David R. Henderson  

Dwight Lee on Whether the Poor Vote Their Financial Interest

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Many people worry that a majority of the voting-age population will soon pay no federal income tax and will, therefore, be motivated to vote themselves even more federal transfers. Undoubtedly, most of those paying little in taxes want more government transfers, and a large percentage of them vote for such subsidies. But the desire for transfers does not explain why recipients go to the polls, or vote for them. The fact that an increasing number of Americans pay no federal income tax does raise serious concerns. But the best hope for dealing with these concerns comes from recognizing that the desire for transfers that others will pay for has almost no effect on people's voting behavior. This conclusion, which may surprise many people, follows directly from thinking about incentives and about opportunity costs.
This is the opening paragraph of Dwight Lee, "Do the Poor Vote Their Self-Interest?" It is one of the two Feature Articles for August.

Possibly surprising to some, Dwight's answer to the title question is a resounding "NO." Moreover, his case does not fly in the face of insights from Public Choice. The exact opposite is true. He bases his case on insights from Public Choice.

The whole thing is worth reading.

Interesting footnote: As editor of the piece, I was going to suggest that Dwight contrast his conclusion with that of the famous quote from de Tocqueville to the effect that once the majority gets net transfers from the minority, the culture is cooked. We often hear conservatives and, occasionally, libertarians quote this. One little problem: It appears that de Tocqueville didn't say it.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

Do we want people to vote their self interest? Is that a good idea for society?

Jess Riedel writes:

> the famous quote from de Tocqueville to the effect that once the majority gets net transfers from the minority, the culture is cooked. We often hear conservatives and, occasionally, libertarians quote this.

Is there any data to support this talking point?

S writes:

Perhaps I missed it, but I did not see anywhere in the essay where he explicitly states that poor people are less likely, or equally likely, to vote for government tranfers as non poor people. If its in there I appolgize, and appreciate the heads up.

Effem writes:

This notion that the poor pay no taxes is crazy. Once you factor in sales, state, local taxes, etc. the overall tax burden is actually not very progressive (as a % of income). Why would any tax analysis be done using only one form of tax??

Delphin writes:

He writes "Even in the 2008 presidential election when Obama was credited with attracting a high percentage of low-income people to the polls with promises to "spread the wealth around", the percentage of low-income citizens who voted was far lower than the percentage of high-income citizens who voted."
If you have overlearned your logic you should see this is a non-sequitur, and that the relevant statistic would be if more of the poor voted when promised transfers than when not. If I am running a chess club and want to boost the number of female members, so offer free admission to women you would not call my effort a failure just because I had only 15% women.

Phil writes:

The percent of nonpayers has been climbing over the years, doubling from 20.6% in 1988 to 41% in 2010, so the worry in the opening sentence is reasonable. But history shows some significant increases and decreases in that rate.

There was a period of time that could be used to test the hypotheses: from 1930-1940 over 45% of returns had no tax liability and in seven of those years the rate was over 50%. Did that fact influence the passage of New Deal programs? Interestingly, non-payment rates were less than half that during the Great Society period.

It would be interesting to see if there is sufficient comparable data for those two periods to test the relationships.

Data on nonpayer rates here:
http://taxfoundation.org/article/federal-individual-income-tax-returns-zero-or-negative-tax-liability-1916-2010

Eric Falkensteint writes:

I didn't see any data directly supporting his argument, just stories and anecdotes. What percent of the population who benefit from various federal programs voted Dem vs. Rep? Data on that would be highly relevant to this issue.

Seth writes:

From the essay: "The poor person incurs an expected opportunity cost of only a nickel by not voting, or voting against the personal payoff of $25,000, which may be far less than the value he receives from not voting, or voting against the government program."

Sounds about like the expected value of buying a lottery ticket, yet poor people buy those.

From the essay: "Even in the 2008 presidential election when Obama was credited with attracting a high percentage of low-income people to the polls with promises to "spread the wealth around", the percentage of low-income citizens who voted was far lower than the percentage of high-income citizens who voted."

First, I agree with Selphin. Using older, wealthier voters as a voting control group for a younger, poorer group isn't convincing to me.

Second, if Obama happened to attract more low-income people to the polls than other elections, I would think that would be evidence that voting for goodies is a motivator.

Third, wouldn't Lee's expected value logic also apply to wealthier voters who only face a small chance of reducing their taxes with their votes? If so, that'd be another reason not use this group as a control.

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