Hobgoblins of Voter Minds

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Emerson

In the latest American Journal of Political Science, Margit Tavits shows that in "23 advanced democracies over a period of 40 years," voters rewarded political parties for changing economic positions, but punished parties for changing other social positions.  These categories are:

Economic:  free enterprise, incentives, market regulation, economic planning, corporatism, protectionism, controlled economy, economic orthodoxy.

Social:  environmental protection, social justice, welfare state expansion, national way of life, traditional morality, law and order, social harmony.

In fact, "even those parties that make [social] policy adjustments that correspond to the preference shifts of voters lose votes."  Tavits interprets "economic" versus "social" as

whether the shift occurs in the pragmatic or principled issue domain. On pragmatic issues, voters value "getting things done." Policy shifts in this domain signal responsiveness to the changing environment and are likely to be rewarded. Principled issues, however, concern core beliefs and values. Any policy shift in this domain is a sign of inconsistency and lack of credibility, which is likely to lead to voter withdrawal.

Given how stuck voters are on bad economic policies, it is surprising to see voters even more stuck on other social policies.  Alas, social science is built on the idea that better info can give better social policy; if voters interpret social policy changes as a lack of principles, rather than better info, it will be very hard for better info to induce better policy.  Makes me want to be against principles.

Added:  As a dramatic example, if US voters saw a party’s position on the Iraq war as a matter of principle, they would punish both Democrats and Republicans for deviating from their original position on the war, even if voters had since changed their minds.  This would reward parties for staying their course, even if they privately knew better. 

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  • Rob Spear

    What does “advanced democracy” mean?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Rob, the paper says “Western Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States” from the Comparative Manifesto Project.

  • http://www.garyjones.org/mt/archives/000444.html Muck and Mystery

    Dark Principles

    Robin Hanson comments on a recent political science paper. Margit Tavits shows that in “23 advanced democracies over a period of 40 years,” voters rewarded political parties for changing economic positions, but punished parties for changing other soci…

  • ChrisA

    Given that the list of countries where this tendency is shown are “advanced democracies” then we can assume that their political and social systems work, so maybe the voters are taking a rational view by being genuine conservatives – given the complexity of society and the interactions in it, it is never clear whether isolated changes in social policies will have a unwanted unintended consequences somewhere else.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Chris, if voters were being conservative then they wouldn’t be changing their minds about the social policy. The key point is that voters punish parties for changing positions even when the voters have changed their minds about the social policy.

  • http://bitterbierce.blogspot.com Doug

    It’s a funny result. I wonder about what was measured, though. Changing rhetoric, changing policy or both? In the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Kerry changed his rhetoric on trade dramatically but with very little policy behind the rhetoric and Bush wavered on same-sex civil unions with no underlying policy suggested. We can’t know whether either were rewarded for either.

    If the measurement is of rhetoric (i.e. exclamations unaccompanied by concrete proposals) that is one thing, but if the independent variable measured actually policy proposals then changing positions on economic factors usually will mean greater regulation and in social policy, deregulation so it may be “changing positions” may be a proxy for classic liberalism.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Doug, as always, for more details follow the link.

  • TGGP

    Economists from Bastiat to Caplan have bemoaned the public’s ignorance of economic matters. Is there any reason we should expect them to have good information on social matters? As one who doesn’t believe there is any sort of objectively correct moral position on anything, that may be irrelevant, but the manner in which this post was written indicates that people should have better beliefs with better info.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    TGGP, you lament the public’s ignorance, but don’t think better info improves beliefs?