Bryan Caplan  

Why Do Politicians Break Their Promises? Part 1

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Obama's already breaking his campaign promises.  But you don't really need to read the news to know that, do you?  Virtually all successful politicians break their promises.

When you think about it, though, politicians' penchant for promise-breaking is puzzling.  If making a promise causes voters to like you, wouldn't breaking the same promise cause voters to dislike you?  Even from a naive perspective, it seems like breaking a promise would cost you all the votes the promise won, and lose you some more votes from people who don't care about the issue but do care about honesty.

If you're familiar with the economics of crime and punishment, however, promise-breaking is even more peculiar.  After all, one of the standard conclusions of this literature is that rational victims compensate for imperfect detection of offenses with harsher punishment; they impose "probability multipliers."  The upshot is that if voters wanted politicians to keep their promises, but had trouble detecting politicians' betrayals, then any observed broken promise would provoke a shrill - if not hysterical - public outcry: "I will NEVER vote for you again!"

If this sounds hyper-intellectual, let me point out that the public does occasionally use this strategy.  The funny thing, though, is that minor symbolic offenses - a slur, an affair, picayune financial abuse - are much more likely to provoke hysterical outcry than broken promises.

The lesson: The public is already familiar with a strategy it could use to keep politicians on the straight and narrow.  However, the public is too irrational to use this strategy for issues of substance.  In a deep sense, then, politicians break their promises because the public tolerates dishonesty.  Yes, you can blame politicians for lying; but as a wise, old saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me."

OK, I think that explains how politicians get away with breaking promises.  But another question is still open: Why do politicians want to break promises in the first place?  I'll give my answer later this week.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Pat writes:

To get elected, you have to build a large coalition which requires making promises you won't keep. Many people who voted for a person are happy when they break the promises they didn't support. I want libertarian leaning Republicans to break promises to the religious right all the time.

HH writes:

Perhaps that's the lesson. But isn't it possible that a broken promise is in line with expectations, and as such merits no punishment? Isn't it possible that people discount politicians' claims ex ante and expect to be disappointed? In essence, voters choosing between two candidates could expect them both to break promises, and then elect the one they perceive to give them a higher value, even with broken promises.

To analogize, if you invest in [vote for] a mutual fund [candidate], you probably still expect some of the firms [promises] it invests in to go bankrupt [be broken]. You still choose that fund over the others because even with the few bankruptcies it generates a higher return than competing funds.

Political Observer writes:

Think of this behavior in economic terms. As a candidate you need to act similar to the competitive markets - you are one of many providers and the only way to increase market share is to align yourself with as many positions as you can to achieve the largest amount of votes to win the election.

After you have been elected you now have the market power of the incumbent - no longer one of many trying to get attention. In addition you have the ability to satisfy large number of potential voters with other government perks (think earmarks). You also have more command over communication resources - after all the local newspapers and televsion/radio stations are interested in whatever draws customers and the power of an incumbent is stronger than the promise of a potential candidate. While you may lose some voters because you broke the promise, you may also win more voters because you broke the promise. It all depends on what you promised and the potential gain or loss from either following through or not.

Gee this economics thing seems to explain a lot of human behavior!

George writes:

Why do politicians even need to want to break promises? It's pretty easy for them to make a set of promises they can't possibly keep all of (whether they realize this or not). Frequently it's budgetary arithmetic they run afoul of, but sometimes its other equally-binding constraints.

On another point: there's a long time between now and November, 2012. That means lots of time for the constituency that was stabbed in the back to (a) forget about it and (b) be wooed back, either with favors or by harping on wedge issues. You'd expect promises to be broken mostly early on, or in a lame duck period, and kept scrupulously for the year or so just before an election. (When Hillary Clinton signed a preposterously large book deal just after being elected to the Senate, and people wondered why she'd do that so close to the election, Dick Morris pointed out that she did it at the time furthest from the next election.)

wesley writes:

"Too irrational"? That seems a strange thing to say about "the public" in this kind of situation, where there's rarely a uniform public reaction because reactions are so determined by party allegiance. Isn't it extremely rational, for those who support the politician's party generally, to downplay the significance of the politician's broken promises? Republicans pretend like Bush's spending wasn't a big deal despite his promise to be a fiscal conservative; Democrats pretend like Obama's lack of transparency isn't a big deal despite his promise to run the most transparent executive branch ever. Seems to me there's no public outrage not because the public is irrational but because half of us quite rationally don't want to make a big deal out of it.

Floccina writes:

Why do politicians want to break promises in the first place?

IMO it is because the public will not like what the results if the politicians follow through on their promises. E.g. tt is one thing to anti-trade and promises to limit trade can help you get elected but if anti-trade moves result in a decline in welfare you may be booted out after one term.

thomas writes:

Why all the philosophizing?

