Bryan Caplan  

Will False Belief in the SIVH Destroy Romney's Candidacy?

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The economists' alternative to... Will False Belief in the SIVH ...
Many people believe that voters' positions are determined by their objective self-interest.  I call this the SIVH - the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis.  A massive body of evidence shows that the SIVH is just plain wrong.  Self-interest has no more than sporadic marginal effects on political views.

Successful politicians usually seem well-aware of the weakness of the SIVH.  To win support, they appeal to the public interest and ideology, not self-interest.  What's really strange about Romney's recently revealed gaffe, then, is that he seems to take an extreme version of the SIVH for granted.  "There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what."  Why?  "47% of Americans pay no income tax."  The mechanism:
[T]here are 47% who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.  The 47% won't vote for Obama "no matter what."  Almost half of voters who earn less than the median income vote Republican in the typical election.  A person doesn't support the nanny state because he wants government to take care of him; a person supports the nanny state because he wants government to take care of us.  I say this even though I'm far more opposed to the nanny state than Romney has ever been.

So will false belief in the SIVH destroy Romney's candidacy?  Probably not.  Given his successful political career, I doubt he sincerely believes the SIVH.  Why would he say it?  Because he was preaching to the faithful - and the faithful love to hear that their opponents are driven by nothing more than base self-interest.



COMMENTS (21 to date)
F. Lynx Pardinus writes:
Because he was preaching to the faithful - and the faithful love to hear that their opponents are driven by nothing more than base self-interest.
Ross Douthat's version of this was:
As with Obama's "bitter clingers," Romney's "47 percent" line is useful window into what each party's donor class wants to be told.
Bostonian writes:

The SIVH might be closer to the truth if people were forced to vote (not that I support this). If you are not interested in politics, but you find yourself in the voting booth, you may as well vote in your economic self-interest.

When voting is voluntary and has a "hassle cost" of say $20, it requires idealism to get out and vote, because even if you thought electing candidate A would boost your income by $2000 per year, you would need to think your vote had a 20/2000 = 1% chance of deciding the outcome to make voting rational on narrow economic grounds.

Australian writes:

Bostonian,

There are places where voting is mandatory (like Australia, where I live) and it has no effect on the SIVH, as the "massive body of evidence" mentioned above includes researchers outside of the US.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Representative democracy complicates the SIVH. When you elect someone, how do you know that they are actually going to vote in your self-interest, even if they make explicit and detailed promises? (And, much like Romney, few make detailed promises to begin with.)

Romney? What about Barack Obama and The Life of Julia?

Steve S writes:

It’s funny that you point out that one side likes to view the other side as always acting in their own self-interest. I have noticed a slew of articles – ostensibly written by Democrats – blasting poor Republicans for voting against their self-interest.

Does this mean [some] Democrats really believe in the SIVH, or that they don’t believe it to be true but wish it was (because historically they are the ones to offer the most “goodies”)?

Andrew writes:

One minor quibble. The government cannot take care of us unless it takes care of me.

Steve S writes:
One minor quibble. The government cannot take care of us unless it takes care of me.

While that is true, I would bet most people don't put themselves in the category of "net recipient of government largess" so they think - or are tricking themselves into thinking - that they are being altruistic.

Without putting words in Bryan's mouth, I think this may be what he was trying to get at.

Andrew writes:
A person doesn't support the nanny state because he wants government to take care of him; a person supports the nanny state because he wants government to take care of us.

The us requires that I have already accounted for my self-interest in my vote.

Like I said, a minor quibble. I'm sure Bryan has much stronger evidence/ideas that support the theory than this paragraph.

For instance:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Myth-Rational-Voter-Democracies/dp/0691129428

Marker88 writes:

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Joey Donuts writes:

I read "us" as Bryan and the reader, not Bryan and the voter.

Ken P writes:

I think it's safe to assume Romney doesn't truly believe that the 47% are in Obamas camp. The question is why does he believe that his supporters would believe such an argument? Does he believe their IQs are that low? Is he right?

I haven't read Bryan's book so I'm not exactly sure how he defines self-interest. The words narrow and objective are key to SIVH being a lousy theory. A term Russ Roberts uses sometimes in regard to charities is moral profits. When a voter believes a particular candidate is righting moral wrongs isn't that voter expecting to receive moral profits for his vote? Isn't that self-interest?

It makes sense to stick with a definition in line with the theory. Using this definition, the theory itself is pretty ridiculous because a person will come up against counter examples on a daily basis through regular conversations. Using the broader more libertarian view of self-interest, SIVH may fare quite well. Of course, at that point it has little prediction value.

caltrek writes:

At least NPR has noticed one interesting angle regarding Romney's quote: that while there may be 47% who pay no income taxes, many of these people do pay payroll taxes. Remember, the major entitlement programs are in fact financed from payroll taxes. Moreover, the Defense Department is financed from income taxes and borrowing. A major task of the Defense Department is essentially to protect the private property rights of our society. Those who have the most property thus receive the greatest benefit from that service. In that sense, it is the rich and those employed by the military industrial complex that benefit the most from "government largess". The very core of Romney's support.

