Category: Political Science

What is in a voter’s self-interest?

Alan Krueger reports on survey research that shows that people do not vote according to their self-interest. In particular, he bemoans the fact that a majority of the poor want to get rid of the estate tax. This and other odd results are due to “ignorance and uncertainty” says Larry Bartels, a Princeton political scientist. If only the poor were better informed they would vote against tax cuts for the rich. Moreover, a better informed electorate would be a good thing. I take issue with both of these positions.

Take the normative position first. Assuming that voters voted self-interestedly, would a more informed electorate be a good thing? Doubtful. If everyone voted their “interest,” as Krueger and Bartels conceive it, every bureaucrat, welfare recipient and old person living on social security would vote for more government. Naturally, I think this would be a disaster but even those who think this would be a good thing ought to give pause when they consider how much more polarized our society would become were it not for the fact that ideology cuts across class lines.

Moreover, isn’t it interesting that when the poor vote against their “self-interest” they are labeled “uninformed” – Bartels compares them to Homer Simpson. But when Hollywood liberals like Barbara Streisand or rich philanthropists like Bill Gates Sr. vote against their “self-interest” they are called enlightened. What Krueger and Bartels refer to as self-interest is actually masking an ideology.

Is it true that informed voters would vote differently? (Krueger cites some evidence suggesting that in fact this is not the case – at least not as much as one would expect – but he doesn’t offer an explanation.) To understand this one should first realize that voters are uninformed because it doesn’t pay to be informed. The probability that one vote sways the election is infinitesimal so voters are rationally ignorant. Does this imply that voting is random? Not at all. Voters who care about ideas even a little are free to vote their ideology at low cost. Thus, in my view, the fact that votes don’t matter gives us hope. It’s only because votes don’t matter that libertarianism has a chance of success. Of course, I recognize that the same facts gives socialism a chance at the polls but I hope good ideas will win out.

Addendum: I’ve been influenced on these issues by our colleague, Bryan Caplan – although I give the ideas a more positive spin than he does. I recommend his paper Libertarianism Against Economism: How Economists Misunderstand Voters, and Why Libertarians Should Care from The Independent Review and his other papers on rational irrationality which you can find on his web page.

How do religious people vote?

Myth 1: Evangelicals all vote Republican. People often confuse the words “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.” Fundamentalists are very conservative and almost entirely Republican because they view the deterioration of traditional morality as the primary public policy crisis. But fundamentalists are a subset of evangelicals, which is a more diverse group.

John Green, a professor at the University of Akron and the foremost scholar of evangelical voting behavior, spliced and diced data some time ago and managed to delineate a group of moderate evangelicals. I like to call them “freestyle evangelicals” because they are socially more liberal (they don’t vote strictly for pro-life candidates, for example) and politically “in play.” There are about 8 million to 10 million of them. This group went for Bill Clinton 55 percent to 45 percent over Bush Sr. in 1996 and 55 percent to 45 percent for W. over Gore in 2000. That’s a swing of about a million votes.

To read about six other myths, see today’s Slate.com.

How and why does democracy matter?

Last week Casey Mulligan presented his paper on democracies and autocracies at George Mason; the work is co-authored with Ricard Gil and Xavier Sala-i-Martin.

The main result is surprising: democracies don’t allocate their public budgets much differently than do autocracies. Of course this result requires that we adjust for national income and other relevant factors. The data cover 142 countries from 1960-1990.

The authors do find notable differences between democracies and autocracies. Autocracies are more likely to use the death penalty, restrict free speech, and spend on the military. The paper doesn’t mention death squads, but autocracies are more likely to do that too. At the same time, spending on social programs, spending on education, and various taxation issues do not differ significantly across the two kinds of regimes.

The authors also use some case studies. Chile, Spain, Greece, and Portugal have all moved from autocracy to democracy in recent times. Yet again changes in economic policy are hard to find.

How should these results be interpreted? One hypothesis suggests that special interest groups rule under both systems, and that voting doesn’t matter much. More plausibly, to this economist, autocracies have to be concerned with public opinion too. Autocrats want to secure their stream of rents, which leads them to restrict political competition. At the same time, the autocrat will try to secure a content populace. David Hume wrote long ago that governments are founded on opinion and consent.

I still see a strong case for democracy, not only on moral grounds but also practically. Once people get the democratic idea into their heads, and have a high level of wealth, democratization is extremely difficult to stop. Just look at Taiwan and South Korea. It is better to go with the tide of the times rather than to fight it.

The new Robert Putnam book

Robert Putnam has a new book out, with Lewis Feldstein, Better Together: Restoring the American Community. I started writing a short review of it, which ended up morphing into a look at Putnam’s oeuvre more generally, most of all his renowned Bowling Alone. The bottom line: I admire the quality of Putnam’s work, but am not convinced by his arguments that “bowling alone” is a growing problem. Click here to read my piece.

Presidential Voices and Electoral Victory

A nice article in the Sept. 2002 Social Psychology Quarterly documents an interesting fact: the presidential candidate who has the right tone of voice tends to win the election.

According to “communication accommodation theory,” low status people change their voices to accommodate high status people. The presidential candidate who more frequently changes the “F_0” range of his voice (which is a very low hum) during a debate signals that he is in the low-status position. The authors believe that voters respond strongly to this non-verbal, but strongly emotional, cue. The authors note that George W. Bush may have “won” the 2000 debate with Gore because he signaled his dominance in this fashion, although Gore was perceived by journalists to have won through superior rhetoric. The results of voice analysis correlate well with electoral outcomes and polls.

Panic at the Iowa Electronic Market?

The Iowa Electronic Market is an online securities exchange where traders buy and sell contracts whose monetary value depends on political events. Most contracts pay $1 if the event happens (Bush re-elected) or pay by vote share (e.g., “Vote share Bush 2000” would pay $.49).

Early this week, the contract “California recall cancelled” was selling for about $.05 – very confident the recall would go through. Then the panel of the 9th circuit postponed and the market jumped to about $1.10. Today, “recall cancelled” is trading at about $.03!! Could this be an example of a stampede at the Iowa Market? Is a single trader driving this market? If you are a trader, drop me an email and tell me your thoughts on what happened this week.

History of the California Recall

The history news network reports that recalls were successfully used by California progressives to oust Los Angeles city council members in the early 20th century. Recalls were also used against a few California state legislators and there were attempts to recall some judges. Although sponsored by progressives, opposition to recalls spanned the political spectrum, with the LA Times calling recalls the result of “freak legislation.” Despite the flurry of early recall activity, the practice waned until the mid-1990’s when a few state legislators faced recalls. The pattern of recall efforts probably suggests that recalls get off the ground when you have a small and angry but well organized interest group (progressives, recent California GOP). Seems like an application of Mancur Olson’s idea that small groups have disproportionate influence because they are easier to organize.

Why the EU won’t become a federal government

I was struck by Larry’s Siedentop’s words from today’s Financial Times (subscription required):

…the new member states will be very assertive once the formalities of enlargement are over. We can expect an unapologetic defence of national interests, a suspicion of encroachments from Brussels and an intense dislike of what might be called lurking double standards in the EU…It will be a pluralist vision rather than a unitary one, a preference for something more like a confederation than a federation. For behind the quasi-federalist form projected for Europe that is promoted, at least intermittently, by France, such countries detect a wish to give the EU some of the attributes of a unitary state. Their contribution could decisively shift the balance of the debate away from that particular vision.