Why Elections Don’t Matter, but the Median Voter Does
The following is an excerpt from a speech given by Justin Longo of the Independence Institute at the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club. This section was part of notes prepared for Justin Longo’s speech so please ignore the lack of editing and consider the audience to which this speech was addressed.
Voters Hold Irrational Policy Beliefs
“It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a “dismal science.” But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.” -Rothbard
When people are uninformed about things, we would like to believe they generally remain agnostic about the subject until they find information that sways them to one side or another. Or, like many areas in life, we just don’t know and don’t care, and that’s perfectly fine with us. Let’s consider two sets of example questions. The first set are these types of questions: How many miles is Mars away from the sun? What is the best way to get from Omaha, Nebraska to Colorado Springs by car? What flower is most resilient to cold weather? Who did Julius Ceasar trust most in his cabinet? If you were to ask a random person named John on the street the mars question, he probably would just shrug his shoulders. He might even hazard a guess while shrugging indifferently. If you showed him an encyclopedia with the answer, he would smile and thank you for the information.
Now consider this next set of questions. What or whom determines gas prices? Did the top 10% income earners pay more taxes than the bottom 50% last year? Are some natural disasters actually good because the town has to rebuild again? Does government run and controlled health care costs less than private sector health care? Just to take one of these questions as an example, suppose you asked him the gas prices one. Whom or what determines the price of gas? There’s a very good chance he might become visibly more emotional as he responded, “greedy businessmen.” If you attempt to correct his error by trying to explain supply and demand, he would become angry and if he didn’t walk away at this point, he would surely engage you in an argument on the subject. What’s the difference? How come this average person responds so differently to those two types of questions? The difference in the two types of questions is that the first set of questions did not affect or challenge his worldview and the second set did.
It turns out that in the arena of politics, policy, and economics, people don’t act like they do in almost every other subject are. In others words, people don’t remain agnostic or indifferent about economics and politics like they do about everything else. But rather, people hold very strong economic and political beliefs and actively shun all information that challenges those beliefs. The old saying, “don’t talk about religion or politics at a dinner or at a dinner party” is true. Those two subjects shape people’s worldview, and often times, challenging or even asking questions related to those views creates tension and lots of emotion. Very inappropriate for a dinner party.
To understand why this happens, consider….well… economics. When people hold a belief and act on a belief, the resulting consequences can either help them, harm them, or have no effect at all on their lives. Consider the first question about mars and the sun. In this case, the question has no bearing at all on the person’s life. John (the person) life does not change if he thinks Mars is 100 miles or 100 million miles away from the sun. Either way, he’s complete unaffected by holding either of those two beliefs. (btw, 141 million)
What is an example of a belief that turns out to harm someone. Well, let’s consider some individually harmful beliefs. What happens to me if I believe I can go through college without studying because I am so smart? Or what about the belief that I can fly? Or what about the belief that stores that begin with the letter “S” are evil and I must not dare shop in them? In all these examples, I am actively harmed by believing these ridiculous things. I’d fail out of college, I’d kill or really hurt myself, and I’d end up paying higher prices on the margin. This is one of the reasons why markets work so well. People make buying and selling decisions based on certain beliefs, they act on those beliefs, and then feel the consequences of those decisions. Accordingly, they adjust their future behavior based on the previous outcomes.
Now consider these beliefs: green energy saves the planet and saves us money. Government run, single-payer health care is good for the uninsured and is morally required. The minimum wage helps poor people. What do these beliefs have in common? First, they are all wrong. Second, they result in no individually felt negative consequences (as the belief that you can fly does). Instead, quite the opposite is true. These beliefs actually provide a HUGE benefit to the individual. Believing these things makes a person feel good inside. Here are some examples of what many people love thinking and feeling: That they are FOR “the little guy,” against big business, for the environment, for the workers, against greed, for children, etc, etc. Plus, holding these beliefs allows you to signal to others that you are a good person… you are kind, passionate, caring, selfless, peaceful, etc. These are conventional views held by most people and people generally cling to the widely accepted, status quo beliefs. At worst, even if you don’t personally feel good when thinking these things, holding these beliefs at least makes you a part of the crowd and helps you fit in.
So in simple economic terms, the price of holding incorrect policy beliefs is basically 0, while the benefit is wildly positive. What happens when a person can indulge a good for no cost? They consume, consume, consume, until they are full. And let’s be clear. Self-esteem, good feelings, altruism, a sense of belonging, etc are consumption goods like anything else. In economic speak, holding incorrect policy beliefs is sort of like economic pollution. The individual person does not feel the effect of their irrational views, but when lots of people hold those same irrational views, taken all together, they do end up harming people.