Snorri Godhi writes:

I am sorry to say that I don't buy your "evidence" against the SIVH. That is because I am Hayekian enough to disbelieve that the researchers who accumulated the "evidence" could possibly understand what the self-interest of voters are, and therefore could not prove that voters vote against their self-interest.

OTOH I also don't believe that voters know what their own self-interest is: the only exception that I admit is foot-voters like myself. (Most academic economists don't qualify.)
So I would modify the SIVH as follows:
A. voters vote according to their **perceived** self-interest;
B: voters' perceived self-interest is at least as close to their real self-interest as the self-interest attributed to them by academic researchers.

Mark Crankshaw writes:
A person doesn't support the nanny state because he wants government to take care of him; a person supports the nanny state because he wants government to take care of us.

I don't believe that this is true. Here's why: when I used to live in New York State I longed for Upstate New York to secede from the liberals from Downstate New York. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secession_in_New_York) I used to google "Upstate New York" and "secession" to see if Upstaters had finally had enough and whether the movement had finally started. One day I found some hits: some Downstate New York liberals wrote an article in which they belly-ached that they wanted to secede from Upstate New York since the formula that doled out education money gave too much to Upstate schools.

It seems that they "supported" the nanny state as long it benefitted "them"; the fact that it benefitted "us" obviously wasn't what they had in mind. I suspect that they support for a nanny State for "us" is actually thin razor and the "us" they have in mind in narrowly defined (geographically and ideologically).

Jim Glass writes:

Remember, the major entitlement programs are in fact financed from payroll taxes.

Only if by "the major entitlement programs" you mean only Social Security -- and soon enough that will be only party true.

Medicare: Majority not. Medicaid: Not. Federal employee-and-military pensions and retiree health benefits: Not. An additional slew of transfers and benefits (Pell grants-to-subsidized student loans, Section 8 housing vouchers, etc etc etc): Not, not, not. Crop supports for farmers: Not...

Ken P writes:

Actually Social Security is already spending more than it brings in.

@ caltek
"At least NPR has noticed one interesting angle regarding Romney's quote: that while there may be 47% who pay no income taxes, many of these people do pay payroll taxes."
I would call it 'obvious, not 'interesting'. Any journalist reporting on taxation who doesn't know that should not be employed. Sadly, my bet is that it was new info to many journalists.

"Remember, the major entitlement programs are in fact financed from payroll taxes."

Yes. However, they are losing hundreds of billions a year already and the unfunded mandate for Social Security and Medicare has been estimated at $46 trillion dollars by USA Today during the lifetime of current workers.

"... Defense Department is essentially to protect the private property rights of... Those who have the most property.."

I agree with the caveat that it is actually the politically connected getting most of the benefit. It helps them setup all kinds of monopoly enterprises overseas.

@ Snorri Totally agree! Voter decisions are complex and emergent phenomena. Good politicians intuitively know that and campaign as advertisements for 'the world the voter wants to live in' or against 'the world the other candidate will bring'. They leave details vague so that the voter can project onto it.

Most people don't even buy cars according to a super simplistic definition of self-interest like economical value, but it is still self-interest.

caltrek writes:

"Only if by 'the major entitlement programs' you mean only Social Security..."

Yes, one of the two.

"Medicare: Majority not."

Please explain.


"Federal employee-and-military pensions and retiree health benefits: Not. An additional slew of transfers and benefits (Pell grants-to-subsidized student loans, Section 8 housing vouchers, etc etc etc): Not, not, not. Crop supports for farmers: Not..."

Strictly, speaking, those are discretionary programs. As Romney points out, many consider that they are "entitled" to the benefits involved, but that does not make them technically "entitlements".

"Crop support for farmers." When Romney was campaigning in Iowa, did he point out to the corporate farmers of that state that perhaps they should not feel that they are "entitled" to crop subsides? Ditto Obama.

Safe and sanitary housing and a decent education. There are those who believe that those things should be considered a right. Do you all disagree?

So ok, add to the military industrial complex, subsidized corporate agriculture. Again, a substantial portion of which is part of Romney's base.

"What is mine is mine, what is yours is negotiable".


David Thomson writes:

Destroy Mitt Romney's candidacy? This is utterly absurd. Barack Obama is much worse. The less than perfect Romney is vasty superior.

David Thomson writes:

I also suspect that Bryan Caplan is negative towards Mitt Romney because of the cultural war issues. His most important issues are abortion and gay marriage. Everything else pales in comparison.

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