Bryan Caplan  

Faces versus Policies

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Arnold already quoted my favorite section from my Sunday editorial in the Washington Post, so let me quote my second favorite part:

Pundits love telling us that voters are "fed up" with politics as usual. Candidates follow suit, insisting that -- unlike their competition -- they're really listening to the American people.

Nonsense. Public opinion data strongly confirm that the status quo is popular. All the big components of the federal budget enjoy broad support. When asked whether government should do less of something, more of something or stick with the status quo, the average American almost always sticks with what he has.

[...]

Surely Americans want serious change on Iraq, you say? True, about 60 percent of Americans now say that the war was a mistake. But given the available options, voters are still getting what they want. If Iraq were a stable and enthusiastic ally, we'd like to leave today, but that's not on the menu. Most Americans now favor a timetable for withdrawal, but how many would want to stick to a schedule if that meant handing Iraq over to radical Islamists? In a few years, the majority may be ready for "peace at any price" -- but not yet.

I wrote this months before Obama and Huckabee claimed the Iowa primaries demonstrated America's desire for "change." But perhaps we're just talking past each other. The caucus winners are right that Americans periodically want a change in faces. I'm right that Americans do not want big changes in policy. The hallmark of a shrewd candidate is his ability to convince people that faces are policies.


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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Morgan writes:

You are right that rich kids in academia don't want change. Why would they? But on what authority do you make this sweeping claim that Americans don't want change? An economist might ask the question 'How do we know'? Without a proper functioning market, the real, right answer is we don't know.

Your reliance on polls is not just a poor substitute, it is no substitute at all. Polls don't even answer the questions they are designed to answer correctly, they certainly don't answer questions outside of their scope, and I would think an economist might suspect that polls are no substitute for a market.

You claim the primacy of the free market, yet your work is based on the substitutability of polls for markets. Perhaps if you weren't so focused on proving your predetermined opinions to others and more focused on the pursuit of truth you would see these things for yourself. People driven by ideology produce garbage. Garbage In, Garbage Out with an extra helping of hubris.

Chuck writes:

In regard to people not wanting to end the programs that are in place, consumer research has the answer for you:
http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/518545

The concept is "losses loom larger than gains" and it is an element of human nature that if you have something you like, you tend to value it more than something you like that you don't have but could get. (If you are curious as to why people are like this, you've already been told - it is human nature.)

In regard to changes in faces vs policies, I don't think it is either/or. I think that changes in faces is important - social networks are an important part of how things happen, as well as what things happen. Old social networks get complacent and start to value their network over what their network was built around (folks like Clintons and Bushes). New social networks (like would come with an Obama or Huckabee) bring energized groups that have stronger focus on outcomes over self-perpetuation. Which, of course, won't last forever.

Just a thought.

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