When political beliefs are looked at this way, it’s obvious why incorrect economic and political views are the norm. For one, they allow individuals to feel good about themselves. They allow individuals to be a part of the crowd and fit in. They build self-esteem and can give feelings of self-worth. With minority groups it provides for a common enemy, and that gives the group unity and a great sense of solidarity. What’s the personal cost to believe nonsensical views? Absolutely nothing. With the playing field set up this way, it makes sense why my generation, young people, fall for such economic nonsense. They’d be stupid – or at least they’d be outcasts – to believe anything else.
I hope I’ve explained the origin of why people hold irrational policy beliefs. With this in mind, let’s examine how this plays into what people do when they step into a voting booth.
Voters Vote Not to Advance Their Own Economic Interests, but To Gain Psychological Benefits, Signal, and to “Help Others”
“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” -HL Mencken
Most people believe that voters are selfish, and they vote their own interest. This is a half-truth. In a nutshell, voters vote their irrational policy beliefs. Specifically the ones they believe are the most socially beneficial.
Caplan’s examples of majority beliefs that go against self-interest, sometimes even against self-preservation: young people favor social security slightly MORE than older people, young people also favor Medicare slightly more than the elderly, men favor abortion rights slightly MORE than women, farm subsidies are just as popular in non-farm states as they are in farm states (because people believe that’s how we get food), the unemployed are only slightly more in favor of government jobs programs than the employed, the uninsured are only slightly more in favor for national health insurance than the insured… even in matters of life and death, people don’t normally take the self-interested view. For example, men of draft age support a draft at the same levels as the rest of the population. Families and friends of conscripts during Vietnam were actually MORE opposed to withdrawal than the rest of the nation.
So the idea that voters are selfish is a half-truth at best. No, voters don’t vote their pocketbooks, but they do vote to boost their own morality, altruism, and self-esteem. In other words, voters tend to put others ahead of themselves when they vote, because doing so makes them feel good inside, and that goodness is something they can signal to others. Signaling, aka bragging to others contributes again to the person’s self-esteem and helps establish standing amongst peers. Again, altruism, morality, self-esteem, and psychological good feelings are consumption goods like any other, so we should expect that people buy more of it when the price is low. And due to the extremely low probability that your vote will affect the outcome of an election, voting allows people to buy a boatload of good feelings for a price of near zero. This is completely opposite of a market. The person acting on beliefs in a market situation takes on at worst MOST of the consequences of their beliefs. For instance, if I think this certain guitar is better than that other one, and I purchase it over that one, and upon bringing it home I realize it’s actually much worse than the other, I bear that cost. In a market, I’m not making others pay for my incorrect beliefs.
“When a consumer has mistaken beliefs about what to buy, he foots the bill. When a voter has mistaken beliefs about government policy, the whole population picks up the tab.” -Caplan
The entire institution of voting is based on making others feel your beliefs. And it’s quite unfortunate that people don’t actually vote their pocketbooks. Because then they wouldn’t have an incentive to vote for tax increases, or politicians that threaten to raise taxes.
Think of that like purchasing a negative lottery ticket. Even when someone votes for a tax increase that provides say, green energy, chances are, your vote won’t make any difference, so you get to consume the good feelings of voting for green energy, but the odds that your negative lottery ticket gets called – meaning your vote is the one that decided the election – are close to zero. Therefore, you get to indulge your silly beliefs for a price close to zero.
For an example, think of how many guilty whites you know of that voted for Obama for altrustic and self-aggrandizing reasons. They may not have liked his policy ideas as much as McCain’s, they may have expected their taxes to go up, but they voted for him anyway for the psychological benefits. Because they knew their vote wouldn’t swing the election. i.e. their negative lottery ticket wasn’t going to get called.
I was able to apply this thinking to the RTD votes we’ve had since the 70′s. In 1973 voters in the Denver metro area voted for a tax increase to fund FasTracks after RTD promised a quick, efficient light rail system would be up and running around the metro area with hundreds of miles of tracks in under a decade. Well, FasTracks went largely unbuilt. They ran out of money well before they completed their grandiose plans. In 2004 voters were again offered a functioning light rail system for the low cost of just a few pennies on every tax dollar. Voters once again voted for it. They were sold the same bill of goods again, and again the tracks were sparse and mostly undelivered. Now we are being told RTD is gearing up for a THIRD tax increase to pay for FasTracks, but this time, they SWEAR it will be built. How can this be? When you look at thes votes through the lens of the framework I’ve been talking about, the answer is clear. Voters vote for FasTracks not because they want to ride the train, but because that vote is a vote FOR the environment and AGAINST oil companies, it’s FOR green energy and AGAINST pollution. Polling shows that most people don’t have any intention of ever using lightrail, yet we keep taxing ourselves for it. Why? The consumption good is not the tracks and trains, the consumption good is the act of voting. Voters are consuming the good feeling they got voting FOR the environment and against big oil. This is the typical voting experience.
