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Feel the Romantic Bern

Public choice theory, which applies to the realm of politics the rational-actor postulate of economists, rightly enjoys a high regard among advocates of liberty. From voting habits to inefficient, Kafkaesque bureaucracies, to the strength of special interest lobbies and rent-seeking behavior, public choice has shined a bright light on the need to affirm limited government and political freedom. It is politics, to use James Buchanan’s phrase, “without romance.”

But how well does public choice explain the current presidential election? This essay argues that public choice, insightful as it is, could benefit from greater nuance. To the self-interested maximizer of material interest should be added, I believe, the commitment model of Robert Frank—doing so would help us make better sense of some of the more anomalous behavior in the presidential primaries.

The campaign of Bernie Sanders is my primary case in point. Let’s start with what public choice does explain about him. His variance from the Progressive stance on gun control  reflects the fact that he needs voters in rural Vermont to continue reelecting him. He may genuinely believe that Clinton goes too far on gun control, but it is also clear that it has been in his self-interest to take a more mainstream view for the sake of his political career.

Let’s look now at something that doesn’t quite fit the public choice model: Not only is Sanders a socialist, he actually owns up to it despite that a Gallup poll last summer indicated that only 47 percent of Americans would consider voting for a socialist and 50 percent said they wouldn’t. Gallup’s Justin McCarthy even highlighted this problem in the poll’s findings:

while a large majority of Americans are willing to vote for a candidate of his faith [Judaism], Sanders’ self-identification as a socialist could hurt him, as half of Americans say they would not vote for someone with that background.

So why would someone who seems really to want to be President (unlike candidates who appear to be using their campaigns to promote a book, for example) tell Americans he’s a socialist when half the country says they wouldn’t vote for one? How does that serve his interest? Shouldn’t it hurt his electability?

Well, we can say that it didn’t hurt him in New Hampshire, Vermont, Colorado, Minnesota, or Oklahoma. His  close finishes in  Iowa and Nevada speak to this as well. And we can also say it is not as if Senator Sanders were unaware of the burdens of the socialist label. CNN’s Anderson Cooper, citing this Gallup poll, asked Sanders in the first Democratic debate how he could possibly win.  His answer: “We’re going to explain what democratic socialism is.” He doubles down—and then masterfully pivots to the meme of the nefarious “One Percent” that he alleges is out to get the other 99, wedding his unpopular label to a popular sentiment.

Naturally, one could object that this is perfectly in line with a rationally self-interested model of human behavior. Faced with the reality that his politics make him unelectable, Sanders covers over the difference between himself and the majority by immediately redirecting to his stump speech material about the evils of economic inequality, material that better serves his interest in getting elected.

On the other hand, that was not the only option, nor necessarily the best option, available to him. He could have said what Hillary Clinton, a Democratic Party regular, said. When it comes to policy, there actually isn’t that much difference between them. As Derek Willis of the New York Times reported last May, during the two years that Sanders and Clinton served together in the U.S. Senate, they cast 93 percent of their Senate votes the same way.

So how did Clinton follow up on Sanders’ response? She said:

It’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system. But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in … history.

Sanders had just explained that what he wanted was a European-style interventionist economy with an expanded welfare state, and though Clinton insisted that “we are not Denmark,” she still expressed support for greater government intervention and enhanced entitlements, much like what exists in  European countries. (Denmark, however, isn’t all that interventionist.)

Clinton wants democratic socialism, too, she just doesn’t want to call it that. And from a public choice perspective that makes sense. If it’s the substance that really matters, labels are rhetorical tools to be used only to the extent they serve one’s interest. Why didn’t Sanders do the same thing?

To answer that, we can speak about calculations of utility. To wit, Sanders may believe he can’t change his tune now after a career of calling himself a socialist without seeming untrustworthy to voters. But there is another explanation. Perhaps he’s also committed to socialism, not just in substance, but as a cause that ought not  be betrayed for political convenience. We may think here of religious martyrs: They would refuse to falsely deny their confessed faith even if it meant losing their lives. Isn’t it obviously in their interest to deny God with their mouths but affirm him in their hearts? Yet, of course, we know of many contrary examples.

So too, I suspect, with Sanders and socialism. Where Frank’s commitment model is helpful is that it “is less a disavowal of the self-interest model than a friendly amendment to it.” Frank highlights that in some circumstances “persons directly motivated to pursue self-interest are often for that very reason doomed to fail. They fail because they are unable to solve commitment problems.”

