America’s Constitution enshrines the principle of democracy that was brilliantly described by Abraham Lincoln as “government by the people, of the people and for the people”. As part of the constitutional process, the nation elects the Executive and Legislative branches of our government, whose main task is to protect the nation from external enemies, to create a state of union where people can prosper and grow, and to implement specific structural and social projects that the private sector may find financially prohibitive to execute. Politicians make election promises to the public in order to win elections. Promises have been part of election folklore for centuries, and are also prone to be broken once the victor is elected to office. The public, more often than not, knows that most promises will not be kept. But ironically, this knowledge turns to real distaste and voter apathy not necessarily because a promise was broken, but instead when there are unintended adverse consequences of a politician trying to keep a promise with an eye towards the next election.
A typical election promise is to lower taxes, have more social programs and yet somehow balance the financial budget. There are several reasons why politicians make such promises. First, a political party that does not make exaggerated promises can appear to be uninteresting, idea-less and bereft of transformational leadership compared to one that does. Second, the public wants to hear more good news than bad, and it is therefore an election ploy to paint the rosiest of possible futures rather than the dire consequences of worst-case scenarios. Third, in today’s 24/7 media and informational world where it is difficult to edge in too many words at one time, it is easier to please the public with a simplistic grand promise within a pithy, 30 second sound bite. Fourth, government finances are extremely complex and abstruse, and it is therefore relatively easy for a smart politician to make an idealistic but adequately vague promise and yet not get caught either by the media or the public when numbers do not add up. Finally and most importantly in America, unlike the Westminster parliamentary system where all powers reside in the office of the Prime Minister and voters know where to ascribe the blame for broken promises, the power in our presidential democracy is more diffused and ultimate responsibility more difficult to pin down. For example, an American Presidential candidate can freely make a promise of a large tax cut knowing very well that the House or the Senate may never agree to make this a reality. Promises, therefore, are the basis for political election campaigns, and play an important role in local, regional, state, and national electoral races.
The bigger problem of course is when a politician actually keeps his promise but does not adequately understand its unintended policy consequences. For example, John McCain co-authored the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform act in order to “keep million dollar checks out of our elections”. Independently funded Super PACs were the unintended consequences of the campaign reform bill. Election funding has more than quadrupled since passage of the McCain-Feingold act, reaching dizzy heights, ironically, during the McCain-Obama Presidential election of 2008.
President Obama’s universal healthcare law, a system of organized health programs to be implemented by government fiat, is one such example of a well-intended program with contradictory consequences. The program’s central purpose was to provide health care coverage to 35 million uninsured people in our society and to prevent insurance companies from refusing insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions. For example, it institutes a system of fines on companies that do not provide its employees with insurance coverage. This one statute has a ridiculous unintended consequence. A small company which earlier provided insurance coverage for their employees at say a cost of $2 million per year, can, under the new law, elect to discontinue employee medical insurance and instead pay a fine of $0.7 million to the federal government. Therefore, in this case, both companies and the government will benefit but at the cost of poor people who pay taxes. It is also possible that in order to implement universal coverage, future taxes may have to increase, while federal spending on defense, housing, and education may have to be cut. There is a possibility of drug prices going up, and pharmaceutical companies being dis-incentivized to invest in medical research and drug development. In such cases, therefore, resulting consequences may outweigh the societal benefits attributed to universal healthcare.
In conclusion, promises made by politicians to constituents serve to get them elected to office. The public gives some latitude to broken promises under exceptional circumstances, for example, to engage the military on foreign lands after the 9/11 incident. However, other instances of broken promises, like George H. W. Bush’s famous “Read my lips. No new taxes” pledge back-fired when he was forced to raise taxes during the recession that followed the election. But the negative consequences of promises kept, however unintended, ironically cause more harm than good and tend to remain in public memory for a long time.
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