefits at the cost of society, paying close attention and putting greater effort into politics can pay off. This difference in incentive mechanism creates a major underlying cause for why small special interest groups can dominate a political system with many citizens. Both public and student government provide us evidence of this behavior through their own versions of special interests and coordination.
It could be worse…
Although better than the majority of political institutions in humanity’s history, democracy still suffers from inefficiencies created by its own institutional framework. Because of the premise behind ‘one person, one vote,’ the power of your vote diminishes substantially with the larger the democracy. This incentivizes rational ignorance in citizens, or students, because the time it takes to be informed on policies becomes costly when compared to working, studying, and spending time with friends and family. Democracy inadvertently creates a system where only those who are invested in issues pay attention, and these individuals manifest themselves into special interests. By manipulating the democratic system, special interests can create a political apparatus that allows political winners to gain at the expense of everyone else in society. This behavior reveals itself repeatedly in the form of agriculture lobbies, subsidies for business, and tax deductions for types of investment and industry. For student government, it becomes organizations who petition against people and ideas they do not like, while the majority of the school favors the idea. Sadly, modern democratic systems, school or government, remain plagued by incentive mechanisms that ensure that the public at large will almost always remain unaware and uninvolved while the vested political interest pull the strings.
In these ways, I find school government as a solid case study for public choice analysis of democracy. While fundamentally different, they are also fundamentally the same in nature. For public choice theorists, the pattern of ‘rational decision making’ by actors in organizations is a vital aspect of the public choice field. People like to imagine that agents of government act as stewards of humanity, and that their motives are completely different from individuals who work in private organizations. Nevertheless, I am sure you all know that representatives in student government are anything but selfless. Why should government and larger democratic systems be any different?