By commitment problems, Frank has in mind, for example, what social science calls prisoner’s dilemmas. To briefly summarize, the thought experiment involves two participants, each of whom can either cooperate with the other by maintaining solidarity, or defect. If one remains silent (maintains solidarity) and one rats the other out to the authorities (defects), the rat gets the highest reward/no penalty while the one who maintains solidarity gets nothing/the worst penalty. The inspiration is the “Bonnie and Clyde” situation in which one person’s confession undermines the other person’s silence.

The possible results are along these lines:

Bonnie confesses Bonnie is silent
Clyde confesses 5 years in prison each No time for Clyde,20 years for Bonnie
Clyde is silent 20 years for Clyde,No time for Bonnie 1 year in prison each

If rational self-interest is the ultimate motivator, the best strategy is to confess to the authorities, since one faces either five years in prison or none at all, motivating the criminal to risk betraying his or her accomplice. The problem, however, is that if both people defect, they will do worse than if they had both cooperated. So their self-interested behavior undermines maximizing actual utility.

As it turns out, however, plenty of people do, in fact, behave in non-purely-self-interested ways. Frank summarizes:

We vote, we return lost wallets, we do not disconnect the catalytic converters on our cars, we donate bone marrow, we give money to charity, we bear costs in the name of fairness, we act selflessly in love relationships; some of us even risk our lives to save perfect strangers.

In order to solve commitment problems, in many cases we need some signal to others that we might not do the “rational” thing. To use one of Frank’s examples, if the day in court to sue over a stolen $200 briefcase would cost $300 in lost earnings, why would anyone sue the thief? If they wouldn’t, why wouldn’t there be more open thievery?

The reason is that we do have such signals: body language, a blush, a look of the eye, a tone of voice—all of these things may signal that material interest is not a person’s highest interest. Commitment to justice, to fairness, or to blind vengeance might be a stronger motivator. These signals are also hard to fake, unless you’re a good actor, sociopath, or real estate mogul. Through signaling such a non-materialistic response, however, one actually protects one’s material interest. And the best and easiest way to do that is to actually mean it.

Might Sanders’ romantic commitment to socialism be part of a larger signal to voters, one that he could only have faked with great difficulty? According to the Associated Press, exit polls from New Hampshire showed that under 50 percent of Democrats polled found Clinton honest and trustworthy, “a stark difference from Sanders.” Polled as to which of them had those qualities, half of the respondents “said only Sanders had them, and nearly all of those people voted for him.”

This seems especially important to younger voters, who also happen to have a more favorable view of socialism than the general population. While that may explain why the label doesn’t drive them away from Sanders, it doesn’t of itself explain why they would vote for him. Yet they did, in the main. In New Hampshire, Sanders won the votes of 84 percent of Democrats under 30.

Sanders himself offered an explanation that fits with Frank’s commitment model, and his words may explain what positive effect the socialist label has. The day after the New Hampshire primary, Late Show host Stephen Colbert asked, “Why do you think the younglings like you?” Sanders’ answer: “By definition young people are idealistic, and they look at a world with so many problems and say, ‘Why not?’” They can tell he’s just as idealistic as they are. Far from a liability, that idealism has served his interest, at least to this point.

Clinton seems to have recovered her footing as the leader of the regular Democrats with her overpowering win in South Carolina and most Super Tuesday states, giving her a probably insurmountable delegate lead. Sanders will likely come up short for the Democratic nomination in the end, but having outperformed expectations in many respects, his campaign shows that sometimes a little romance in one’s politics can go a long way.

Reader Discussion

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on March 02, 2016 at 12:10:24 pm

Why would Sanders call himself a socialist? I share the view that Sanders sincerely values socialism and the de-stigmatization of that term. True, today that label signals authenticity and character in the face of adversity, but I’m skeptical that any elected official in the US would have chosen to endure that adversity merely to have this signal.

What does Sanders mean when he calls himself a democratic socialist?

CNN’s Anderson Cooper, citing this Gallup poll, asked Sanders in the first Democratic debate how he could possibly win. His answer: “We’re going to explain what democratic socialism is.” He doubles down—and then masterfully pivots to the meme of the nefarious “One Percent” that he alleges is out to get the other 99, wedding his unpopular label to a popular sentiment.

….Faced with the reality that his politics make him unelectable, Sanders covers over the difference between himself and the majority by immediately redirecting to his stump speech material about the evils of economic inequality….

