Quote of the Day

One irony of the “campaign finance reform” movement is that our elections are already funded by taxpayer dollars, at least as far as incumbents are concerned. Unable to motivate voters ideologically, incumbents of both parties appropriate tax money in order to buy votes.

Arnold Kling

4 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”

  1. I think Arnold Kling is one of the best writers on the Net. His discussion of health care was exemplary, and his discussion of the Great Depression was incredible, and opened my eyes to many important things I had not previously known.

    But. I do not think his analysis in this piece is up to his usual standard. Politicians have always sought to use “taxpayer dollars” to appeal to interest groups, as well as using ideological motivation. Politicians try to form coalitions and use whatever means are available. The larger message in his piece, that what he calls “the long tail” of the electorate is dissatisfied with what is on offer is nothing new. In fact, it is as old as a winner-take-all democracy, and it is structural. Systems like ours force the creation of two parties near the center, and ideologically committed people of all stripes are ALWAYS dissatisfied under the Anglo-American type of democracy. This is a strength, usually. The parties find out where the public actually is, and try to get there. It is up to the ideologically committed to try to make their ideas popular. A difficult task, but necessary in a democracy. Often the ideologically committed retreat into little groups of like-minded people and in that cozy bower of groupthink bemoan the ignorance of the masses who cannot see the obvious rightness of their position. This prctice exists among leftists, pro-lifers, libertarians, and every other type of ideologically motivated person. The big challenge is to believe in your ideas enough to think they can be politically viable. If you think the political game is beneath you, or too dirty to participate in, count on ideas you don’t like always actually getting embodied in law.

  2. “Long tail” in this case refers to social and business networks catering to minority political preferences, that are made possible by profound Internet-driven reductions in search and transaction costs. It is becoming much easier for voters to learn the real costs of government programs, and for like-minded people with minority preferences to identify each other and form coalitions. It seems to me that Kling’s central point is that this dramatic shift in political costs makes it increasingly difficult for politicians to ignore marginal constituencies. Mohair subsidies (to give an extreme example) and similar payoffs, which formerly were no-brainers for politicians, now carry real political risk, as does trying to weasel out of promises by saying different things to different constituencies (opposing gun control at home while voting for it in DC is the classic example of this). Kling is speculating about the magnitude of the effect, but it seems likely that there is an effect and that its potential consequences are far reaching.

  3. I know what the Long Tail is. If Kling thinks that this makes it harder to ignore marginal constituencies, I see no basis to agree with him. As far as I know, the mohair subsidy still exists. The cost to politicians still comes from angering people with an existing stake, and the diffuse benefits of smaller government still motivate no one except ideologically active people, always a tiny minority. The basic dynamic in Olson’s Logic of Collective Action is still in play, and I would guess that the internet has if anything made the existing networks of rent-seekers and rent-gatherers relatively stronger rather than weaker. As to saying one thing in one place and not in another, getting that dirt out is the job of opposition candidates. I have no reason think this will happen more due to the Internet.

    So, again, I think Kling is simply mistaken that the Net has made groups which care about issues which cannot be made to appeal to the political center can ever get those views enacted into law. Perhaps, with the Net, they will all be enabled to commiserate together in cyberspace in larger numbers. The smart ones will figure out how to package their ideas so they are politically viable. The majority will grumble that the rest of the world is too stupid to see how right they are. The usual thing.

  4. An idea isn’t politically marginal any more if the cost of forming coalitions with holders of other politically marginal ideas is dramatically lowered. That’s what the Internet facilitates. You can argue about the magnitude of the effect but it seems to me obvious that there is an effect.

    The cost to opposition candidates of publicizing the inconsistencies of incumbents is also now much lower, as the case of Tom Daschle suggests.

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