Votes or Money?

Published on 11th January 2010

Economic Empowerment, what's that? It's the term used in Zambian for government loans to entrepreneurs. Impressive though it sounds, it is no revolution, except for those entrepreneurs fortunate enough to receive soft loans. 'Power to the people' sounds more robust. Surely that means democracy, the political system which empowers the masses to choose their country's government. 

Democracy ensures regular elections, through which every adult citizen has the right to elect the members of national and local assemblies. That right confers plenty of power, or does it? Democracies hold elections every few years, when citizens vote for their chosen candidates. What happens next? Well, many candidates fail to get elected, so their supporters lose out. They must then wait another 5 years or so for their next chance to influence the government. And the voters whose candidates win? Well, they too can lose out if their candidate belongs to a minority party, and is therefore not part of the government. What if their elected candidate belongs to the majority party? Then they can really celebrate success. But what is the practical outcome? We all know that political parties, having promised the earth – or heaven itself - in order to get elected, rarely fulfill their promises. In short, the chances of obtaining one's wishes through politics are remote. 

So should we ignore politics and refrain from voting? 

Certainly not; for voting is an essential means of protection against bad government. We should participate, but without being unduly hopeful. While taking an active part in the electoral process, let us not pin our hopes on politics. If a government provides protection from crime, reliable courts, reasonable infrastructure, and dependable schooling and health care - that is as much as democracy can hope to achieve in today's Africa. 

Fortunately there is another way for individuals to obtain their wishes - through money. Admittedly, money is always short. Few of us have as much as we need or want. But most of us have enough money to make some daily choices, and to do so successfully. In the market each woman can 'vote' for the style and colour of her dress, and get her choice. In politics she would have to accept the choice of the majority, or simply lose out. 

Economic choices are closely linked to financial means. In politics all are equal: each person has the same power to vote in elections. Yet political choices come rarely, and victory itself may produce no more than a feeling of elation, like the boost we get from the success of our favourite football team. The power of economic choices is not evenly distributed. But nor is it fixed: it can often be expanded through effort and ingenuity.  

Most important, there is no time regulation: we can make choices, not just occasionally, but again and again on a daily basis. Which would we rather have and use, votes or money? Fortunately we need not choose: we can have both. But choices enabled by money are far more frequent, and, for most of us, far more empowering than choices made through the ballot box. 

By Murray Sanderson

Executive Secretary, Zambia Institute for Public Policy Analysis (ZIPPA)

Courtesy: ZIPPA Journal.     

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