On the other hand, that was not the only option, nor necessarily the best option, available to him. He could have said what Hillary Clinton, a Democratic Party regular, said. When it comes to policy, there actually isn’t that much difference between them. As Derek Willis of the New York Times reported last May, during the two years that Sanders and Clinton served together in the U.S. Senate, they cast 93 percent of their Senate votes the same way.

* * *

Sanders had just explained that what he wanted was a European-style interventionist economy with an expanded welfare state, and though Clinton insisted that “we are not Denmark,” she still expressed support for greater government intervention and enhanced entitlements, much like what exists in European countries. (Denmark, however, isn’t all that interventionist.)

Is Pahman saying that Clinton’s politics make her unelectable? Because Pahman says that something about Sanders’s politics makes him unelectable, and then Pahman acknowledges that Sanders’s policies are little different than Clinton’s.

I sense that Pahman attaches some meaning to the “socialist” label that Sanders had not necessarily embraced – at least, did not embrace during his CNN debate. Here’s what Sanders did say:

[W]hat democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.

That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we’re not going to separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are going to have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.

Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.

Pahman characterizes this answer as a form of misdirection. Really? Sanders says that he uses the term “democratic socialist” to mean that he espouses providing health care as a right, and paid medical and family leave from work, to the extent that they have such policies in nations such as Denmark. By the standards of a TV debate, that seems direct enough to me.

Pahman states that Denmark’s policies are not very interventionist. Ok -- so why would Sanders’s support for not-very-interventionist policies render him unelectable?

Arguably the electoral impediment Sanders faces does not arise from his policies, but from his label.

Clinton wants democratic socialism, too….

Indeed, who doesn’t? Sure, some libertarians call for closing all public schools, privatizing all public roads, and selling off the national parks. But not Ran Paul or any other well-known politician. As far as I can tell, neigh unto 100% of politicians embrace some non-market-based allocation of resources. So the obsession over the label “socialist” strikes me as hypocrisy. It’s not a question of yes or no, but of more or less.

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nobody.really
on March 02, 2016 at 12:19:20 pm

Where Frank’s commitment model is helpful is that it “is less a disavowal of the self-interest model than a friendly amendment to it.” Frank highlights that in some circumstances “persons directly motivated to pursue self-interest are often for that very reason doomed to fail. They fail because they are unable to solve commitment problems.”

Translation: Sometimes cooperation – even in the absence of negotiation – achieves better outcomes than competition. Societies that develop certain norms of cooperation outperform societies that don’t.

People who violate these norms for their own benefit create externalities by eroding the norms that benefit all. So society must punish non-conformity – but must balance the need to punish non-conformity with other social values, such as compassion and respect for autonomy and innovation. Err too much on the one side, and you get The Scarlet Letter. Err on the other side, and you get the law of the jungle.

[M]aterial interest is not a person’s highest interest. Commitment to justice, to fairness, or to blind vengeance might be a stronger motivator.

Consider the Ultimatum Game. I offer you $10, no strings attached; all you have to do is listen to a brief story and accept the money. And the story goes like this: Someone offered a stranger $100 on the condition that he split it with you to some extent. He is offering $10. You have the option of taking the $10, which would also let the other guy get his $90. Or you can reject, and you both get nothing.

Among people living in market economies, most people reject offers much less than 45% of the initial sum. Why? One theory holds that people value equity, and are willing to pay for the privilege of punishing those who behave inequitably. This norm is so widely known and valued in market economies that people rarely offer less than 45%.
Now, self-interested person that I am, how should I respond to the offer? I could transcend the petty drive to punish others and just take the money; after all, I’d be $10 richer. But I’d also be shirking my (implicit cultural) duty to punish people who violate the (implicit cultural) norm to behave equitably toward strangers. I travel a bit and often find myself at the mercy of strangers, so I have a strong interest in promoting norms of compassion and equity. So I reject the offer, too.

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nobody.really
on March 02, 2016 at 12:40:53 pm

Damn it! I was counting on that $90 - there is a great bottle of Doubleback Cabernet (vintage 2013 - a great year, BTW) available at the local wine shop.

What a killjoy YOU are.
Unforgivable!!! See what your "commitment" has done - caused an externality that acts upon me. shameful!!!!

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gabe
on March 02, 2016 at 12:59:50 pm

Ha!

