Eric Posner on NYC's Bike Sharing Program

The Good Way to Buy Votes
Eric Posner
Slate
June 5, 2013

New York City’s Bike Share program launched last week to enthusiasm but also complaints, epitomized by Dorothy Rabinowitz’s infamous video rant at the Wall Street Journal against the “totalitarians” who run the city and are “begriming” its neighborhoods with “blazing blue Citibank bikes.” While Rabinowitz has been met with ridicule, her objections raise a serious question: How should a city decide when to implement a public project that people are clamoring both for and against?

New Yorkers live in a democracy, and one possible response is that they elected their mayor and must live with his decisions. But mayors make mistakes, and New Yorkers have no practical way to punish Mayor Michael Bloomberg if they do not like his decisions because he is a lame duck who cannot run for re-election. And even if Bloomberg sought to act in the public good, how would he know how to weight the views of NYC Bike Share fans and foes? Polling might help, but polls don’t aggregate the strength of people’s preferences. They give equal weight to a passionate opponent like Rabinowitz and a person who doesn’t really care.

Many states let the voters decide big questions, like same-sex marriage, through ballot referendums. But this kind of direct democracy is controversial. The problem is that an indifferent majority can outvote a passionate minority. In 2008, when California’s gay marriage ban was on the ballot, many people probably voted for it simply because gay marriage seemed strange, without a strong stake in the outcome. By contrast, the issue is of considerable significance to a minority—the gay couples it affects. If they care a lot, and the majority cares a little, it seems reasonable that minority interests should prevail. But the ordinary one-person, one-vote rule dictates otherwise.