About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

The Primacy of the Median Voter

Published in The Edge Malaysia, 6 - 12 October 2014.

If it was not apparent by now, I am a strong believer in Economics and the lessons that economic theory can teach us. Certainly, in social “science”, theory does not always hold up in practice – if ever – but theory provides us with the capacity to know where to start looking for issues and, thus, solutions to issues. In this essay, I use a well-known result called the Median Voter Theorem to frame one possible way that the nation can move forward vis-à-vis the Sedition Act.

The Median Voter Theorem comes from the realm of Public Choice Economics, which aims to apply the theories and methods of economics to the analysis of political behavior. The Median Voter Theorem states that “a majority rule voting system will select the outcome most preferred by the median voter.” It makes two important assumptions. The first is that voters can place all election alternatives along a one-dimensional political spectrum. In the case of Malaysia, this seems like a reasonable assumption. We only have two serious election alternatives and one can certainly posit that they lie on a spectrum though on different ends (unfortunately, it is not clear to me why they almost always take opposite sides of nearly every issue – if both sides are moderate, should we not logically find more common ground?). The second assumption is that voters’ preferences are single-peaked, which means that voters choose the alternative closest to their own view. This also seems like a reasonable assumption in general.

The logic of the theorem is straightforward. If political parties care about winning the election, they have to try and capture as many voters as they can and thus, by the second assumption, they have to provide voters with an election manifesto that is as close to as many voters’ views as possible. If we assume, quite reasonably, that voters are normally distributed (like a bell curve) or even uniformly distributed along the political spectrum, then any party who strays too far from voters at the philosophical center will be unlikely to win the vote. Since the “median voter” sits squarely in the middle of public opinion, a significant move by a given party to either the left extreme or the right extreme of the political spectrum would enable the rival party to take a more moderate stance and thus capture the votes of citizens who are less (right or left) extreme. Thus, we should expect both parties to move as close as they can to the median voter as they can to capture the moderates and the extremes (recall that the extremes do vote and they will still vote for the alternative that is closest to their view) and thus provide election manifestos that are similar to one another.

Of course, we do not see this in Malaysia. The election manifestos of both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat – our two election alternatives – are very different. There are reasonable explanations for this. For one, it is just a matter of differentiation; parties do not want to be seen as having the same policies, their struggle depends on showing how their set of policies are better than their opponent’s set of policies. Another reason is simply that the Median Voter Theorem just does not hold in Malaysia. I argue, however, that it does. The reason that the election manifestos are so far apart is not because the Median Voter Theorem does not hold but rather, it is because there is incomplete information and different presumptions by both parties as to “who” exactly the Malaysian Median Voter is.

Both BN and PR want to win the elections. Both parties have politician and advisors that are, for the most part, politically savvy and smart. Thus, it would make complete sense for these parties to design manifestos which, while still (hopefully) based on some underlying ideals and principles are most likely to win them the election. We should not discount the possibility that any political party in the world – including BN and PR – would be willing to “massage” their political manifestos to cater to different sets of voters which they believe will help them win elections. If so, then BN and PR are looking for the Malaysian Median Voter and design their manifestos as such.

Given incomplete information – since no one but God and Google knows everything – it stands to reason that different parties may have different conceptions of the Median Voter. BN may believe that the Median Voter approves of the GST or the Sedition Act. PR may believe that the Median Voter does not. After all, if every voter is against, say, the Sedition Act, and the Sedition Act is an important policy of interest in elections, it makes no sense for BN to continue postponing the abolishment of the Sedition Act. Prime Minister Datuk’ Seri Najib Razak would not have said that the government would not rush into replacing the Sedition Act with a new law before studying all relevant aspects. In fact, if the Median Voter did want the Sedition Act abolished, politically expedient parties would hasten the abolishment of the Sedition Act.

It is true that the government may say that their moves are above politics and that the decision to postpone the abolishment of the Sedition Act is one of benevolence and harmony preservation. I am happy to grant them that benefit of the doubt, but I think we should not rule out the alternative; that there are pockets of Malaysians who the government believes may be the theoretical “Median Voter” who do support the non-abolishment of the Sedition Act. If we are to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people, then we should own up to the possibility that a fair share of us, the rakyat, may indeed be supportive of the Sedition Act.

If the Median Voter Theorem is right, then the key to amending any policy, including the abolishment of the Sedition Act, is civic education and engagement among the rakyat such that that policy is what the Median Voter supports. Civic education and engagement therefore becomes the policy lever to protect Malaysia’s peace, harmony and stability and not necessarily laws and Acts. After the May 2013 General Elections, Dr Nungsari Radhi and I, in an article for the Edge, called for a “national reconciliation” following the very “fractious elections.” I strongly believe that the Median Voter can be the catalyst to such a reconciliation by virtue of bringing the political parties closer together – at least in their manifestos – via civic education and engagement.

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