Bryan Caplan  

Public Opinion and Democracy: Some British Food for Thought

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Who are the Empiricists?... Death of Newspapers...

Pete Boettke often says that I believe that we get the government we deserve. My usual retort is "No, they get the government they deserve, and unfortunately I get the government they deserve too." But in essence he correctly describes my view: The status quo is popular, and changes to the status quo are not.

To all the skeptics out there, I routinely offer the following challenge: Name the unpopular policies. A lot of economists' favorite counter-examples turn out to be wrong. Special interests force protectionism on us? Hardly. Protectionism is very popular. Just check out the Worldviews 2002 survey for starters. Farm subsidies? The public does not want to help large agribusiness, but the basic idea is popular - in and out of farm states. For more gory details, see section 5b of my paper with Ed Stringham.

I've been rather smug about my challenge for the last couple of years. But yesterday the brilliant Tim Besley visited GMU, and he had a couple of big counter-examples from the UK. The death penalty is one, he says. British public opinion overwhelmingly supports it, but neither party will give it to them. Even stronger, a majority of Britons opposed the Iraq War all along, but the Labour Party entered anyway. And the Conservatives aren't trying to steal the anti-war position!

Particularly striking about Besley's examples: In a Parliamentary system, you know who is responsible for policy. In the U.S. the President, Congress, and the judicary can blame each other for unpopular "elitist" policies. But that doesn't fly given the supremacy of Parliament.

Besley may be right. He knows more about British opinion than I do. But I'm still not convinced.

Unlike a lot of economists, I have no methodological quarrel with surveys. But I suspect that simple polls are missing a big part of these stories. If Britain adopted the death penalty, it might become an EU pariah. Do a majority of Britons want the death penalty if it puts their membership in the EU at (mild) risk? Similarly, if Britain had not supported the Iraq War, the British people might well have lost the long-run support of the Yanks, their best friends in both World Wars. Were most Britons willing to take that gamble?

Political scientists like to flatter the public by talking about how "nuanced" and "sophisticated" its views are. That goes way too far. But the kernel of truth here is that the public is often more accepting of the status quo than it first appears.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
cameron mulder writes:

People like the statues que? Whow would have ever thought that...

There really isn't anything new in that, I think its fairly obvious fact of human nature. While i will disagree with anyone saying that people are naturally bad, or selfish. I think i would totaly go with people wanting to remain with the statues que, no matter how bad it is, or how bad it might be for society.

Ronnie Horesh writes:

On a quick view, the questionnaire does not present the fairly basic notion of trade-offs: ie that giving farmers subsidies means higher taxes or less government help for someone else.

David Thomson writes:

“On a quick view, the questionnaire does not present the fairly basic notion of trade-offs: ie that giving farmers subsidies means higher taxes or less government help for someone else.”

Many naive people support subsidies for “family farmers.” However, I can’t recall ever reading the follow up question: how much more are you willing to pay for your groceries to support these farmers? Moreover, how much more should the poor pay for their food?

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Public Opinion is not truly Status Quo; it can change rapidly, and with astute and refined gradiant evaluations. Bureaucracy is most often attributed to Civil Servants etc., but Political Interests, Political Parties, and Government policy flowing from them stands as the true inertia. lgl

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