Arnold Kling  

The Theory of Pandering

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Russ Roberts, in this speech, offers a theory of political pandering. He suggests that politicians know that they are exaggerating problems, because the solutions they offer are so pathetic. If you really thought that all the gains in the economy over the past 30 years had gone to the top 1 percent, Roberts says, then you would advocate something more radical than an increase in the minimum wage or a way to make it easier for workers to form unions.

What Roberts calls pandering, I call fear-mongering. I think that both parties do it. For those of us who believe in free markets, I believe that the Republican exaggerate not only their own commitment to free markets but also the extent to which Democrats threaten free markets.

I think that stem-cell research and Global Warming both are issues that are heavy on pandering and fear-mongering. The Bush Administration has not outlawed stem-cell research. It has only stopped Federal government funding for certain types of stem-cell research. On the other hand allowing embryonic stem-cell research would not mean the end of respect for human life.

On Global Warming, the main thing that believers do is get angry with skeptics. What sort of legislation are we seeing proposed? Anyone? Bueller?

On health care, the Left is excited about single-payer health care, and the Right fears single-payer health care. Again, where are the specific proposals for single-payer health care in terms of legislation or the platforms of leading Presidential candidates?

A reasonable theory of modern politics is that it is all melodrama. People take government less and less seriously, which makes politicians shout louder and louder to get our attention. Whenever a story breaks in the media, whether it be Terry Schiavo or the Virginia Tech killings, politicians rush to get in front of the camera to take advantage of it. That, I would suggest, is a sign of their desperation.


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The author at Maggie's Farm in a related article titled Hysteria Politics writes:
    From a piece at Econlog:A reasonable theory of modern politics is that it is all melodrama. People take government less and less seriously, which makes politicians shout louder and louder to get our attention. Whenever a story breaks in the media, whether [Tracked on May 10, 2007 9:07 AM]
COMMENTS (10 to date)
Tom West writes:

I think the reality is more along the lines that acceptable (to the voters) forms of government occur in what is really a very narrow band. The reality is that while the government makes a difference, it doesn't make *that* big a difference.

Hence in order to help voters distinguish between multiple choices, politicians are forced to exaggerate the differences between parties.

I remember whining about voter turnouts to a newly immigrated coworker. He looked at me and said it was a good thing. It meant that people understood that their society was going to survive more or less intact no matter which government was voted in. Not the case in his home country where potential governments *really* differed (and the stakes high enough that the ballot box wasn't the only place political competition took place).

Michael Sullivan writes:

I tend to agree with your assessment for economic politics.

Unfortunately when it comes to foreign policy the government can be dangerous. War is a pretty big deal to me, and here we are dumping billions of dollars and lives down the drain -- because of government.

Not real fond of what's been happening on the "rule of law" front either, though that's got a long way to go to be really crippling, I think it's well worth beating the drum about where policies like indefinite detention without charge tend to lead.

Robert Speirs writes:

As to global warming, someone should keep a scorecard of how many people have been killed by it. Supposedly we've had decades of it already and - what's the toll? Bueller?

As to lives down the drain because of war, how many Americans would have died if our soldiers weren't killing terrorists? And isn't that the only proper role of one's government - to kill those who want to kill one?

floccina writes:

I agree with your analysis. Politicians and the parties are experts on one thing, getting people to vote for them over their opponents. If you to get elected you must convince people that they have a problem that you can solve better than your opponent without angering the opposition on that single issue too much.

Wild Pegasus writes:

A reasonable theory of modern politics is that it is all melodrama. People take government less and less seriously, which makes politicians shout louder and louder to get our attention.

Unfortunately, taking government less seriously isn't being accompanied by the weakening or shrinking of the state.

Not the case in his home country where potential governments *really* differed (and the stakes high enough that the ballot box wasn't the only place political competition took place).

In the recent French presidential election, 5 out of 6 eligible voters turned out to vote for either Sarkozy or Royal. Do Sarkozy and Royal really differ that much? Is France in that much danger of political revolution?

- Josh

Is France in that much danger of political revolution?

They have riots in Paris almost every night.

Cyrus writes:

In the health care example, politicians know that once in place, a single-payer system will be difficult to repeal. As long as promising to deliver the system wins votes, there is no reason to actually deliver it, because then you will have to find a new issue. Or for another example, if Roe v. Wade were ever overturned, the Republicans (at the federal level, anyway) would lose one of their most powerful hot buttons.

As long as the voters believe the politician is trying to do something, the politician has a disincentive to actually succeed.

Chuck writes:

Firstly, for politicians, all decisions are short term because that is when they are up for election next.

In addition people/voters are loss averse. If we are happy with where we are right now (and most everyone is) then we won't gamble it to get even better.

So in an economy where most people have health insurance, most people are disinclined to change in their situation.

Politics is the art of the achievable - well intentioned politicians know that people aren't going to buy wholesale change of something that is working for them even if they know it isn't working for everyone or won't keep working for long.

So they nibble around the edges, it's all they can do.

Cyrus writes:

Tangentially, I wonder if, according to any of Bryan's metrics of voter irrationality, if non-voters have more rational beliefs about policy than do voters. That is, does the process engaged in by the voter, of convincing themselves that their decision, which in and of itself is nearly irrelevant, is both important, and has been made correctly, actually make voters more irrational than they would have been if they had not tried to make a political decision.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The method embryonic stem cell funding is held back by the federal government is tantamount to a real ban.

An organization which is involved in embryonic stem cell funding cannot accept any other federal funding (the theory is that other funding could be shifted to embryonic stem cell research).

Thus most large research institutions that work with a mixture of private and public money in the US cannot work on embryonic stem cell research, less they lose all federal funding.

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