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Research That Should Get More Attention: "The People's Romance" by Daniel Klein

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I'm going to start an occasional series here at EconLog titled "Research That Should Get More Attention" based on books and papers I read (and re-read) that more people should, in my humble opinion, read (and re-read). The first installment: Daniel Klein's "The People's Romance: Why People Love Government (as Much as They Do)," which appeared in 10(1) of the Independent Review in 2005.

I was inspired to re-read it by a review I'm writing of Pauline Dixon's International Aid and Private Schools for the Poor which will make its way (in some form or fashion) into a book Deirdre McCloskey and I are writing. Dixon notes throughout that the attachment to government-financed, government-operated schooling--particularly in poor countries--is a product of ideological commitment rather than scientific evidence.*

This is where Klein comes in. Love for the state--and I use love intentionally--is a bit perplexing. My impression is that people are enthusiastic about collective action because it is collective, and it is difficult not to conclude that a lot of people prefer government "solutions" even when they produce demonstrably worse outcomes (witness, for example, the outpouring of contempt directed at economists who defend price gougers after natural disasters). Here is Klein:

If people see government activism as a singular way of binding society together, then they may favor any particular government intervention virtually for its own sake--whether it be government intervention in schooling, urban transit, postal services, Social Security, or anything else--because they love the way in which it makes them American.

Or, as I've said before in borrowing from the title of Chris Hedges' book, Government is a Force that Gives us Meaning.

ATSRTWT. You'll be better for it.

Klein's paper is, of course, a fine complement to co-blogger Bryan Caplan's excellent The Myth of the Rational Voter. You can find a short version here, and Bryan discusses it in an EconTalk podcast here.

*-Here's a TED Talk in which Dixon discusses her research.

COMMENTS (6 to date)
MingoV writes:

My observation is that "love of the state" is equivalent to "love of a sports team." Both are typically mindless, illogical, and nearly unshakeable. Love of a sports team is not a problem, but love of the state contributes to bad governance and unnecessary wars.

I've known some people who changed their sports team allegiance, but that usually required years of abysmal performance, loss of beloved players, or a major shakeup (new location, new owners, new managers, new coaches, etc.).

I've met few people who loved the USA but later ended their allegiance and became critical of the state. We need many more such people.

Tom West writes:

At least to my eye, love of the state has a pretty obvious source.

The state is (at least nominally) pledged to work in your interest, while businesses are not.

Stated intention matters. A lot.

For most people, a business that serves you well, not because it cares about you, but because it serves its own motives is not going to be valued as highly as a government that doesn't serve you very well, but at least claims to be working in your interests.

Most Canadians value their healthcare system highly (the founder was recently voted the "Greatest Canadian" for what it's worth) because they see it as a manifestation of both other Canadians care for them and as a manifestation of their care for other Canadians. The fact that it might not provide as good health-care is secondary.

One could even claim that the welfare produced by the feeling that the populace cares for you might well outweigh the inferior results of the system.

After all, for human beings, symbols *matter*.

Shayne Cook writes:

To Tom West:

I have to take exception to the last phrase in your statement, "The state is (at least nominally) pledged to work in your interest, while businesses are not."

The notion that business does "not work in your interest", and ostensibly, only in the interests of the business owners, is nonsense. Business must produce/supply goods and services that are perceived (at least) make people's lives better. Absent that, they cease to be a business. In economics parlance, businesses must produce/supply "Consumer Surplus", or they fail and disappear.

I fully concur with your last statement, "After all, for human beings, symbols *matter*."

Unfortunately, the assertion on your part - and far too many other peoples' part - that business does not work in your interests creates and propagates a "symbol" of business that is patently false.

(As an aside, I would vastly prefer a Canadian modeled health care system here in the U.S. over the Obamacare albatross that been inflicted on this country.)

Tom West writes:

The notion that business does "not work in your interest", and ostensibly, only in the interests of the business owners, is nonsense.

This is a matter of semantics, but important an one. For a company, providing a service to me is only a means to its end. For a family member, providing a service to me, it *is* the end.

Government is often perceived as caring about you simply because you deserve to be cared about as a human being, not because you have something of value to it and not as a means to its end. In that way, it's like a dilute version of family.

Perceived motivation for providing a service matters, and often matter more than the cost and quality of the service.

As a thought-exercise, just imagine that after being pleasantly surprised at the quality and price for a service a workman provided. He takes an obvious pride in his work and its obvious he cares about whether you're happy with his work.

Then someone whispers "actually, all he cares about is that you hire him for your next job".

For most, a lot of the satisfaction instantly disappears, even when nothing else has changed, except his perceived motivation.

liberty writes:

I don't think the hatred of price gouging has anything to do with love for the state. People hate price gougers because they see them as taking advantage of people who are already in a bad situation. Anyone who defends that will be hated for that reason -- what does this have to do with what people think about government?

Kevin Smith writes:

It is clear many people love government. I think it probably has little to do with thinking the government "cares" for me - how can a complex entity "care" for anyone - and a carryover of evolutionary vestiges of tribal society. Given that my main interaction is government abuses me and that I work for the government 50% of my time I am more likely to see governments and its fans as the "other" and as rival tribes and enemies.

We want to believe we are one big family/tribe and the government is that family. Intellectually those are huge forces and they have very little application outside of our families to how we should order ourselves.

People's innate sense of justice overcomes all rationality in gouging. Gouging is great even in disasters for lots of reasons, but cognitively that is difficult. When the ice truck guys in North Carolina (or wherever, I cannot remember) were arrested the people waiting in line to get ice which really wanted CHEERED because satisfying their tribal sense of justice far outweighed rational considerations.

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