Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Should public policy reflect public opinion?

One of the arguments Republicans have been making against health care reform in general, and the public option in particular, is that public opinion is strongly opposed to it. As it turns out, public opinion on the public option is difficult to divine. Support seems to vary strongly with question wording, and most voters don't have a real sense of what the public option even is. But let's assume for the moment that the Republican claims are correct. Shouldn't public policy reflect public opinion?

Larry Bartels provides some interesting data on that question in his recent book Unequal Democracy (2008, Russell Sage). He shows that the repeal of the estate tax -- a move widely derided by economists, liberals, and others as overwhelmingly benefiting the wealthy -- was, in fact, consistent with public opinion. As far back as we can discern, the public has consistently opposed the estate tax. Republicans sought for years (indeed, throughout the entire 1920s) to repeal it, but those moves were stymied by Democrats through their control of congressional committees, their use of the filibuster, and the threat of presidential vetoes. Only when Republicans controlled the House, Senate, and White House in the mid-2000s were they able to push the repeal through.

Similarly, increases in the minimum wage have basically always held the support of large majorities of the public, yet they rarely pass, and the minimum wage is now worth considerably less in real dollars than it was in the early 1970s. Republicans used the levers of power, even those available to the minority party, to stop or slow down minimum wage increases despite their popularity.

Bartels also notes that the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides assistance for the working poor, was created and has thrived for decades even though the public, to the extent it understands it, holds only tepid support for it.

In these cases, elected officials pursued what they believe to be good public policy while largely ignoring public opinion. Notably, at least in the case of the estate tax, public opinion seems deeply misguided -- voters opposed the tax either believing that it affected them (it only affected the top 2% of earners) or that they might someday be wealthy enough to be affected by it (there is very little social mobility in the U.S.). Regardless, for years politicians stood to benefit by giving the public what it wanted, but chose not to.

These examples remind me of the West Wing episode ("Lame Duck Congress," Season 2) in which the president pushed for, but the Senate failed to pass, a nuclear test ban treaty, despite its backing by 82% of the American people. As Bartlet later rationalized,
This is one of those situations where I couldn't give a damn what the people think. The complexities of a global arms treaty, the technological, the military, the diplomatic nuances, it's staggering.... 82% of the people cannot possibly be expected to reach an informed decision.
Obviously, a democratic republic should be biased toward following public opinion, but there are legitimate cases for ignoring it. The trick is figuring out when.


Kim Dionne said...

I get asked this question in my job talk rather frequently (I find that rural Malawians fail to prioritize the fight against AIDS, despite having the 9th highest HIV prevalence rate in the world).

Have you seen this paper by Kelly and Enns? I think it makes good conversation with Bartels' work.

Seth said...

Hadn't seen the paper. Thanks for the suggestion.

Robert said...

I'm in the middle of reading a collection of Michael Kinsley's columns for the mid-'90s. The columns are fine, but I honestly bought the book just for the premise behind the title, "Big Babies." In the introduction, Kinsley attacks the conventional pandering to the supposed wisdom of the "American people." He notes that it is not only politicians but the press that indulges the fantasy that the results of any election or poll reflect some collective wisdom. But, in fact, as Kinsley notes, this collective wisdom amounts to such contradictory and nonsensical views as "We want more defense spending, and more spending on health care. . .and we want the government to be smaller, and we want less taxes. . . and what the hell, how come you guys can't balance the budget!"

All that's to say that while certainly a democratically elected government should be in some sense responsive to the will of the electorate, I submit that the more responsive the government is the more it threatens the welfare of the state.

Seth said...

For more on this, check out Jonathan Bernstein's post. Also, I recall Josh Marshall writing up something a while ago noting that Americans and Europeans have roughly the same level of support for the death penalty, but it basically doesn't exist in Europe because political institutions there are less responsive to voter sentiment than American political institutions are.