Mastering the art of Democracy

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 19 February 2021

A couple of weeks ago, in this place, I wrote about my humbling experience playing the new politics simulation Democracy 4. Running a country successfully and getting re-elected were near impossible tasks, I concluded.

Shortly after we published Insights, Twitter user @brijo247 sent this helpful hint:

“I’m yet to master Democracy 4, and as @oliverhartwich writes, it can be difficult. But my free tip for D3 is to slash superannuation, add a winter fuel subsidy and pump up tech spending. Works a treat.”

Intrigued, I returned to my laptop. These were not the policy choices I would have made. But hey, if the purpose is to get re-elected, who cares if my decisions make any sense?

Once again, I chose Australia as my political battleground. But this time, I did not mean to run it well. All I wanted was to stay in power.

For a start, I established that winter fuel subsidy. Then I showered the country with tech grants. However, I didn’t touch pensions because pensioners are voters too.

As it turned out, Australians warmed to me. Encouraged, I continued my spending spree. No initiative was too insignificant not to enjoy some extra dosh – even causes I did not care about in the least.

The budget deficit increased, but that was only the beginning.

People like their handouts, but they do not like paying for them. So I cut taxes. Well, I abolished them. No income tax, no corporate tax, no sales tax – all gone.

With revenues of about A$10 billion left, I now had to fund A$110 billion of expenditure. My quantitative easing programme came in handy.

While my economic advisors were in despair and ratings agencies downgraded the country to BBB, my popularity soared.

Next up was political management. Where I previously selected my cabinet for competence, I now went by loyalty alone. Big difference.

I also discovered the art of the media stunt. I ate breakfast in a builder’s café. I fought judo with the special forces. I got filmed feeding a baby lamb. I wasted no time on policy.

The election campaign was fun, too. I spread optimism and promised everything. I had no intention of keeping any of that. So what?

Democracy 4 was impressed with me. I unlocked the ‘Subsidy Sam’, ‘Successful Liar’ and ‘Spotlight Junkie’ achievements.

Better still, voters re-elected me twice. By the third term, my popularity was as stratospheric as the country was bankrupt.

I had turned into a born-again Hugo Chávez – and mastered the game of Democracy.

For a public choice-trained economist, it was not all too surprising. Just very depressing.

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