Politicians Appease Voters Irrational Beliefs to Get and Hold Power
Explain that the voters outside of the center essentially cancel each other out and what’s left, the deciding vote, is the guy in the middle – the median voter. This is why you hear both candidates mimicking a lot of the same talking points in the run up to the generally election. “I am going to be TOUGH on the war on terror.” “I’m going to make Wall St. pay.” “No no, I’m going to make Wall St. pay, and give it to Main St.” “My opponent won’t help the eldery as much I will!” etc
Many people believe that candidates move sharply to the left or right during primaries to secure a primary victory among their base, then the next day after their primary win, they both race to the middle to appease the median voter. This is true, but not in the way you think. I would argue that just like in a general election, when both candidates race to the middle to appease the median voter, they do the same exact race to the middle during the primary as well. Take a look at this diagram. Both candidates run to the middle in the primary, just as they do in the general election, it’s just that in the primary, the middle is shifted either to the right or to the left. In either case, politicians must run to the middle and appease that guy because that guy is what makes you win.
Why are we so excited about the rise of the Tea Party? What does this movement represent? For me, I believe the Tea Parties represent a slight shifting of the median voter to the right. Yes, polling shows that just above 30% identify or support the Tea Parties, but in addition to those actively involved, or ideologically aligned, you have the airing of the Tea Parties ideals on a national level. Every time a news program covers a Tea Party event, candidate, or talks about the ideas, it influences the average voters watching and makes the ideas of small, limited government more mainstream. Therefore, despite around 30% consider themselves sympathetic to Tea Parties, the impact of the ideology is much great than that.
Remember how vilified Republicans were when they passed the Bush tax cuts back in 2001? Remember they were framed as “tax cuts for the rich.” Because they were characterized in this way, it was easy to demonize those who were for them, and Democrats made good use of that talking point. Until now. With the rise of the Tea Parties, and the subsequent shift of the median voter slightly to the right, we have 47 House Democrats who signed onto the Bush “tax cuts for the rich.” It’s enough to pass the extension – if they ever got to vote on it. The Dems aren’t stupid, they know in order to keep their seats they must appease this new Tea Party inspired voter who is just itching to cream any politician for passing a tax increase. This is why they didn’t want the tax cut extension vote to happen before the Nov. general elections. If the tax loving Dems followed their hearts and voted against extending the tax cuts, they were risking their jobs.
When Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts it was seen as a victory for small government. It was MASS for cryin’ out loud! But it didn’t take long for Scott Brown to reveal the big government lover that he actually is. In fact, before he was elected, he made it known to the people of Mass. that he was supported Romney-care, and the individual health care mandate. He was never shy about revealing his view that all Americans deserve health care. In addition, after elected he was 1 of 5 Republican votes for Harry Reid’s $15 BILLION jobs bill, and he voted for the massive financial overhaul bill, which largely enshrines more bailouts in the future. And every time I would bring these points up about Scott Brown, the Republicans I know would respond with, “He’s from Mass! What do you expect? How else could he have gotten elected?!” This response has to make me smile. It’s making my argument for me. What they are essentially saying is that the median voter in Mass is left of center, and in order to be electable you have to run to that center. Put differently, if Scott Brown ran his campaign in Texas, would he even have a chance? Of course not! The median voter in Texas isn’t where the median voter in MASS is.
Policies We Have Are Popular
Let me preface this part of the talk with a little side note: You guys are the exception. The political and economic knowledge in this room is well beyond that of the average voter. You guys are in like the top percentile of knowledge. But look beyond your circle of friends. Let me give you an example. In the 1972 Presidential election – Nixon v. George McGovern – Nixon won in a landslide, carrying every single state except Massachusetts. Let me repeat, he won every single state except Mass. Nixon won by the largest margin of popular votes in our country’s history. Yet, listen to this. After Nixon’s history making landslide victory, Pauline Kael famously said, “How can that be? No one I know voted for Nixon!” And I believe her. She couldn’t see beyond her inner circle of extremely leftist friends. Her entire world was what she could see around her. Therefore, she was completely out of touch with America. I have to remind myself of this point sometimes. I’m so engulfed in this little policy world I live in, where everyone I come in contact with knows a thing or two about economics, policy, and politics that I can easily forget that I, and the people I know are NOT the median voter. We are the exception.
This is why it’s difficult sometimes to believe the polling that shows that the policies we have are popular. Sometimes overwhelmingly popular.
Even our enemies during war time understand the importance of the popularity of our country’s policies. Remember Vietnam? Remember the massive anti-war protests? Why would massive anti-war protesting have any effect on the administration or “give aid to the enemy” if popularity was of no consequence?
