by Randall Holcombe Following their leaders: political preferences and public policies argues that contrary to the usual description of democracy, where voters decide with their votes and political leaders make policy under the direction of voters, political leaders control and make policy, and voters follow their leaders, enacting their political preferences depending on the platforms created by the elites. So how does his case hold up? I will comment on what I consider to be the main contentions of his case – the idea that votes reflect expressive rather than instrumental preferences, the idea of anchored and derived preferences, and the idea that policies are made by elites followed by voters. their leaders, rather than elites who shape policies based on voter preferences.
The claim that votes are expressive rather than instrumental is where I see the most grounds for skepticism. The idea is theoretically valid – what people express when there is nothing at stake often differs from what they actually choose when directly creating an outcome. And it’s factually correct to say that in all but the smallest elections, voting has virtually no chance of creating a result. But I think the case may be overstated here. It assumes that voters are aware that their votes have virtually no instrumental value – an assumption sharply criticized by Jeffrey Friedman in another book that I covered in depth, Power without knowledge: a critique of technocracy.
Friedman argues that this claim is simply asserted much more than analyzed, and Friedman also argues that the mathematical work showing that votes have essentially zero instrumental value is actually esoteric knowledge that cannot simply be assumed to be universally known. Moreover, when one openly declares “I’m not voting, because it’s not worth the time and effort since my vote alone won’t make any difference”, the typical response of most people is bewilderment, as they consider that this claim is patently false. Many – perhaps most – will insist that Of course your vote can make a difference, because most people really have no idea of the math involved in this statement. Successfully convincing people that their vote has no instrumental value takes a lot of time and effort.
Another reason I see for the skepticism is something that should be familiar to anyone with leanings toward so-called “third parties” in the United States. I wasn’t quite old enough to have voted in the 2000 presidential election, but I was at least politically aware at the time. And I remember well that a major point of contention was the candidacy of Ralph Nader and the fear that he was a spoiler candidate for Al Gore. There was a fierce debate going on at the time among Nader’s supporters about whether to vote for Nader, which would effectively tip the odds in what was projected to be a very close election against George W. Bush, or if they should abstain. their Nader vote and vote for Gore, which the typical Nader supporter considered the lesser evil. Many voters went to the polls in this election preferring Nader as their candidate, but voted for Al Gore anyway, because they knew the outcome would realistically be Bush or Gore, and Gore was the outcome they preferred. between these two. This type of behavior is much more like voters who consider that they are using their vote to choose an outcome rather than to express a preference.
That’s not to say that I think the distinction between expressive and instrumental preferences is worthless, or that it never applies to voting. Like I have commented Before on this blog, I tended to interpret ideas like rational irrationality, or expressive vs. instrumental preferences, as being more of a sliding scale than a binary switch. What if we take Holcombe’s strong claim (voters vote expressively rather than instrumentally) and modify it to a weaker claim (a lot voters vote more expressively than instrumentally), his argument that vote aggregation methods cannot be used to validly infer instrumental social choices is still valid.
The concept of anchor and derivative preferences seems solid to me. When looking at how people form their political preferences, the statement “I like the politics of the red tribe, so I’ll be on their team” seems to be much less representative of reality than “I’m a member of the tribe. red, so I will support their policies. There is no official record of the number of political issues, but when we start listing the issues impacted by political policies, the list quickly becomes long. Gun control, abortion, trade and tariff policy, policing policy, taxes and spending, military spending, and foreign policy are all obvious examples, and each of these falls into several fields. of investigation. For example, “taxes” as a category contains all sorts of separate questions, such as what should be taxed (income, wealth, imports, externalities, etc.), how these taxes should be structured (flat rate, progressive rate , declining rate). , fixed payment), how these taxes interact with other taxes (deductions or credits), among other issues. No one has enough information or knowledge to have a well-formed opinion on all of these topics and sub-topics simultaneously. And yet, the vast majority of voters hold strong opinions on all of these topics, with high levels of certainty, and these beliefs are highly correlated with each other, even when they have no direct connection. Holcombe’s assertion that most voters’ beliefs are derivatively adopted, depending on which elites, parties or movements they anchor, both fits the facts and provides a very plausible explanation for those facts. .
I also find Holcombe’s assertion that policies are formed by elites and that voters follow the lead of elites, rather than elites forming policies based on voter input, to be strong and compelling. Indeed, I find it hard to understand how anyone observing the actual workings of politics could believe that elites base politics on voter input, or that politics are formed on the basis of voters’ compromises with each other as than equal. On the contrary, I think Holcombe may be overly generous in his description of how elites interact with voters. For example, Holcombe makes the following observation:
Recognizing that demand for accurate and detailed information from citizens is low, parties and candidates provide very little such information. The platforms are deliberately vague to broaden their appeal. Citizens will find little they disagree with in a vague platform.
But politicians don’t just keep their political intentions vague. They frequently engage in false advertising, knowing that most voters are inattentive enough for it to go unnoticed. To use just one example, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama presented himself as fiercely opposed to NAFTA and loudly proclaimed his intention to undo this policy. Meanwhile, his chief economic adviser, Austin Goolsbee, was calmly reassuring the Canadian government that it was all political bluster and there were no real policy implications. And after winning the election, President Obama took none of the NAFTA action he campaigned on.
Overall I found Follow their leaders be a solid and important work. And as I mentioned in the first article in this series, my summary is not a substitute for reading the book itself. However, I suspect the validity of Holcombe’s argument also suggests why the argument won’t find much traction. A key point that Holcombe makes throughout the book is that, to a large extent, people do not embrace politics based parties, but rather embrace party-based politics. Democracy is considered sacrosanct and its correctness is taken for granted. I suspect that most people don’t come to support democracy because they believe that democratic governments are accountable to the people – instead they uncritically accept the idea that democratic governments are accountable before the people because it upholds their pre-existing belief in the rightness of democracy. Disproving the idea that democratic governments are accountable to the people will therefore have little effect. I wish I could end on a less austere note, and I sincerely hope I am wrong! But whatever impact it will have, Holcombe has written a well-reasoned and important book which deserves to be widely read, and which I can readily recommend.