I've long since come to the conclusion that politicians are spineless pond scum. No point in trying to justify that.

Accept it and move on with life.

Greg writes:

I think framing this phenomenon as irrational is a poor analysis. As other commenters mentioned, voters probably see candidates as portfolios of policies and have an interest in minimizing politicians' policy fudges. In addition, voters as a group probably have a healthy appreciation for the constraints of the political process, the need to prioritize, and so on. If anything, it would be more irrational (or perhaps neurotic) to insist that candidates fulfill all their promises. Of course, it's disappointing when your pet policy gets killed, and this is probably one of the reasons approval ratings tend to go down rather than up (I assume - I'm making up data here).

As for being pond scum, maybe. The question is why.

It does strike me as peculiar that the outcry does come over often minor, in my mind, infractions. I wonder if those issues gain more traction because the media can play them essentially as gossip or tabloid fodder and free itself of the need to be "objective." People might not actually be more upset, but the issue may get more play.

cputter writes:

It's important to take account of the costs and benefits involved for each voter. Specifically compared to the status quo. Assuming a broken promise constitutes continuation of current policy, voters neither suffer nor benefit more relative to their current status.


I like to think a politician's promises are like raffle tickets, where the cost of every ticket is negligible to both voter and politician. Thus as many tickets as possible are sold and bought. The voters buy into as many promises as they like, and the politician sells as many as he can, many can even be contradictory (supporting better schools and teacher unions at the same time). But of course there's only a hand-full of prises to be won in the end. Though just like with your standard raffle most folks are happy when it's over since they're not worse off, and everyone nearly won that set of knives they always wanted.

I think the day to day politics in DC has a much greater influence on policies then campaign promises. The incentives are just so much greater for a politician compared to the 10% chance of not being re-elected in 2 or 4 years. An analysis of all the deals and back scratching required for a bill to pass would make an interesting read.

Thus we have the tendency for parties to be so similar. When it comes down to fundamental issues is there any difference between the Tories and Labour? The CDU and SPD? The Democrats and Republicans?

Just like people use mostly superficial traits such as eloquence, a happy marriage or a good smile to judge character, political parties use superficial traits to signal their ideology to voters. Since both parties' promises/policies tend to be centrist/statist they need these ideological signals for voters to identify with them.

Back to the point: Why do politicians break promises?

They don't have the means to keep them all. Neither do they have the incentive to keep those they can.

RL writes:

Some broken promises cost politicians, e.g., Bush I's broken promise on no new taxes. Other broken promises seem to have little impact, not even the awareness that a promise has been broken.

One needs a theory that can explain which promises politicians can more easily break with impunity, and then determine if some politicians are better "promise-breaking" entrepreneurs than others, and how that impacts their success at re-election.

Potential ideas:
1. Does it cost less to break a promise further from an election, ceteris paribus?
2. Does it cost more to break easily quantifiable promises? E.g., "no new taxes" vs. "Yes We Can!"?
3. Does it cost less to break promises to some interest groups over others? E.g., parents vs teachers?
4. Does HOW the promise is broken matter? (Explicit breaking vs postponing vs ignoring vs redefining?)

Zac Gochenour writes:
Why do politicians want to break promises in the first place?
I second fellow commenter Floccina, who writes "the public will not like what the results if the politicians follow through on their promises." I have often thought this is the only feasible explanation for the most salient question of public choice after MOTRV: given the implications of rational irrationality, why are our policies not much worse than they actually are?

Obama promised to 'renegotiate' NAFTA and limit free trade. By all accounts this was a popular promise among the voting public at the time he made the promise, and is still popular. Obama's economic advisers probably told him such a renegotiation had the potential for disastrous consequence, and he determined to follow through with the promise would ultimately cause him more harm (through the weakened economy) than good (by doing what the people want). Certain things are popular with almost everyone: a booming economy is near the top.

You might call this the "I know it hurts, but you'll thank me later" approach.

Grant Gould writes:

I think that Hayek pretty much nailed this in The Road to Serfdom -- you can always come up with a plan to deliver a particular benefit in isolation, particularly if you don't care about the costs (or don't care to find out).

It's only when it comes time to execute that you realize that what you promised group 1 hurts group 2, or that the only way to keep your promise to group 3 would break your promise to group 4.

The real constraints on policies simply aren't visible to a rationally ignorant politician at campaign-time, nor is there any particularly strong incentive for politicians to be smarter about them.

El Presidente writes:

I am certainly not advocating breaking promises or making insincere ones, but . . .

The short answer is: at the time the politician breaks the promise, the benefits of doing so seem to outweigh the costs.

