If We Can Keep It

by Dave Schuler on April 15, 2014

Russia Today reports on a study from Princeton and Northwestern Universities on the relationship between majority views and policy in the United States and arrives at an interesting finding:

While “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association,” the authors say the data implicate “the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America]. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

As will certainly be pointed out, we don’t have a democracy and weren’t intended to have a democracy. At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin is said to have been buttonholed by a passerby who asked him what form of government the convention had produced. “A republic if you can keep it” he is said to have replied.

Even in a representative democracy I would expect majority opinion to have more than a “near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy”. However, the finding does go some way towards explaining our immigration laws, trade laws, agricultural policy, and foreign policy. There is broad consensus in many areas of public policy that’s dramatically different from the policy that’s being followed.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

... April 15, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Which is why Steve Verdon was right, namely that voting is a useless exercise.

steve April 15, 2014 at 6:04 pm

Tell me again why I should not worry about concentrations of wealth into the hands of very few people.

Steve

Guarneri April 15, 2014 at 9:13 pm

Tell me again why I should not worry about expansion of power in government to be controlled by very few people.

jan April 15, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Unfortunately, Steve, many of those ‘rich’ people are none other than rich progressives who circumvent taxation, while they have the ear and loan guarantees of the president. BTW, my tax bracket was more than the president’s who was around 20%.

jan April 15, 2014 at 9:39 pm

P.S. My taxable income was also a lot less than the POTUS.

TastyBits April 15, 2014 at 10:23 pm

Obamacare is a concentration of power in the health care & insurance industry, and this will result in a concentration of wealth in the people invested those sectors. The reason there is no competition across state lines in Obamacare is because it would diffuse power, and subsequently, it would diffuse wealth.

Or, we can wait for this week’s excuse for the rich getting richer. I cannot wait.

Ben Wolf April 16, 2014 at 4:49 am

@jan

. . . the power conferred by wealth also affords a motive to accumulation. That propensity for purposeful activity and that repugnance to all futility of effort which belong to man by virtue of his character as an agent do not desert him when he emerges from the naive communal culture where the dominant note of life is the unanalysed and undifferentiated solidarity of the individual with the group with which his life is bound up. When he enters upon the predatory stage, where self-seeking in the narrower sense becomes the dominant note, this propensity goes with him still, as the pervasive trait that shapes his scheme of life. The propensity for achievement and the repugnance to futility remain the underlying economic motive. The propensity changes only in the form of its expression and in the proximate objects to which it directs the man’s activity. Under the regime of individual ownership the most available means of visibly achieving a purpose is that afforded by the acquisition and accumulation of goods; and as the self-regarding antithesis between man and man reaches fuller consciousness, the propensity for achievement — the instinct of workmanship — tends more and more to shape itself into a straining to excel others in pecuniary achievement. Relative success, tested by an invidious pecuniary comparison with other men, becomes the conventional end of action. The currently accepted legitimate end of effort becomes the achievement of a favourable comparison with other men; and therefore the repugnance to futility to a good extent coalesces with the incentive of emulation. It acts to accentuate the struggle for pecuniary reputability by visiting with a sharper disapproval all shortcoming and all evidence of shortcoming in point of pecuniary success. Purposeful effort comes to mean, primarily, effort directed to or resulting in a more creditable showing of accumulated wealth. Among the motives which lead men to accumulate wealth, the primacy, both in scope and intensity, therefore, continues to belong to this motive of pecuniary emulation.

Veblen’ view of capitalist society was rejected by both Marx and Hayek, which to me means we should take it seriously. To Veblen an industrial society consisted of producers and creators (which includes everyone reading this blog) who drove technological and material progress. They worked the factories, ran the businesses and developed new products.

Over them rose to being a leisure class, which acted as an economic predator on the lower order. Veblen argued their environment was very much a barbarian culture devoted to acquiring honors, power and status among their peer group, rather than the benefit of society. Just as with the feudal warrior class, “prowess and exploit” are the basis for their esteem, although wealth and political influence have replaced battlefield as the source.

In this view, no matter who our favored billionaire is, they high-five each other at the club later and brag about what they got the rubes to do yesterday. This goes as much for Soros and Schmidt as Adelson and Koch.

Zachriel April 16, 2014 at 8:30 am

jan: BTW, my tax bracket was more than the president’s who was around 20%.

Even if the President only took standard deductions, his effective federal income tax rate would be 28%. We can make the reasonable assumption that he does have some deductions.

TastyBits: The reason there is no competition across state lines in Obamacare is because it would diffuse power, and subsequently, it would diffuse wealth.

