Bryan Caplan  

Blameworthy: How Party Loyalty Corrupts Voter Judgment

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Michael Marsh and James Tilley's "The Attribution of Credit and Blame to Governments and Its Impact on Vote Choice" (British Journal of Political Science 2009) has two exceptionally compelling figures.  The first is for Britain voters, the second for Irish voters.  Each figure shows the fraction of voters who hold the government responsible given their beliefs about current economic conditions.  And each figure breaks down the results by voters' party.  Here are the British results for 2001, when Labour was the incumbent party:
Notice: Conservatives and independents strongly blame the government when they think conditions are bad, but give little credit when they think conditions are good.  For Labour voters, the pattern completely reverses: credit for good conditions, but little blame for bad conditions.

The same pattern appears in Ireland:

Once again, independent and opposition voters have the pessimist's double standard: They're a lot more likely to blame the government for bad results than credit it for good results.  And once again, supporters of the government have the optimist's double standard: they're a lot more likely to credit the government for good results than to blame it for bad.

I'm tempted to say that rational voters would have horizontal lines in these performance-responsibility figures, but that's hardly necessary.  Maybe government action is required to make the economy "a lot worse" or "a lot better," while more moderate outcomes depend on outside forces.  But I will say that with rational voters, the performance-responsibility function would not depend on party.

An interesting variation to try: Suppose you asked Americans to assess the link between performance and responsibility in, say, El Salvador.  What would the Americans say?  Would their detachment more than compensate for their ignorance?

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Chris Koresko writes:

If conservatives believe that the best economic policy is minimum intervention (enforce contracts and otherwise stay out of the way) then government can be guilty of causing poor economic performance but not of causing good economic performance. No double-standard for conservatives.

If liberals believe that extensive government intervention is necessary to keep the economy running well, and that economic performance is determined by how well the intervention is designed and executed, then it makes sense to give government credit for good economic conditions and blame for bad. The plots show a double-standard for liberals.

Big caveat: "conservative" and "liberal" don't mean the same things in Britain as they do in the US.

twv writes:

Attribution errors abound in American politics, that's for sure. Generally, a president and his administration are blamed or credited for actions that usually depend on Congress. The Federal Reserve policies that have so much influence on both the nature and extent of upturns and downturns rarely gets the credit/blame.

Examples? Clinton tended to take credit for Republican Congressional fiscal legislation, to which his own contribution was not exactly of the leading-edge variety. Alan Greenspan basked in praise for Fed policies during good times, but seemed immune to charges of error for bad times.

Further, just as we talk of shifting and incidence of taxation, cannot we talk about the shifting and incidence of responsibility for policy successes and failures? To what extent do we credit/blame voters or special interests for legislative hits and misses? Legislators don't work in vacuums, either.

david writes:

@Chris Koresko

Liberals do not assume the quality of government as fixed. That particular vice is limited to libertarians.

frankcross writes:

Hard to say if party loyalty corrupts judgment, there's a logical alternative theory.

Suppose a person thinks conservative policies help the economy, liberal policies don't. Suppose the conservative party adopts conservative policies, and the liberal party adopts liberal ones. That person's attribution of success could be to policies, not the party. Which might be equally irrational, but has a little more defensibility.

G writes:


Libertarians don't view quality of government as fixed, either. They view it as having unlimited downside and virtually no upside.

david writes:

Yes, precisely. Fixed at some negative point.

andy writes:


No, variable in a negative range.

rpl writes:


I agree with the gist of your assessment, but I question whether the libertarian position is a "vice". "The quality of government is not fixed" is just another way of saying that the government solution can work if we get the "right" people in government. Conversely, government failure is seen as evidence that the "wrong" people were in office. What you describe as the liberal position, therefore, becomes an endless exercise in the No True Scotsman fallacy.

In light of this, the libertarian position is that if the success of the policy depends on having the "right" person in office, then the policy is fundamentally flawed because the "wrong" person frequently gets elected in practice. Thus, as andy and 'G' said, unlimited downside with limited upside.

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