Bryan Caplan  

Why Do Politicians Break Their Promises? Part 2

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Politicians break their promises because voters don't rationally punish political promise-breaking.  But why do politicians want to break their promises in the first place?  What's the point of promising X, then backing out?

The simplest answer is just that circumstances change between promise time and action time.  Example: The politician says, "I'll keep us out of the war," then the country gets sneak attacked.   He doesn't keep his promise because people no longer want him to.

Another mechanism: Some people pay more attention to politics during campaigns, others during time in office.  For example, regular voters pay a lot more attention to trade policy during election season that at other times; the for exporters, pre- and post-election attention ratios go the other way.  So as long as voters don't compensate with probability multipliers, it makes sense for candidates to loudly oppose NAFTA during the election, then quietly drop the issue.

In my view, though, the most interesting and important reason why politicians break their promises is that voters have misconceptions about the effects of their favorite policies.  The upshot: If politicians did exactly what voters say they want, the results would be bad, and the politician would get blamed.  Under the circumstances, politicians who want to get elected promise to do as the people command, then "betray" them for their own good.  Making the promises helps politicians attract popular support before they get in office.  Breaking the promises helps politicians avoid losing popular support after they get in office.

A old saying tells us, "Thank goodness we don't get as much government as we pay for."  I'm tempted to add, "Yes, and thank goodness politicians don't actually do exactly what they promised."  Dishonest politics is sordid, but honest politics is absolutely scary.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/1844
The author at Diversified Interests in a related article titled Paintball ban in the light of political promise-breaking writes:
    Today, Bryan Caplan gives his second post on why politicians break promises (the first can be found here). I think I agree with his reasoning in the following passage: In my view, though, the most interesting and important reason why politicians break ... [Tracked on May 14, 2009 4:47 PM]
COMMENTS (9 to date)
Dog of Justice writes:

Dishonest politics is sordid, but honest politics is absolutely scary.

In the short term, yes. However, it is at least conceivable that honest politics exhibits better long-term performance due to learning from mistakes.

Carlos writes:

Dishonest politics is sordid, but honest politics is absolutely scary.

Unless your name is Ron Paul.

Bob Murphy writes:

Sorry Bryan, but my quick response to your question is (I think) about the exact opposite of what you are here saying.

I think politicians lie to voters because the voters are dumb, when it comes to politics. As in, the voters don't remember what the politician promised, or they take a ridiculous excuse for why the politician now is not living up to it. ("The Republicans won't let Obama end the war!" or "The Democrats made Bush pass the prescription drug benefit.")

Finally, I don't think politicians do ANYTHING for our own good. E.g. if a politician promises a tax cut and then doesn't deliver, it's not because he cares about crowding out, it's because he wants to spend money and voters might get upset about too high of a deficit. Or rather, he doesn't want that to be an issue in the next election.

And then you can say, "Huh? So you're saying voters would punish a guy less for breaking a promise to cut taxes, than for the higher deficits resulting from the promise? Why would they want him to promise the tax cut in the first place?"

Because voters are dumb when it comes to politics.

Matt C writes:

"But why do politicians want to break their promises in the first place? What's the point of promising X, then backing out?"

Why did Wimpy say he'd gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today?

I think you're overanalyzing this one.

Jurisnaturalist writes:

Politicians get elected by persuading voters they will do what they are wanted to do. What do the voters (esp. marginal median voters) want?

We can't suppose that the median marginal voter is particularly ideological. In fact they are the least likely to espouse an ideology. They are more likely to want the politician to do "whatever seems necessary."

"Whatever seems necessary" is easily manipulated. It is quite flexible.

While Caplan argues that voters suffer from systematic bias, yet politicians don't quite give voters what they ask for; it is simultaneously true that politicians, once elected, also suffer from the systematic bias of desiring to hold on to power, so they do whatever seems necessary. I don't think Caplan would disagree.

A correlary is that power is constantly aggrandized.

El Presidente writes:

Bryan,

In my view, though, the most interesting and important reason why politicians break their promises is that voters have misconceptions about the effects of their favorite policies.

And how do we disabuse them of their misconceptions?

