Public Opinion and Democracy: Some British Food for Thought
By Bryan Caplan
Pete Boettke often says that I believe that we get the government we deserve. My usual retort is “No, they get the government they deserve, and unfortunately I get the government they deserve too.” But in essence he correctly describes my view: The status quo is popular, and changes to the status quo are not.
To all the skeptics out there, I routinely offer the following challenge: Name the unpopular policies. A lot of economists’ favorite counter-examples turn out to be wrong. Special interests force protectionism on us? Hardly. Protectionism is very popular. Just check out the Worldviews 2002 survey for starters. Farm subsidies? The public does not want to help large agribusiness, but the basic idea is popular – in and out of farm states. For more gory details, see section 5b of my paper with Ed Stringham.
I’ve been rather smug about my challenge for the last couple of years. But yesterday the brilliant Tim Besley visited GMU, and he had a couple of big counter-examples from the UK. The death penalty is one, he says. British public opinion overwhelmingly supports it, but neither party will give it to them. Even stronger, a majority of Britons opposed the Iraq War all along, but the Labour Party entered anyway. And the Conservatives aren’t trying to steal the anti-war position!
Particularly striking about Besley’s examples: In a Parliamentary system, you know who is responsible for policy. In the U.S. the President, Congress, and the judicary can blame each other for unpopular “elitist” policies. But that doesn’t fly given the supremacy of Parliament.
Besley may be right. He knows more about British opinion than I do. But I’m still not convinced.
Unlike a lot of economists, I have no methodological quarrel with surveys. But I suspect that simple polls are missing a big part of these stories. If Britain adopted the death penalty, it might become an EU pariah. Do a majority of Britons want the death penalty if it puts their membership in the EU at (mild) risk? Similarly, if Britain had not supported the Iraq War, the British people might well have lost the long-run support of the Yanks, their best friends in both World Wars. Were most Britons willing to take that gamble?
Political scientists like to flatter the public by talking about how “nuanced” and “sophisticated” its views are. That goes way too far. But the kernel of truth here is that the public is often more accepting of the status quo than it first appears.