People sure are picky about terminology. I didn’t realize that so many would be offended by calling politicians “corrupt,” if they voted for policies that hurt the country because it would help them get re-elected. OK, so let’s re-label, and also drop terms like ‘idealistic’ and ‘dogmatic,’ which also caused confusion. I’ll re-label the dogmatic libertarians as the ‘principled’ libertarians. I think pragmatism is also principled, but I’ll let the other side have the prettier term:
Special interest Democrats Pragmatic Libertarians
Special interest Republicans Principled libertarians
Is everyone happy now? In response to the six issues that I discussed in my previous post, Adam Ozimek made this observation:
The missing piece of this puzzle is that the intellectual agreement on these issues isn’t just the opposite of real world politician’s, but the opposite of the rest of the real world. At the average dinner table in this country, anyone advocating what Sumner might call the intellectual consensus on any of these issues would face a lot of disagreement, and would frequently be greeted by surprise that a reasonable person would ever dream of advocating for, say, for more immigration or less occupational licensing. The problem is that you can pretty much go right down this list and point out the biases from The Myth of the Rational Voter that will tilt public opinion towards bad policies. The median voter is as important of an obstacle on these issue as interest group influence on politicians, and unfortunately the median voter’s belief’s are a much more intractable problem.
I’m not sure I agree with this. I was under the impression that the public was far out in front of the politicians on some of these issues:
1. Didn’t medical marijuana laws come from referenda, and weren’t even Democratic politicians like Clinton opposed? Didn’t almost all major elected Democrats oppose the California initiative to legalize pot, which got a sizable number of votes?
2. I’ve mentioned the idea of a flat tax at least 100 times in ordinary conversation, to all sorts of people. That sort of tax would involve low rates and no deductions. I don’t recall a single person who opposed the idea, if I amended it to allow some progressivity. (Republicans like the flat tax with no deductions, Dems like the idea of a somewhat progressive system with no deductions.) Try finding a politician who supports eliminating all deductions.
3. Reduce occupational licensure? Suppose I propose that interior designers and florists did not have to have a license. Would the public be terrified of getting ugly bouquets? How about hair braiders? Funeral casket makers? Do people fear the health risks of dangerous caskets?
I do think Adam is partly right. The public has mixed feelings about legal immigration, they oppose legalizing hard drugs, they oppose removing occupational licenses for doctors and other health and safety-oriented job categories. They probably haven’t given much thought to zoning rules on density. But I wouldn’t assume that the populist side always wins. Rent control was removed in Massachusetts by referendum. Washington state voters recently rejected an income tax that would only fall on the rich. Both states are left-of-center. When voters focus on an issue and hear arguments they can be swayed by reason. I seem to recall that voters were against NAFTA until Gore debated Perot on national TV. After hearing the debate the polls swung in favor of NAFTA, and the proposal was enacted.
Sometimes proponents of voter irrationality cite opposition to economic reforms that are painful in the short run but beneficial in the long run. But things are often more complicated than they seem. Voters may make a “meta-decision,” like joining the EU, knowing full well that EU rules will force many markets to open, and jobs to be lost. Eastern European voters grumble about the specific policies, but vote to become a modern market-oriented economy, as they see the affluence of Western Europe.
Slightly off-topic, but I recall reading a bunch of posts that expressed amusement or exasperation that the public opposed Medicare cuts, etc, and yet wanted to balance the budget without tax increases. I don’t agree with any of the posts I read, as I think they are completely misconstruing what those polls show. I recall about 20 years ago reading of a poll that asked the public how much the government should increase Medicare spending each year. There were many choices, zero to two percent, two to four percent, all the way up to more than 10%. I seem to recall only a very small percentage of public wanted to increase spending by more than 8%. At the time, President Bush (elder) was proposing something like an 8% increase. So his proposal was more than almost anyone wanted to spend on Medicare, yet the news reporters were able to point to other polls showing wide opposition to “cuts” in Medicare, meaning the program might have gone up 10% or 12% without those cuts. So which was true, did almost everyone think Bush was spending too much on Medicare, or did people overwhelmingly oppose his “cuts?” As with the “true” rate of inflation, or the “true” rate of economic growth, there is no “fact of the matter.” There is no such thing as “public opinion.” The public isn’t well enough informed to offer an intelligent opinion on that issue. People have strong views on abortion, gun control, the war in Iraq, etc. They delegate to politicians the job of providing as many services as possible at the lowest tax rates possible. Polls on the minutia of government are completely meaningless. People say they want less spent on foreign aid. But if you ask what percentage we should spend, it’s more than we spend. Which is correct?
I’ve gotten far afield from Ozimek’s post, which is mostly correct. But some intellectuals probably assume that the average voter is dumber and more populist than they actually are. Well-designed political systems (Switzerland) will elicit more intelligent public opinion than poorly designed political systems (India.) I’d guess that Indian voters who immigrate to Switzerland make very intelligent political decisions in their new country.
PS. Robin Hanson wonders why philanthropists don’t make an effort to inform the public on these issues. Didn’t Soros spend money on the drug legalization push?
Update: Dilip just sent me a post by Steve Landsburg that also comments on this issue.