Bryan Caplan  

Why Is Democracy Tolerable? Evidence from Affluence and Influence

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Before I studied public opinion, I often wondered, "Why are democracies' policies so bad?"  After I studied public opinion, I started asking myself the opposite question: "Why aren't democracies' policies even worse?"  The median American is no Nazi, but he is a moderate national socialist - statist to the core on both economic and social policy.  Given public opinion, the policies of First World democracies are surprisingly libertarian.

In The Myth of the Rational Voter, I discuss several mechanisms that might explain why, given public opinion, democracies' policies are better than you'd expect.  But I was simply unaware of the facts presented in Martin Gilens' new Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.  Gilens compiles a massive data set of public opinion surveys and subsequent policy outcomes, and reaches a shocking conclusion: Democracy has a strong tendency to simply supply the policies favored by the rich.  When the poor, the middle class, and the rich disagree, American democracy largely ignores the poor and the middle class. 

To avoid misinterpretation, this does not mean that American democracy has a strong tendency to supply the policies that most materially benefit the rich.  It doesn't.  Gilens, like all well-informed political scientists, knows that self-interest has little effect on public opinion.  Neither does this mean that Americans strongly object to the policy status quo.  They don't, because poor, middle class, and rich tend to agree.  Gilens' key conclusion is simply that when rich and poor happen to disagree, the rich generally get their way.

Here's what happens when the 10th percentile of the income distribution disagrees with the 90th percentile:

Here's what happens when the 50th percentile of the income distribution disagrees with the 90th percentile:


So when do the poor, middle class, and rich diverge?  On distributional issues, there is high consensus.  But the rich are noticeably less statist on both economic and social policy.  Rich and poor alike favor raising the minimum wage, but the support of the poor is nearly unanimous.  The poor are slightly more in favor of extending unemployment benefits.  They're much more anti-gay.  They're much less opposed to restricting free speech to fight terrorism.  The list goes on.

Both left and right are likely to misread Gilens.  The left will probably imagine that he's saying that American democracy is a vast conspiracy to promote the material interests of the rich.  To repeat, Gilens explicitly disavows this conclusion: His claim is not that American democracy primarily benefits the rich, but that it primarily listens to the rich. 

The right, on the other hand, will angrily reject Gilens' findings as rehashed Marxism in statistical garb.  (To quote The Communist Manifesto, "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.")  If you read the whole book, though, you'll be amazed by how many leftist oxen he gores.  Most shockingly: Gilens concludes that the president most responsive to all Americans regardless of income was... George W. Bush!  Look:


Gilens is clearly disturbed, even frightened, by his own results.  On social policy, his findings horrify him as a democrat: Even if the lower classes are intolerant, shouldn't they have equal say?  On economic policy, his findings horrify him as a liberal and a democrat: Isn't it awful when our government fails to adopt the oh-so-wise regulations non-rich Americans support? 

In contrast, I find Gilens' results not only intellectually satisfying, but hopeful.  If his results hold up, we know another important reason why policy is less statist than expected: Democracies listen to the relatively libertarian rich far more than they listen to the absolutely statist non-rich.  And since I think that statist policy preferences rest on a long list of empirical and normative mistakes, my sincere reaction is to say, "Thank goodness."  Democracy as we know it is bad enough.  Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an authoritarian nightmare.

COMMENTS (30 to date)
KnowPD writes:

Interesting facts supporting the idea that policies favor the preferences of the rich but does he provide an explanation of why? One explanation is that wealth broadens liberty such that when in doubt, chose wealth. Wealthier voters are less likely to vote out politicians than poorer ones looking for a scapegoat at the end of the term. Irrational voters become raitional after the fact.

MikeP writes:

Most shockingly: Gilens concludes that the president most responsive to all Americans regardless of income was... George W. Bush!

Not too shocking. He did, after all, have a tendency to say yes to any program or interest whatsoever. And he ran up the deficits to prove it.

Kevin writes:

I wonder what the mechanism is. Off the top of my head...

1) Lobbying Special Interests. Maybe they have an effect on the margin and, perhaps being generate more influence for the rich than the poor/middle class.

