In my previous post in this series, I described how Randall Holcombe separates our instrumental preferences (the results we prefer) from our expressive preferences (what we prefer to express). But there is another, more important classification of preferences that he describes. Holcombe suggests that a major factor in shaping our preferences is the interaction of what he calls anchoring preferences and derived preferences.
What are these different types of preferences? Let’s start with the anchor preferences:
Anchor preferences are those that define people’s political identities. They define how people see themselves and how they want others to see them.
Derived preferences are, as the name suggests, preferences derived from its anchor preferences. As Holcombe says:
People can identify as members of a political party, political movement, ideology, issue, individual candidate, or religion. Their political preferences are rooted in this identity. Most policy preferences are derived preferences, derived from preferences associated with the person’s anchor. People’s political identity forms an anchor, and most of their political preferences flow from this anchor.
Anchor preferences can be widely set. People can anchor themselves on a particular question of principle – single-question voters are a classic example of how this can work:
Consider the controversial issue of abortion. Some people may be convinced that women have the right to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy. As the slogan says, “My body, my choice”. Others may be convinced that abortion is murder. They will anchor on candidates and parties that reflect their strong views.
After anchoring on the political party most aligned with their anchor preference, people will tend to adopt the rest of that party’s platform as derived preferences:
American voters who favor a woman’s right to choose are likely to favor the Democratic Party, and political preferences on other issues such as gun control, tax structure, government involvement in health care and redistribution programs are likely to be derived from those of their anchors. Likewise, those who oppose abortion are likely to have derivative preferences that follow the Republican party. It’s no coincidence that people who tend to be pro-choice on the issue of abortion also tend to favor stricter gun control. After choosing an anchor, most policy preferences are derived.
However, people may not anchor on particular issues, but may anchor on their political identity as a member of a party. They see themselves as Republicans or Democrats and anchor themselves in those parties, drawing their political preferences from those anchors:
People rooted as Democrats will tend to support more government gun control, greater government involvement in health care, and women’s right to have abortions. People don’t start with those preferences and then decide, “I’m a Democrat.” Instead, they start with their political identity as Democrats and conclude, “I’m a Democrat, so I’m in favor of gun control, more government involvement in health care, and right of women to have an abortion. These preferences are derivative preferences, derived from the political positions defended by the anchor of the individual.
When people become anchored in a political party, one of the consequences is that the party’s official platform may reverse its position on what was supposed to be an issue of major importance, and the citizens who anchor themselves in their party identity will simply modify their derived preferences to follow the party:
The Republican Party, at least since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, has supported free trade, but after President Trump won on a protectionist platform aimed at China, Mexico and other countries, most Republicans did not back down and argued that Trump’s protectionist policies were out of step. with party values. On the contrary, they supported Trump’s trade policies.
These are voters whose beliefs about free trade were simply a derivative preference, derived from their preference anchor identification with the Republican party. When the Republican Party advocated free trade, so did they. And when the Republican Party turned away from free exchange, them too. Similarly, after Trump’s rise to prominence in the Republican Party, support for free trade among Democrats skyrocketed dramatically, to levels significantly higher than Republican support for free trade under the presidency. by George W. Bush.
To say the least, it is highly unlikely that this rapid increase in support for free trade among Democrats was caused by millions of party members suddenly reading a basic economics textbook and simultaneously realizing that the arguments for trade are very strong, and that the sudden loss of support for free trade among Republicans is realistically explained by the reverse process. The most likely explanation is that voters, in the tens of millions, will simply shift their positions on the issues to suit whatever partisan politics of the day dictates. This is just one of many examples where the major political parties in the United States can change their positions on matters of great importance, even by swapping positions with the opposing party, but the people supporting or opposing these parties remain largely unchanged.
Holcombe reviews a wide range of material that helps explain why most political preferences are derivative for most people. Among the relevant factors is the endowment effect – people value their political identity simply by possessing it and will be reluctant to change it. There’s also the bandwagon effect – when it seems like most members of your identity group, peer group or social circle are going in a particular direction, most people follow, especially when there is nothing instrumental to be gained by dissident.
The desire to reduce cognitive dissonance is also at play. Holcombe uses the metaphor of the grocery store to describe some of the differences between market preferences and political preferences:
Shoppers who shop at a supermarket take their carts from island to island, placing the goods they wish to buy into their carts. Each item in the cart is chosen by the shopper because the shopper wants the item, and items that the store stocks and the shopper doesn’t want don’t go into the shopper’s cart. Buyers get exactly the bundle of goods they want.
However, the contents of a political shopping cart are formed in a very different way:
If shopping were done in supermarkets as is the case in elections, competing candidates would fill the shopping carts with the items they want to give to voters, and voters would then have the choice of a shopping cart filled by a candidate or another. Rather than buyers personally deciding what would go in their baskets, applicants would decide, and buyers would only be offered a choice of baskets filled by one of the applicants. To extend the analogy, supporting a party or candidate means expressing a preference for whatever is in that candidate’s basket.
If purchases were made this way, it is almost certain that everyone’s cart will be missing many desired items and contain other items that they would never buy if it were up to them. But since the contents of the basket are not up to them, voters simply accept what is in the package:
Voters are offered one comprehensive public policy package or another and cannot customize their policy baskets as they would their shopping baskets. To minimize cognitive dissonance, citizens can adjust their preferences to conform to the content of their anchor carts. There’s no reason not to, because the basket they get will be the same no matter what preference they express.
So far I have focused on Holcombe’s analysis of how preferences are influenced and formed among voters. But a key part of Holcombe’s book is how political preferences are shaped by the elite. How do elite preferences differ from voters and, more importantly, what are the differences in the incentive structures encountered in the formation of preferences between elites and voters? This will be the subject of the next post.