Logrolling: An Efficient Institution

Along with the colorful phrase “pork barrel” spending, logrolling is a term used to describe the process of vote trading in elected legislative bodies. The process has long been maligned by political scientists, pundits, and the general public. It’s also come up in the debate about the proposed Budget/COVID Relief Bill.

President Grant tried to stop logrolling. He failed.

What’s bad about logrolling? I think there are two general lines of argument. First, it just seems immoral. Citizens can’t legally trade their votes, and many see any attempt to do so as wrong. You get one vote, and one vote only. For someone to have more votes than others rubs our intuitions the wrong way, similar to the ability for wealthy individuals or corporations to essentially have more votes by influencing politicians through campaign contributions.

More pragmatically, logrolling gets a bad name because it could lead to wasteful spending, particularly the “pork barrel” type that Americans really hate (unless it is coming to their district, of course). If you vote for my bill, I will vote for yours, even though I might not care about your bill. Maybe even I think your bill is kinda bad, but I think my bill is really good, so I am willing to hold my nose and vote for your bill, if it gets me what I want.

Buchanan and Tullock (1962) turned this logic on its head. Logrolling is efficient because it allows members to express their preferences, specifically the intensity of their preferences. Moreover, it allows legislative bodies to get things done that are beneficial for society, even if none of those things would pass in a simple referendum.

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