Comparing Voters and Consumers

Public choice theory is well known as a theory that attempts to provide something of a unified approach to behavior in the economic and political realms.  The theory famously argues that people who pursue their selfish interest in the economic realm do not somehow become perfect altruists in the political realm.  Instead, one must take serious account of the selfish interests of politicians who present themselves as selflessly pursuing the public interest.

While public choice theory does not assume different preferences or personalities for people in the economic and political realms, it does not reject the possibility that people behave differently in these two realms.  It just requires an explanation for the difference.

One of the most important results produced by public choice theory is the difference between how voters behave in the political system and how consumers behave in the marketplace.  The basic idea is that consumers often engage in significant research about an important consumer product, such as a new car or TV.  They talk to their friends and read reviews about the product.  They do that because the benefits from this research can be significant.  It can mean the difference between purchasing a good or bad product.

By contrast, voters do not have the same incentive to learn about the candidates who are running in the election.  While these candidates can have significant effects on government, and government can affect not just one product, but a large portion of a voter’s life, voters still do not have an incentive to learn much about the candidates.  The reason is that the citizen’s vote is virtually certain not to influence the election.  Whether they make an informed or uniformed choice, their vote will make no difference (unless it breaks a tie, which never happens) and therefore they remain ignorant.  This is called rational ignorance.

But there is a question for this public choice theory.  While it is true that voters do not have a material incentive to learn about the candidates, most voters who hear about this theory for the first time are surprised by it.  If these voters do not know this aspect of the voting experience, then how can it be influencing their behavior?

This is an interesting question, but there appears to be an answer to it.  It is not necessary for voters to consciously know the theory for it to have an effect.  When consumers buy a car and they fail to research it, they sometimes learn the hard way that it is important to do the research.  Other people who have gone through the same experience may also explain it to them and urge them to do the research. Thus, consumers often force themselves to incur the costs of doing some research.

But the same does not occur with respect to voting.  A parent does not explain to their child who is voting for the first time that they ought to investigate the candidates, because in the last election, the parent failed to do so and their vote caused the wrong candidate to be elected.  Even though they may not realize that their vote does not decide the election, it will not occur to them that the wrong candidate was elected because they did not do the research.  Part of the reason for this is that so few voters conclude that they voted for the wrong candidate (because they usually don’t know much about the candidate who was elected and are often so biased about the candidates).  But part of the reason is that they would not conclude that their action would have made a difference.  They may not recognize the more general point that their vote has no real effect, but it seems unlikely to occur to them that the wrong candidate was elected because they failed to do the research.

Thus, the public choice theory seems to hold, not because people recognize that their vote has no effect, but because they behave as if they knew it even though they do not fully recognize it.

Reader Discussion

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on October 26, 2017 at 10:41:40 am

Something else may be "afoot" here.

Recall that faith in SCOTUS is contingent upon Judges being perceived as actually doing their duty, and not making it up.

There is a sense amongst voters that they too have a duty to exercise their voting rights. I wonder how long they will continue to exercise this right once the perception that Legislators are simply "making it up" takes precedence in their minds.

It may also explain why many voters do NOT research candidates -" what difference does it make" - they will exclaim.
At least with a TV, I can get picture-picture, etc etc. and more importantly, "I can shut the dang thing off when it gets annoying" - Can we ever shut politicos up?

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on October 26, 2017 at 10:55:14 am

1. I suspect that much of culture is a kind of ritualized social optimization strategy. People tend to conform to the patterns of their neighbors. Societies in which people have the most adaptive collective behaviors tend to out-compete other societies and endure. Individuals may not be able to articulate the reasons for their individual behavior, but that doesn’t mean that the behavior is merely the product of chance, or that a change in the behavior is just as likely to produce a net social benefit as a net social burden.

This is Burkeanism. And maybe this dynamic explains voting behavior.

2. Then again, I wonder if there isn’t a closer connection between voting behavior and consuming behavior than we’ve discussed here.

That is, some academics model voting behavior as if it were a kind of investment: Given a choice in the ballot box, I’ll vote for the person/thing that I think will optimize my welfare in the long run. That’s the kind of analysis that triggers research and reflection. But instead, what if people vote for the person/thing that gives them an immediate jolt of dopamine RIGHT NOW? That is, what if voting an act of almost pure consumption?