When the electorate is fairly evenly divided, you have about half of the people out there hoping you won't make good on your promise. The half that hopes you will already likes you. The challenge in making the benefits exceed the costs is getting credit from the half that doesn't like you and getting forgiveness from the half that does. That might change the way we look at it.


Grant Gould,

The real constraints on policies simply aren't visible to a rationally ignorant politician at campaign-time, nor is there any particularly strong incentive for politicians to be smarter about them.

Voters are no less prone to being "rationally ignorant". Perhaps this is why they are less vindictive about broken policy promises than we might expect; because the complexity of the problems suggests to them that promises made are of an aspirational nature, not of a concrete one. However, the "picayune" promises are the types of promises made by most people. Using one's self for comparison, it is easier for an average individual to evaluate the behavior of politicians in circumstances they know more about. They are thus more comfortable reaching a moral judgment about such promises.

Yancey Ward writes:

You might as well ask why a weasel is a weasel.

Johnny Abacus writes:

It strikes me that promise making is not really seen by the public as actually making promises - rather all talk in a campaign is a form of posturing a way to say - "I am part of your tribe". As long as the constituents continue to believe that said politician is part of their tribe, the specifics of policy tend not to really matter.

That is why certain issues (gay marriage, abortion, death penalty, 2nd amendment, etc.) have become so divisive - they are signals that people use to identify people' tribes.

Snark writes:

...because the public tolerates dishonesty.

You've misdiagnosed the illness, Prof. Caplan. I seem to recall a very intolerant public following Watergate and Read My Lips. No, I think the condition is bicephalous. It's weariness coupled with memory loss. We've become desensitized to the tradition of sex, lies, and videotape in politics, which we easily forget once the next voting cycle begins.

Why politicians break their promise is simple enough to understand. A campaign promise is a pre-election asset and a post-election liability. That's why we should always vote for those who promise the least, because they'll be the least disappointing.

El Presidente writes:

Snark,

That's why we should always vote for those who promise the least, because they'll be the least disappointing.

I would much prefer a candidate and representative who shares my policy preference and doesn't quite fully enact them to one who doesn't and doesn't even try to enact them or tries to enact opposing policies. Promises, if we want to call them that, signal priorities. They give us a sense of where the politician wants to go if circumstances permit. Political compromises and unexpected events can temper, curtail, or thwart them, but promises tell us where they are looking to go, if they are at all sincere when uttered.

Snark writes:

@ El Presidente,

Promises, if we want to call them that, signal priorities.

Perhaps, but I'm skeptical. I believe campaign promises are more a matter of pandering than than they are a signaling of priorities. If politicians encounter minimal resistance in office, they might work harder to fulfill those promises they recognize are a priority with their constituents, but not if the cost of fulfillment outweighs the benefit of re-election.

...if they are at all sincere when uttered.

Therein lies the problem. We've yet to develop a reliable truth detector that enables us to determine when a candidate is lying and when she is being sincere. Until we do, I'm inclined to believe that politicians will either lie to us for our own good or for their own good.

Barkley Rosser writes:

In some cases it is a good and nearly inevitable thing. So, to get the nomination of a party a candidate has to please various perfervid constituencies in particular states whose views do not accord with those of the majority and certainly not with the interests of the majority. We can ridicule them for throwing red meat to these constituencies in the heat of a primary struggle, but often we should be pleased that they are willing to let it go.

The latest that I have no problem with regarding Obama is NAFTA. Both he and Hillary made complete asses of themselves trying to outdo each other in their opposition to NAFTA while running in the Ohio primary, where indeed voters may have reasons to be protectionist, if not necessarily anti-NAFTA per se. That was the time when Austen Goolsbee was "sent to the woodshed" when it came out that he had told a Canadian consul in Chicago that Obama was just saying all those anti-NAFTA things for political reasons. Turns out he was right. He is on the CEA, and Obama has now quietly shelved any plans to redo NAFTA. Hurray!

Sharper writes:

Politicians making promises is a way of signaling to voters what they support in the hopes that voters who also support that will vote for them. That's also why we get so many politicians talking about desired results instead of promising specific action.

There aren't generally any politicians who once in office are able to actually deliver on their promises unilaterally. We call those would be dictators. Most voters understand that implicitly (although I'm sure there are at least a few total idiots who actually though Obama was the "Savior" and could instantly deliver everything he promised them).

Thus, politicians can always point to some other politicians or group and say "I am still trying to accomplish what I promised, but because of X I could only do Y towards that goal. Vote for me again so that I can keep working on that." "X" can be a group, an event, etc...

Unless a politician does something that publicly and loudly signals "I'm now on the other side on this issue", they generally get away with not actually accomplishing much towards thir promises.

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