Special Interests or Voter Disinterest?

Bryan Caplan had a nice essay in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday (subscription required).  Caplan has been working on these ideas for some time and has just published a widely praised book on the subject.  It would seem that it is important to educate people about how markets work while simultaneously giving politicians the right information and incentives to vote for pro-market incentives.  If the politician doesn’t take notice, even the best ideas will fail to make it through the process and politicians’ behavior is affected by what they hear and how they think it will affect their future.  To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s observation on the Congress’ of the ’80s, you have to show them the light and make them feel the heat.

Key ideas from Caplan’s essay here:

 When special interests talk, politicians listen and the rest of us suffer. But why do politicians listen? Social scientists’ favorite explanation is that special interests pay close attention to their pet issues and the rest of us do not. So when politicians decide where to stand, the safer path is to satisfy knowledgeable insiders at the expense of the oblivious public.

This explanation is appealing, but it neglects one glaring fact. “Special-interest” legislation is popular.

Keeping foreign products out is popular. Since 1976, the Worldviews survey has always found that Americans who “sympathize more with those who want to eliminate tariffs” are seriously outnumbered by “those who think such tariffs are necessary.” Handouts for farmers are popular. A 2004 PIPA-Knowledge Networks Poll found that 58% agree that “government needs to subsidize farming to make sure there will always be a good supply of food.” In 2006, the Pew Research Center found that over 80% of Americans want to raise the minimum wage. It is safe to assume, then, that few people want to abolish it. These results are not isolated. It is hard to find any “special interest” policies that most Americans oppose.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.