I want to affirm my identity, and have other people affirm it. Screw Burkeansim; give me tribalism! Who cares about the policy wonk candidate who will go to Washington and become a workhorse, building ties across party lines, and making compromises to pass broad legislation. Give me the Reality TV candidate who will feed my righteous indignation—and who will continue feeding it by refraining from sullying himself with compromises. RED MEAT! RED MEAT!

Thus, political donations—especially in small denominations—look more like buying a ticket to a play than making an investment. In every sense.

3. That said, this is an easy caricature for me to draw. It’s easy for me to overlook the fact that policy wonks ARE my tribe. When I’m voting to achieve some long-term objective, it tastes a lot like red meat to me.
Who is less likely to overlook this dynamic? Well, the authors of this blog—people who are policy wonks, but find themselves adrift in the policyless party of Trump.

Or R.R. Reno over at First Things. I previously remarked that I did not envy his circumstances—making intellectual religious conservative arguments in a forum that was likely to attract an audience of intellectual religious liberals. But I may have been wrong; he seems to be making his peace—or coming out of the closet?—with populism. He’s a Trump man now, all-in. And I’m baffled.

I fear we’re heading to a new realignment—Erudite vs. Populist—which may have ominous social implications. If you haven’t yet read Scott Alexander’s essay “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup,” this might be as good a time as any.

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on October 26, 2017 at 11:38:47 am

There is much value in what you say.

"...which may have ominous social implications...."


"And I’m baffled. "

Are you perhaps concluding the former due to the latter?

This potential realignment MAY, indeed, have ominous social consequences - but it is not pre-ordained as you yourself recognize (above in your comments). Then again, it may not; all that may be required is for the *ersatz* erudite to recognize the discontent / concerns of the *ersatz* populists.

It may very well be time for the citizenry of all political spectrums to recognize their *obligations* to each other; no great theories / no grand pronouncements / manifestos, etc. Simply recognize that not only "can I tolerate anything, but that I OUGHT TO and by consequence, MUST" - if we are not to descend into that virulent form of tribalism of which you speak.


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on October 26, 2017 at 19:33:10 pm

The people have done their homework, and they know that their votes don't matter. Most live in congressional districts so gerrymandered, David Duke or Che Guevara could win by double-digits. Senate seats are no more open. Even at the state level, relatively few seats are in play, and even if they are, the players are often beholden to the same interests.

Let's be honest: It doesn't matter if you are voting for Cory Booker or Cory Gardner; they are both in the back pocket of Big Pharma. The Kleptocrats (there's only one true Party left in America) service the plutocrats, who will eventually get their way. We saw this movie in the 2000s.

Hillary Clinton has spent more time on her knees (begging for money) before the banksters than Madonna had ever contemplated: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12mJ-U76nfg

And remember the fellow with the big ears? Barry, the Wall Street Water-Boy? We didn't even get spare change from him. No rollback of the Bush tax cuts we couldn't afford. No change in the carried interest rule. No accountability for the 2008 collapse of the banking system -- we prosecuted 29 less banksters than Iceland. No end to our needless wars of empire. No constraints on Big Pharms and Big Insurance. No foreseeable end to deindustrialization of the American heartland. No meaningful curb on global warming. But now, gays can get married. Yay.

Why should reasonable Republicans stand on principle? Flake and Corker are going to need jobs, and even if they had an unexpected bout of conscience, a Cory Booker, Joe Manchin, or Hillary Clinton would step up and take their place.

People voted for Obama out of desperate hope. They voted for Trump out of frustration. There is nowhere left to turn.

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Trevor Chase
on October 26, 2017 at 19:49:33 pm

"Why should reasonable Republicans stand on principle"

Of course, it would be helpful if *reasonable*, i.e., establishment, Repubs had some principles other than their principal objective of getting re-elected - and even then, the dolts are unable to read the tea leaves correctly.

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on October 29, 2017 at 11:27:55 am

[…] Reprinted from the Online Library of Law and Liberty. […]

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Why Rational Consumers Are Irrational Voters – FEE Syndication
on October 30, 2017 at 18:47:24 pm

[…] Michael Rappaport compares us in our role as consumer to us in our role as voters. […]

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Some Links - Cafe Hayek

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