An anti-government government employee approaching retirement, who either hated himself or didn't realize the delicious and comical irony in being an anti-government government employee, once told me: "All politicians lie". To which I replied, "No, just the ones who keep their jobs." He conceded.

If there was no demand for lies, there would be no persistent lies; an occasional anomaly, perhaps. Our discomfort with truth and uncertainty encourages us to embrace false certainty and outright lies. We want lies because they are more attractive than the perceived alternatives. Demand precedes supply. It takes a strong leader to deny us the lies we demand, and we don't usually reward them.

Jim Glass writes:

But why do politicians want to break their promises in the first place? What's the point of promising X, then backing out?

The simplest answer is just that circumstances change between promise time and action time.

No, the simplest answer is that the politicians just lie.

And the simplest reasons for polticians to lie is that they can get away with it. Typical scenarios:

[] A politician safe in his seat -- remember, gerrymandering and the like keeps 90% of elected politicians rock solid safe -- lies to get campaign a contribution, appease dissidents giving him bad PR, whatever.

By the time the victim of the lie realizes he's been lied to, the money is gone, the PR issue has blown over, etc. What can he do? The poltician is safe in his seat.

[] To win a primary the politician lies to swing voters in his own party. After he wins the primary he suddenly swings from running outside to inside, walking away from a host of previous positions. (Say "Obama" or the previous presidential primary winner of your choice.)

What are the deceived members of the party going to do -- vote for the *other* party? Did the Democratic left vote for McCain after Obama forgot he was against free trade, etc.?

[] To win an election a politician just lies on some issues, because he figures *correctly* that by the time of the next election, years later, it won't matter, the lie will far back in the rear view mirror obscured by everything that's happened since.

Bill Clinton ran in 1992 promising "middle tax class cut", FDR ran in 1932 promising to "balance the budget by cutting government waste". They were right, what effect did those lies have in 1996 and 1936? How long are voters supposed to hold a grudge?

There's nothing irrational about the voters failing to punish the politicians in any of these cases. In most of them they can't punish the politicians.

And when the only option to do so is in an election four or six years later (maybe, if it's close) then it's probably irrational to vote on the basis of an old grudge rather than current events and policy options for the future.

Voters are at an extreme handicap when it comes to punishing politicians, they can't "just do it".

Where I live in Manhattan I have four pizzerias within two blocks of me. If one sells me a slice with rancid cheese I punish it immediately by never going there again.

Also in this Moscow on the Hudson I have a small legion of elected officials of all sorts making my life worset in countless ways.

I can punish them?? Please, tell me how! TELL ME HOW!!

Peter Taylor writes:

I liked Dr. Caplan's last explanation (incumbents are judged differently than candidates because there are results as well as promises to consider), but consider Robin Hanson's blog post, "Politics isn't about policy."

http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/09/politics-isnt-a.html

Voters don't care as much about policy as they care about which social cliques get their status raised or lowered as a result of the election.

In keeping with Dr. Hanson's argument, I claim that the primary purpose of political promises isn't to indicate what policies the candidate supports, it's to indicate which social clique the candidate is affiliating with. Voters don't care very much about what policies are actually enacted after the election because they never really cared very much about policy in the first place. Political promises are mainly shibboleths.

Bill Drissel writes:

BC: "voters don't rationally punish "

I argue below they actually reward breaking political promises. Further I argue such breaking is actually necessary.

1. To be elected, one must first appear on the ballot. This requires promises to the "base."

2. To enter office, one must be elected. This requires promises to the electorate ... frequently different promises than step 1. If so, QED.

3. In office, executives must deal w/ the civil service where (in acc w/ the First Law of Systemantics) internal goals have replaced external goals. Had the internal goals aligned with the promises in 1 or 2, they would be actualities for which no promise is needed.

Legislators upon taking office must begin making real promises that will fund their next campaign. A $6 million campaign for USHR gathered over 600 days comes to $10,000 per day (incl weekends). The idea that these real promises will align w/ promises 1 and 2 is preposterous.

And, Lord help us, we keep relecting 90% + of them.

Regards,
Bill Drissel
Grand Prairie, TX

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