But as Steven Landsburg explained, the Ultimatum Game is mostly run by academics doing studies. Every time someone accepts an offer, the academics have to pay out. Every time someone rejects an offer, it basically puts money back into the academics' pockets. So when we liberals reject an offer, we're just sending money to members of our own tribe. And tribalism is the only explanatory variable that matters.

That said: Given the price of Willamette Valley wines, I can certainly sympathize with your need for a spare $90.

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nobody.really
on March 02, 2016 at 15:16:18 pm

Thanks. Now I have to get Frank's book.

Sanders admitted the truth, that his candidacy depended on the naivete of a large block of voters. So I guess he at least gets proper credit for honesty.

The short version of this essay is that the voting majority votes irrationally. The Framers understood that and that's why tried their best to keep the election of the senate and president non-populist. The popular vote is the vote of compassion before reason, and that is why democracy and its child, republicanism, were considered bad things. Majoritarianism tends to produce its own form of tyranny, which is the tyranny of unchecked compassion. The Federalist papers discussed this in more detail.

Over the weekend I watched a Netflix show call Experimenter. It was about Stanley Milgram and his famous authority experiment. In a study of obedience to authority Milgram demonstrated that about two thirds of the population would, when directed by a guy in a lab coat and holding a clipboard, torture and kill a fellow human being. Therefore, so would our statistically average American voter.

Pluralist government cannot be populist. For pluralist government to work, compassionate, rational, ethical and well informed controls are absolutely necessary to ensure that the impulses of compassion and obedience do not become destructive. The problem then is how to put those controls in place and how to do so without creating a Wilsonian tyranny of a minority. The character of the current field of presidential candidates proves the inadequacy of our system of electing representatives.

Here we have Trump, 'nuf said.

Here we have Sanders the socialist.

And here we have Clinton. For 12 years the US held Iraq under siege in direct conflict with our Geneva Convention agreement to not hold other nations under siege. The direct result of our siege was that hundreds of thousands of babies in Iraq died from water-born disease as our siege prevented the boiling of water for human consumption. (Yes, that is documented--by UNICEF if I recall correctly. A good starting point is here http://reliefweb.int/report/iraq/water-under-siege-iraq-usuk-military-forces-risk-committing-war-crimes-depriving. The low estimates were around 150,000 dead babies. The high estimates were around 500,00 dead Iraqi babies. The truth is probably somewhere in between. We should have either gone in right away, or left before the humanitarian crisis got out of hand.) Yet, most people in the US do not understand why so many in the middle east would paint the US as evil. Most of the 12 year siege occurred under the Clinton administration. For eight full years they did nothing, yet were fully aware of what was happening. What is it saying about our system of government that someone so closely tied with such a profoundly inhumane act is a front runner in the race to be president? I for one am horrified at the prospect of her becoming president. (Hit her with that in the national debates, Mr Trump, if you dare.)

Sadly, the absurdities of our electoral system provide more than enough disincentives to prevent reasonable people from running for office.

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Scott Amorian
on March 02, 2016 at 15:35:52 pm

Walla Walla Valley, I'll have you know!
Quite the difference. Were I to be interested in Willamette Valley, I should be thinking of a Pinot Noir - but it being light and weak bodied, I would be able to buy 3-4 bottles.

Now for a good, solid, big red wine - a conservatives wine, that is, - I'll take cab and Walla Walla - it must be good, they named the dang valley twice, didn't they.

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gabe
on March 02, 2016 at 15:43:24 pm

Heck, and that ain't all. Check out the wonders that the Clinton Foundation accomplished in Haiti under the guise of "charity" - indeed it was - charity directed toward the oligarchial Clinton Clan.

And yet, one of these two dimwits is going to end up leading this "once great" nation.

What does that say about us.

"The fault, Dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings."
The only sensible update to Shakespeares lines is this: Unlike Brutus resentment toward his station, we FREAKIN" revel in it!

Mores the pity.
I only wonder which of the two will proceed down Pennsylvania Avenue astride a "white horse"? - of course, we may need a Budweiser horse for the Fat Lady in a Pantsuit - after all, we would not want PETA alleging animal cruelty.

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gabe
on March 02, 2016 at 15:49:51 pm

I’ll take cab and Walla Walla – it must be good, they named the dang valley twice, didn’t they.

Yeah, that's why I drink only wines from New York, New York.

But wait -- did you say Walla Walla? I feel a song coming on...!

