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I've spent the last five years haranguing my fellow economists to abandon their faith in the self-interested voter hypothesis. One reply has been that modern U.S. politics is an outlier: People today may care more about gay marriage than income distribution, but we're living through weird times.

A new paper by Glaeser and Ward has a fascinating response:

[I]n historical perspective, cultural politics is not unusual. In the late 19th century, “Rum, Romanism and rebellion” were the core issues that determined the Republican Party. The true aberration was the mid-twentieth century era of economic politics.

Makes sense to me.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Dan Landau writes:

Being more concerned about political or social issues than the economic issues before congress is not necessarily irrational. These issues may have a greater affect on utility than suggested economic changes.

Rod writes:

Let me point out that the voters of the late 1800s certainly were voting their self-interest with at least two-thirds of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.

These voters could, mostly, remember the civil war. It's not surprising that they regarded a reemergent democratic party and the 'solid south' with un-equanimity (no, I don't know if that's a word, but I like it).

The Roman Catholic church had recently enshrined the doctrine of papal infallibility ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Vatican_Council and the RC church in this country did not do a good job of reassuring Americans the Pope wouldn't attempt to meddle in american politics.

Bob Knaus writes:

And as for Rum, that had been appropriated by the abolitionists as the Next Big Thing. See this brief history of Welch's Sacremental Grape Juice as a starting point for the transcendence of John Brown's Body.

If you are unfamiliar with the allusions... consider... that the Republican Party was the progressive party of its day.

Bill Woolsey writes:

The irrationality of voting (which is based upon selfishness) drives rational ignorance in politics. Rational ignorance is also based upon selfishness. And rational ignorance creates the problem of bad policy.

So, selfishness by voters is the problem.

Further, it certainly seems like much of U.S. policy is driven by self-interested pressure groups. For example, making money for farmers seems to be the key element of U.S. agriculture policy.

The only part of the "selfishness isn't the problem" story that I will grant is that many voters think it is a good thing that government policies are aimed at making more money for farmers. It can be described in a way that "sounds good" and because of rational ignorance, they have no reason to look more deeply into the matter and consider the costs.

Tom Schofield writes:

1. I confess total ignorance of the term "rational ingnorance" and further confess to being only occasionally rational but constantly ignorant.

2. Perhaps politicians and voters emphasize the cultural and emotional because it is so much easier and quicker than dealing with economics. This allows those folks Thomas DiLorenzo calls "political entrepreneurs" to nip in and grab their share of the nearly $3 trillion that the Federal government whizzes through every year.

Tom West writes:

Or perhaps people *are* being rational. Assuming that people are in the business of maximimzing their happiness rather than their wealth, why should they vote for policies that will make them wealthier, but less happy?

This can manifest itself in unpleasant ways, of course. The articles above talked about how former Ugandans have brought lots of wealth to the UK. However, there's probably an (unpleasant) argument to be made that it hasn't made the Brits who were living there happier. Economic progress does not equal Happiness. (In that instance, of course, the UK had an moral requirement to honour their own passports.)

I would add that one reason to continue to lean libertarian rather than left is that for the purpose of improving the standard of living of the poor, left-wing redistribution ideas tend to fail, while the emergence of libertarian institutions seems to work

Within reason, improving the living standards for the poor doesn't make them happier (and us regard the poor any better), closing the gap between the majority and the poor makes tham happier. It also works the other way around. As the gap between the middle and the poor grows less, the middle treats the poor better, and less like a danger to be contained.

Of course, drifting left is only drifting. As the USSR showed, another ingredient for happiness is that one's work brings rewards. Tax too highly, and you choke off that happiness source.

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