2) Median Voter vs. Median Poll Respondent. Gilens cites public opinion polls, but isn't there a correlation between wealth and likelihood of voting? The median voter may be wealthier (and more libertarian-leaning) than the median citizen/poll respondent.

3) Unrepresentative Representatives. The median voter gets what they want on average, but politicians aren't representative of the median voter on an individual level; they're usually highly educated and often quite wealthy. As such, when they have some leeway, their personal policy preferences are more similar to those of wealthy voters and so policy is biased in that direction.


Brandon Berg writes:

Interesting facts supporting the idea that policies favor the preferences of the rich but does he provide an explanation of why?

My guess would be that it's because lawmakers are themselves drawn overwhelmingly from the top decile. They represent their constituents to some extent, but they also bring with them their own policy preferences. It's no surprise that the actions of lawmakers reflect the policy preferences typical of their own socioeconomic class.

MikeP writes:

I would think the principal mechanism is that wealthier voters, and organizations representing wealthier voters, simply sound more sane and can make more rational arguments.

Brandon Berg writes:

Also, the 90th percentile isn't really rich, but rather upper middle class. I don't know whether or how the preferences of the 99th or 99.9th percentile differ from the 90th, but it is worth noting that this doesn't actually address the policy preferences of the rich. Nobody's out in the streets protesting the undue influence the 90th percentile has on policy.

Mike Linksvayer writes:

In addition to relatively wealthy voters and representatives, don't forget administrators and staffs.

Too bad nowhere uses sortition, which ought to make the socioeconomic distribution of representatives much less skewed.

Also, these results ought to put a damper on fear some so-called libertarians have concerning poor immigrants voting to redistribute wealth to themselves.

Cfin writes:

What does this say about America without universal suffrage? I guess allowing only wealthy white males to vote improves the results of the election. As if Bryan Caplan needed another position that shocks everyone.

david writes:

Legislators and chief executives come from wealthy classes, but they don't act like self-interested voters either, and so enforce their lifestyle rather than their material interest.

Garth Zietsman writes:

I wonder whether politicians are listening to the wealthier because they are richer (and more powerful) or because they tend to be smarter (and better informed) i.e. aren't they perhaps responding to intelligent opinion.

It could be that they are just more likely to listen to those most like themselves but I would hope that they are more ready to lend an ear to the brighter among their class rather than simply their class median.

Ritwik writes:

Very very interesting. One thing I'd be interested in is: does the nationalism of the poor hold up well over time? Especially, how does the support for curbing free speech (or doing anything) to combat threats to national security compare in the post-2001 era vs. the Vietnam war era? Is it possible that the rich/poor support for nationalism was inverted in that era?

Jotto writes:
Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an authoritarian nightmare.

What a magnificent sentence with which to end a superb essay. This captures why I'm a libertarian far better than I imagined a rhetorical sentence could.

caltrek writes:

Although I consider myself a libertarian on social issues, I am more willing to listen to socialist arguments on economic issues. So when I read that "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie", I have to think that maybe socialists are on to something there.

Mind you, I don't agree with that as an absolute proposition. A representative democracy at least holds out the possibility that the poor and the middle class can organize on behalf of their own interests and even occasionaly influence the policy process. Still, the rich as a (less than monolithic) class can mobilize more resources to further their own view points and interests. They can fund foundations that serve as think tanks for policy development.

Campaign contributions from the rich can "corrupt" the democratic process. (I put the word "corrupt" in quotations because I realize that it is a matter of subjective perspective as to whether certain outcomes should be considered as a matter of corruption). Politicians must take into account the potential affect of such campaing contributions. They are motivated to gain favor to "earn" such contributions and must worry about the possibility of their election opponents gaining an advantage in that regard.

The rich also by and large own controlling interests in corporate media. So while reporters may have "liberal" biases, they must answer to editors that worry about things like advertising dollars and the interests of their wealthy overlords.

Last but not least, the wealthy have the advantage of being perceived as politically powerful. This perception in turn translates into real power. Policy makers are reluctant to violate the privileges of the wealthy unless countervailing interests have clearly demonstrated that they are organized and capable of also influencing the political process.