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nobody.really
on March 02, 2016 at 17:10:37 pm

This conflation of “Political Choice” with a concept of a particular politician’s approach to candidacy seems a bit of a “stretch,” particularly considering its scholarly source in Mr. Paham at the Acton Institute.

See, “Virginia Political Economy- The Selected Works of Gordon Tullock, Volume 1 [pp. 16-47]” (Liberty Fund 2004), for some useful background.

If one follows the empirical development of “Political Choice,” as a theory, in Social Science, Political Science or Economics, “Public choice theory, which applies to the realm of politics the rational-actor postulate of economists,” (DP) comes up a bit short as a definition or description. But, of course, it is not “Holy Writ.”

What may be of more significance, in considering the kinds of candidacy and public reactions in these national elections, are the changes in the functions of “Politics” at the national level. The changes we are observing may be closely related to, if not correlated with, the changes from activities for the delegations of power in a constitutionally delineated government, to activities for the direction (and management) of the Federal Administrative State.

Whatever the causes, the functions of “Politics” at the federal level have changed. The functions of parties have changed. The function of the electorate has changed; and it is that latter change which has caused a reaction in the electorate to those making up the groups (and individuals) seeking advantages from those changes in functions, who now form what has become our “Political Class.”

The Electorate may not be able to use the Democratic process for the same function that has served in a constitutionally delineated government. However, the electorate can use the existing function to disrupt its use, or continued use, by the “Political Class.” The electorate may not be able to control, but it can disrupt control, and we are probably entering an era of disruptions that will continue so long as the Federal Administrative State remains the predominant political factor in the lives of the electorate.

In those European countries in which an “administrative” state has become exclusively predominant there has been a tendency for the political functions to move “into the streets” for their form of Democratic process. In England and the United States (and others) those movements have been more subdued, but are not unknown.

To understand current events we need to consider the changes in the Political Functions of our society. Vestigial political functions remain at the state and local levels in varying degrees. The electorate is familiar with them and in some of the largest metropolitan areas, and in certain states is becoming aware of the results of changes in those functions. There is some basis for hope in the possibility of restoring the political functions from disruption to considered delegations of power within delineated limiting principles. No doubt that will take some time.

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on March 02, 2016 at 19:30:35 pm

There are a number of possible explanations for outcomes in the Ultimatum Game. One may be that the person being offered knows she is potentially getting screwed out of forty dollars, even of she gets ten dollars she otherwise would not have. There is a word for people who are willing to get screwed for ten dollars. Some people may just not want to think of themselves that way.

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z9z99
on March 02, 2016 at 19:30:45 pm

Nobody!

Luuuuvvvvd it!
As the one poster said: "it was a complete waste of time.AND Thank You for that!!!!

BTW:
I used to drink wines from New York, New York - do they still make Ripple, Swizzle and some of that UPstate Mogen David?

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gabe
on March 02, 2016 at 19:32:22 pm

Z;

And they are known as drinkers of cheap wine!!!! - among other less complimentary names.

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gabe
on March 02, 2016 at 19:49:10 pm

Richard:

And I would cite as another possible indication of the "disruptive" option, the post by Mr. David Conway the other day here at LLB:

http://www.libertylawsite.org/2016/03/01/daves-dodgy-deal/

In a certain sense, Brexit may be paralleled by the movement to support either The Trumpster or The Bern.

Perhaps, like the Brits, we are finally able to see the effects of the new and "ENLARGED" functions of the FAS (for Brits the Brussels Brats) and find that we neither like it nor are we willing to accept it. Thus, we seek to disrupt it.
Regrettably, there does not appear to be anyone of greater stature, constitutional conscience or wisdom on the horizon capable of awakening this disruptive influence in the people.

So what shall it be, kiddies? A Capraesque Mr. Potter, a tottering and enfeebled George (Bern) Bailey or the somewhat promiscuous denizen of the streets, Violet. Oh, it does so promise to be a Wonderful Life!

Who plays the role of Uncle Billy - Christie is simply too fat and loud for a backup role.

Who will be our Clarence????

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJfZaT8ncYk

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gabe
on March 12, 2019 at 09:30:16 am

[…] actually wrote something quite similar during the 2016 election: “Far from a liability, [Sanders’] idealism has served his interest.” My essay […]

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Image of Pete Buttigieg: the Bernie Sanders fan running for president – Acton Institute PowerBlog
Pete Buttigieg: the Bernie Sanders fan running for president – Acton Institute PowerBlog

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