Social security, medicare, medicaid, tariiffs and other American industry protections, green energy subsidies, increasing education budgets through more taxes, corporate welfare, and on and on are all very popular. The sentiment from even Tea Party polling is quite clear. “We want smaller government that costs less, but we don’t want to cut any services.”
Farm subsidies are popular because many people believe that without them, we wouldn’t have food.
We have over 12,000 tariffs. These are popular because your average person is a protectionist that believes wealth is a fixed pie. You might wonder, with all the influence of the tea party, are we in for more free trade? I’m afraid not. That’s because the tea parties are only slightly more in favor of free trade than labor unions! In a new NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll, they found 65% of union members believe free trade has hurt the US while 61% of tea party members believe that free trade has hurt the US. Thus, protectionist policies are extremely popular! No wonder we have over 12,000 tarrifs!
If legislation is the typical back, smokey room sort of wheeling and dealing that some people believe it to be, then why do legislators – and the president – sign legislation on TV, boasting about it?
The Case of Obama Care
(and you have to understand, this is only a hard case because of the room I’m speaking in. If I were to give this same talk to a bunch of leftists OR you were average voters, I wouldn’t even use Obama Care as a tough example. I would have used the Iraq war to prove my hard case). My retort will be two-fold. One, the overwhelming majority of Americans from the very beginning have wanted the federal government “to do something” about our health care situation. Even though polling for Obama Care specifically has not been favorable, polling for “doing something” has always been favorable. Secondly, as of one week ago, only 1 in 5 Americans wanted government out of the health care business. That means that 80% of Americans WANT government involvement in health care. Thus, many favor repealing Obama Care not because it does too much, but because it does not do enough!
We Must Educate, Change Voters Policy Beliefs so They Demand Better Policies
The story I’m trying to tell here is that all else being equal, whatever policies voters demand, politicians generally listen. This is why Democracy chooses such bad policies. As Bryan says, Democracy chooses bad policies not because voters don’t get what they want, but because voters DO get what they want. It’s a wonder we don’t have even worse policies than we have considering your average voters beliefs about the economy. The solution seems simple enough. Educate voters so they demand better policies. OR we could achieve the same end by making liberty ideas “cool” so that in order to fit in, be “normal,” grow their self-esteem, and get that warm feeling inside, kids defaulted to liberty oriented ideas. Organizations like LOTR are attempting to educate AND make liberty ideas cool.
Just imagine what kind of policies we’d have if politicians had to pander to this crowd here. Or if they had to pander exclusively to Berkeley, CA… ewww. Imagine if every election cycle had the fervor of the tea parties and voters were out there on the streets demanding lower taxes and less regulation, and ripping their elected officials on national TV for growing government. We have to realize that politicians are mostly just an empty vessel, following orders from the median voter to retain power. It really doesn’t matter who is in office. If they want to retain power, they have to appease the voters in the middle. View the elected official in office as a car with no driver. It doesn’t matter what car is in office because the car doesn’t drive itself. The median voter is the one largely driving the car. I realize that some of this sounds crazy to you because you all are so heavily involved in election politics and the my team versus their team stuff. But the polling data is out there. If you aren’t convinced of the general public’s beliefs, it’s not difficult to find that information.
Again… Don’t get me wrong.. Having politics, elections, candidates as a hobby is okay. Heck, I run a website that devotes a large amount of space to election politics. It interests me, it’s like a soap opera these days isn’t it? But that doesn’t mean all that time spent on elections is doing any good. It produces about the same results as a knitting hobby.
My whole argument is that our time is precious. We can’t be wasting it on trying to get the right people elected. At best elections are sometimes a short term victory. Scott Brown took what, less than 2 months to completely let down his base and the entire Tea Party movement? I’m talking about long term gains here. We must use our valuable time in the best way we can. I’ve devoted my life to educating people – through my work at I.I., through LOTR, through Complete. If you have some extra hours to volunteer, do it in a way that spreads the freedom message to folks. If you have extra money to donate, give to groups that educate people. Independence, Freedomworks, the Cato Institute, Foundation for Economic Education, etc. I’m not asking you to give up your favorite hobby entirely, just give me some of the time you would have used on campaigns and allocate it for education. You would be providing much greater value in the end.
How do we educate people? And even better question would be… How do we educate more people with less resources? THE INTERNET – INFO AT A MILLION TIMES EFFICIENCY. YOUTUBE, FACEBOOK, SOCIAL NETWORKING. This is the 21st century! We have the capability of reaching literally MILLIONS of people at one time. If there was ever any time to make an argument for mass education drives, this is it. Don’t underestimate the value in the Internet!
Have more one on one conversations.
Educate the people already on our side to become better messengers. There’s only 1 of you. Make as many more as you can!