Obamacare (sec 1333) provides for state compacts, which allows for purchasing insurance across state lines.

jan April 16, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Ben,

Enjoyed reading the excerpt from Veblan, as well as your own comments which followed. Indeed the leisure class oftentimes does seem predatory in their tireless accumulation of goods and ‘things’. The lavish lifestyles, often generated from such insatiable quests, also seem to take on a flavor of absurdity, even unattractive grotesqueness. It speaks to the law of diminishing returns, in a way, when too much becomes ” overdone and “too much.”

steve April 16, 2014 at 2:09 pm

“Tell me again why I should not worry about expansion of power in government to be controlled by very few people.”

No sequitur? Agreement? Cant tell. Anyway, we already have government in the hands of very few people. One president, 9 SCOTUS judges (for life, and maybe beyond depending upon how you define life), etc. Now make a few people extremely wealthy. While merely wealthy, they can only buy and control a few Senators and Congresscritters. Make them extremely wealthy and they can buy them across the whole country. Or maybe they just make those large anonymous donations to 501c’s out of a sense of civic duty. :-)

jan- You continue a weird meme that exists on the right. Just so you know, all wealthy people are not progressives. When you look at how they donate their money, they have a preference for the GOP.( My tax bracket was also higher. Not sure how that is relevant.)

Selling across state lines? It can happen now, though as noted above, Obamacare makes it easier. The problem is that health insurance is controlled and regulated at the state level. You can buy anything you want , it just has to comply with the regs of that state. So, what you are asking for is essentially nonsense. Gibberish. What you should be asking for is that states do away with their individual mandates, or that they all have the same ones. You just need to use the powers of the big federal govt to override the states on this issue.

Steve

TastyBits April 16, 2014 at 2:46 pm

@Zachriel

A compact is a cartel. For anything else, the federal government is quick to invoke the Commerce Clause over State’s Rights, but somehow, they forgot how to do it with Obamacare.

If they had done it, there would be no more state insurance requirements, and the same policy could be sold nationwide. This would be similar to how Cokes are sold. There would also only be one healthcare exchange, and it would probably have been working a lot better, sooner, and cheaper.

This would have allowed more companies to enter the market, and this would have allowed more competition. Therefore, we could expect prices to go down. This in turn would drive down the profit margins for the companies participating in the markets.

Need I go further into the follow on effects?

Instead, we have power concentrated, and I expect a corresponding concentration of wealth. I also expect to be assured by those to benefit that this will not be the case, and I expect them to tell me to look behind door number three because that is where the real problem is located.

PD Shaw April 16, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Its interesting that the study shows the following mass-based groups have no influence on policy:

AARP
AFL-CIO
AFSCME
AIPAC
Christian Coalition
NRA
UAW

Either the study has some problems (that would be visible if we saw the survey questions), or its time for EVERYONE to reassess their priors.

Zachriel April 17, 2014 at 8:08 am

TastyBits: For anything else, the federal government is quick to invoke the Commerce Clause over State’s Rights, but somehow, they forgot how to do it with Obamacare.

Sausage. The 60 vote majority required in the Senate made it virtually impossible to get a rational bill.

Yes, a uniform standard would have been better, but states will have their overlays.

TastyBits April 17, 2014 at 8:46 am

@Zachriel

Democrats had the votes. Democrats knew they had the votes. If they wanted to get Republican support, Democrats should have had version A (D & R) and version B (D only). If no R’s vote for version A, pass version B. This is not hard.

President Obama could also do it by Executive Order.

Zachriel April 17, 2014 at 9:42 am

TastyBits: Democrats had the votes.

Democrats wouldn’t have had the votes if they had a more comprehensive bill. Even as it was, they had to use a lot of pressure on purple-state Democrats, who are still under constant attacks for their votes.

TastyBits: President Obama could also do it by Executive Order.

That’s doubtful. The bill makes provision for selling insurance across state lines.

Zachriel April 17, 2014 at 9:58 am

An original House bill included a single nation-wide exchange, but it couldn’t get through the Senate (Affordable Health Choices for America Act, HR. 3962).

TastyBits April 17, 2014 at 11:17 am

@Zachriel

The talking point is that it was the Republicans that caused the Democrats to pass this bill instead of the one they really wanted. It really does not matter. Nobody will ever allow power to be diffused.

Republicans will never vote for smaller government, and conservatives will always vote for Republicans.

It is all a big game, and we are all being used. You can buy into the game, or you can see it for what it is. Sometimes, I wish I could put on the rose-colored glasses and just drink the Kool-aid.

Zachriel April 17, 2014 at 3:04 pm

TastyBits: The talking point is that it was the Republicans that caused the Democrats to pass this bill instead of the one they really wanted. It really does not matter.

Republicans filibustered, requiring a 60-vote majority.

TastyBits April 17, 2014 at 4:55 pm

@Zachriel

The Democrats had 60 Senators. They could have passed anything they wanted. As you noted, they passed what they could.

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