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Sunday, October 31, 2010


The Mayor Project--A Matter of Encompassing Interests

Election Day is rapidly approaching and with it one issue that has particularly caught my attention: the Mayor Project (Initiative 300). This initiative advocates a change in the structure of the Colorado Springs city government from a Council/Manager format, where an elected city council appoints a city manager, to a Mayor/Council format, where the citizen body directly elects a mayor. Proponents of the initiative tout the democratic nature of a popularly elected mayor over the current “undemocratic” processes of appointing a manager. However, reading and critically considering Mancur Olson’s books has led me to question this conclusion that would otherwise seem quite benign.

In chapter 1 of Power and Prosperity, Mancur Olson states that “the more encompassing the interest…the less the social losses from its redistributions to itself” (18). In other words, if a leader/government represents an encompassing organization, it will tend to promote a more productive society: citizens will be incentivized to produce more, and leaders/governments will tend to redistribute less. Thus, there will be fewer net losses. In The Rise and Decline of Nations, Olson’s fifth implication generates the same general idea: “Encompassing organizations have some incentive to make the society in which they operate more prosperous, and an incentive to redistribute income to their members with as little excess burden as possible” (53).

Ultimately, the Mayor Project advocates a change from a more encompassing interest to a less encompassing interest. If a mayor is popularly elected, he must, in theory, remain accountable to only a slight majority of voters. In actuality, he does not even need to remain accountable to this majority. Since voters remain rationally ignorant, he can and will represent special interest groups rather than the city as a whole. On the other hand, if a manager is appointed by the council, he must remain accountable to the council and, therefore, to the city as a whole. Assuming the council is not corrupt or run by any special interest groups, he cannot be as influenced by prospective special interests because they are not the ones voting him into office: he will not benefit in any direct way from representing special interests. An appointed manager is therefore more accountable and will ultimately promote a more productive society than a popularly elected mayor will. Thus, this idea that Initiative 300 will somehow result in a “better” society is, in actuality, misguided. The city of Colorado Springs will, it seems, be more prosperous under the structure of government currently in place.

This was a great post. I also have reflected upon initiative 300 in a similar fashion, although when I first received a flyer in the mail, it was an attempt to justify the initiative that seemed plausible... until I considered Olson's logic in relation to it.
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