November 20 2012

More on the "Free Stuff" Debate

Charlotte Hays

When it is said that Republican donors and voters are motivated by self interest, hey, that’s okay.

Why, then, was Mitt Romney’s claim that he lost because many Obama voters did the same thing greeted with howls of protest?

Romney, as you recall, said that Obama won because of the “gifts” he bestows on various constituencies, evoking indignation from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Newt Gingrich.

Sure, Romney might have said it a bit better, but Ira Stoll has an excellent piece defending what Romney said in Reason magazine. Stoll makes the point about the double standard that makes it fine to accuse Republicans but not Democrats of self-interested votes. He goes on to say:

The second missed point is that Romney is hardly the first to suggest that voters might be swayed by the government benefits they are receiving. There’s an entire field of economics, known as public choice theory, devoted to the idea that, as the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics summarizes it, “people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests and…as such, voters ‘vote their pocketbooks,’ supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off…Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics.”

As the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences put it in a press release back in 1986, when it announced it was awarding the Nobel Prize in economics to James Buchanan, a pioneer of public choice theory, “individuals who behave selfishly on markets can hardly behave wholly altruistically in political life.”

The idea that voters might consider what’s in it for themselves, in other words, isn’t some screwball sour-grapes idea dreamt up by Mitt Romney as an excuse for his defeat. Rather, it’s been part of mainstream social science for decades.

Stoll says that free-market candidates must decide how to deal with this. They can give up on ever winning again, try to give more than the Democrats (Romney stuck his toe in this pond with his ringing endorsement of growing the Pell Grants program), or beg the voters to become more altruistic and vote against their interests.

There is another choice:

They can try to make the case to voters that the voters would be better off under the free-market policies. With lower taxes, you’ll have more money in your pocket. With less government spending, the share of the national debt that you will have to pay off will be lower. With school vouchers or tuition tax credits, you can send your children to private school. With free-market health care, you’ll have better medicine and more innovative medical devices than under a system with more government involvement.

Which combination of these responses Republican candidates choose in the months and years ahead will be a big factor in determining whether in the days following future elections they will again be, like Romney, offering explanations of why they lost, or whether they instead will be savoring victory and turning to the details of governing.

The “Obamaphone woman” is an example of somebody who supported President Obama on the basis of what she regarded as her self-interest: a free phone. Lisa Schiffren called her “the new poster girl for free stuff vs. freedom.”

The immediate gratification that is the free stuff—the phone and whatnot--is hard to turn down. It is difficult to persuade people to opt for something better but more gradual—the chance for betterment of oneself and one’s family—but our only hope for freedom depends on finding a way to do this.

I am glad Romney spoke the truth. 

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