So the ruling ideas of a capitalist society are indeed associated with the ruling class.

I will now await the usual barrage of outrage, and jumping to conclusions as to what alternatives I might favor, that seems to follow such provocative observations on my part.

David R. Henderson writes:

Fascinating! Excellent post! I understood it all except the “logistic regression coefficient.” What is regressed on what? That is, what is the independent variable you’re discussing and what is the dependent variable?

Tom West writes:

A fascinating, but deeply unsettling post.

I sometimes wonder whether most of Western civilization is mostly based on the lies that we have believed about ourselves. Understand too much and we risk a "bank run" on civilization itself.

Nick Rowe writes:

Really good post. Weird and worrying too.

MatthewH writes:

I should think pluralism and a risk-aversion should be adequate to explain the result (though there are other theories that could work). We don't want democracies to be responsive to everyone, we want them to be responsive to the people with the most to lose or gain. The rich have the most to lose (and potentially gain, but I wouldn't swear to that). Combine the two ideas and we get the "when in conflict, go with the rich" rule.

Greg G writes:

Why is democracy tolerable?

Well, there is that little thing about undemocratic systems being much worse.

sourcreamus writes:

Politicians are good at getting people to like them and vote for them. They are not policy experts. They outsource the policy to experts who are drawn from the same milieu as the rich.
The experts are what drive policy, public opinion generally serving as a constraint.

mark writes:

Not to sound overly cynical, but I do believe that democracy's (or, more accurately, elections') one true, positive function is to provide a nonviolent method for elites to compete for the rents that government generates or facilitates. In that sense, it is a net positive for human welfare, because violent competition would be far worse for welfare.

Philo writes:

Fascinating, but not surprising, and (contra Tom West) not unsettling--like Bryan, I'm pretty comfortable with the findings.

Bryan, please do answer David Henderson's question.

Mike writes:

Wait, are you saying that Bush is by far the most popular recent President?

hahaha :)

D.A. writes:

I second David Henderson's question.

Also, a general point: Why trust the non-median voter's say so about what he wants?

If I was a millionaire discussing taxes with my non-millionaire neighbors, you better believe I would go on at length about how important redistribution is and how we need more of it.

If I was getting robbed at gunpoint, you better believe I would reassure the thief that it is no bother and that he's welcome anytime.

We reveal our true preferences when we exercise power; we reveal little more than our self-interested desire to get along and go along when power is being exercised on us.

D.A. writes:

And continuing the above chain of thought, the median voter displays very clever and obvious preferences for self-interested policies. The SIVH lives, but with an understanding of who the V in Voter really is.

MingoV writes:
Given public opinion, the policies of First World democracies are surprisingly libertarian.
I disagree. Most first world democracies have large national governments with significant welfare and nanny components. Economic freedom is low: many jobs require government licenses, forming a small business is difficult, workplace-related regulations abound, and many corporations are government-protected. The first world democracies allow more individual freedoms than totalitarian governments, but those freedoms are less than what libertarians expect.
Ted Levy writes:


I think Bryan means for you to read "surprisingly libertarian," not as "mostly libertarian" but, as "not quite as totalitarian as one might have otherwise expected."

Piotr Pieniążek writes:

Mingo, imagine there's a continuum of policies spanned over 0 - totalitarian to 1 - anarchist, p[0,1]. Then what median voter policy based on pure preferences would imply is, say, a p=0,2, but, suprisingly, due to bias towards rich voters' opinions, p=0,4.

Petrik Runst writes:

Larry bartel's unequal democracy says the same. Only the rich are heard. And it could be an explanation for why the poor dont vote much.

Philo writes:

It looks like Bryan isn't going to give us an answer to David Henderson's question. David, could you elicit an answer and post it yourself? Or should we all just buy Gilens' book?

Ok, so I tried to do a small research about Gilens research, but don't have enough time to do a research checking if my research on Gilens research is correct.

Here are the parts of the book; fortunately those which are of our interest, especially pages 202 and 228.

The number of questions are here at page 13.

However I found a research quoted by Gilens that uses other dependent variable: "presidential budgetary proposals".

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