Revisiting "The Nobel Lie":

An Argument for Constitutional Constraints

Jeff R. Clark

The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga

And

Dwight R. Lee

University of Georgia, Athens

 

 

1. Introduction

For the public sector to function at all, there must be some degree of public trust in its ability to function and achieve the goals for which it was established. As early as the 1700s Benjamin Franklin pointed out that "Much of the strength and efficiency of any government, in procuring & securing happiness to the people, depends on . . . the general opinion of the goodness of that government."1 In 1988 Buchanan and Brennan argued that the basic public choice premise that government action is motivated primarily by private interest, might well serve to undermine public trust in government and reduce its effectiveness. In concluding their argument they posed a key question, "Is public choice immoral?" and responded that (1988, p. 184):

Even if the explanatory power of public choice models of politics is acknowledged, the moral spillovers of such models on the behavior of political actors may be deemed to be so important as to negate any purely "scientific" advance made in our understanding of how politics actually works. The maintenance of the standards of public life, it could be argued, may require a heroic vision of the "statesman" or "public servant," because only by holding such a vision can the possibility of public-interested behavior on the part of political agents be increased.

More recently, scholars from across the ideological spectrum have expressed concern that a decline in public trust can undermine government's ability to perform essential tasks. Joseph Nye (1997, p. 4), Dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, with at least moderately liberal leanings, argues, "If people believe that government is incompetent and cannot be trusted, they are less likely to provide [critical] resources. Without [these] resources, government can't perform well, . . ." Conservatives William Bennett and John DiIulio, Jr. have cautioned against what they see as the publicís "delegitimating the idea of government."2

Public trust in government has been declining since the 1960s, and concern over this decline has been increasing. Data from University of Michigan polling, that began in 1958, show trust in government peaking around 1964, when about 75 percent of the respondents answered "always" or "most of the time" to the question, "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington, to do what is right---just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?" Since that time, trust has declined significantly (though not monotonically) with only about 25 percent answering "always" or "most of the time" in 1994.3 Numerous organizations and scholars see this decline in public trust as a threat to the proper functioning of our political democracy. A brief search of the Internet turns up twenty - thirty websites devoted to the issue.4 Major studies centering on the issue have been recently carried out by the John F. Kennedy School of Government, the University of Virginia, and The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.5

The arguments offered by Franklin, Brennan and Buchanan, Bennett, and DiIulio, and Nye, that government performance is positively influenced by public confidence is certainly plausible, but just as plausible, though commonly overlooked, is that confidence in government is something that government has to earn. The right amount of trust in government depends on how well government performs. A well-functioning democratic government deserves more trust than an inefficient, despotic one. That we should increase trust in government by improving its performance is so obvious that it is amazing it receives so little attention compared to the view that we can improve government performance by increasing trust. One explanation for the emphasis on trust prior to performance follows from public choice considerations. Narrowly focused interest groups can secure private gains at public expense more easily when there is a high level of public trust in government. The greater the trust in government, the greater the political power to be captured by organized interests and used to expand and divert government into activities that harm the public by undermining economic efficiency.

So while the case is strong for a healthy skepticism about government, well-organized interests decry that skepticism, arguing for more trust in government in the name of achieving as much good as possible through the political process. Despite the special-interest pressure for what we see as too much trust in government, we do not deny that it is possible to have too little trust in government. Any reasonable discussion of the appropriate level of trust in government has to recognize the tension between improvements in government performance that can result, up to some point, from more trust in government and the power more trust gives government to expand beyond efficiency limits.

The exact nature of the trade-offs between trust in and performance of government depends upon the particular political institutions, with constitutionally limited democracy surely providing the greatest scope for beneficial trust in government. In fact, we will eventually argue that constitutional constraints can actually increase the scope of opportunities for beneficial trust in government. However, one attribute of voting severely limits the benefits of trust in such a government. Interestingly, this attribute is highlighted by Brennan and Buchanan (1984) in a work that implies that their 1988 concern that public choice might harmfully undermine trust in government is surely overstated, if not completely misplaced. Brennan and Buchanan (1984) begin with a fact often emphasized in public choice analyses: an individual's vote in an election is extremely unlikely to be decisive. They then examine an implication of this fact that has not been widely recognized, even by public choice scholars. They argue that since an individual vote is almost sure to have no influence on the outcome of an election, it costs the individual voter effectively nothing to make electoral choices for expressive, rather than instrumental reasons. The voter who receives satisfaction from expressing support for a political proposal (e.g., helping the poor) will not be deterred from doing so, even though the high cost of the proposal, if passed, would have prevented him from voting for it if his vote were decisive. An important, but overlooked implication of this "expressive voting" is that the less decisive an individual vote, the more quickly trust in government will translate into voter support for a host of government activities that will be subverted by special-interest politics.

In the next section, we will consider how expressive voting and the difference between the political decisiveness of voters and organized interest groups explain how trust in government is exploited and subverted. In Section 3, we consider some of the circumstances that call for more or less trust in government, and the possibility of an interaction between expressive voting, trust in government, and government performance leading to long-run cycles between too much and too little trust. In Section 4, we argue that constitutional constraints on government can extend the range of government activities over which trust is beneficial. Concluding comments are offered in section 5.

2. Expressive voting and government exploitation

In the 1950s, Anthony Downs illustrated the tenuous connection between a voter's choice at the polls and the outcome of an election.6 From this it is clear that voters quite rationally devote little time to becoming informed on political issues and realize little private advantage from voting at all, at least in terms of affecting the outcome of elections. However, people may realize satisfaction from going to the polls and expressing themselves in favor of candidates and issues they feel are deserving, and in opposition to those they feel are not. Indeed, the lack of decisiveness increases the private benefit realized from expressive voting, because it lowers the cost of political expression. In situations typically examined by economists, when an individual chooses one option, there is a clear opportunity cost in the sacrifice of another option. This opportunity cost is greatly reduced, if not eliminated, when one is voting. Because of the low probability that an individual's vote will decide the outcome of an election, when faced with a choice at the polls between options A and B, the voter is unlikely to sacrifice the value of B because he voted for A. This disconnect between choice and cost can result in election outcomes significantly at variance with those voters would choose if their votes were decisive when, as is often the case, there is a difference between the option voters feel they should favor and the one that actually promotes their private advantage.7

For example, consider an individual who feels that protecting the environment is the right thing to do. Assume that he is considering a vote on a government proposal to reduce pollution8 which, if passed, will increase his taxes by $1,100 while providing him with $100 worth of pollution reduction, for a net cost of $1,000. We assume that he would decline to make a private contribution of $1,100 to support the proposal, even though he knew that the contribution (whether or not matched by others) would do as much to reduce pollution as would the $1,100 increase in his taxes. Will he vote against the proposal? Not necessarily. Voting for the proposal is far less costly than making a private contribution because the vote is almost guaranteed not to be decisive, while the decision to contribute privately is completely decisive. If, for example, the probability is 1/10,000 that his vote will break what would otherwise be a tie (an unreasonably high probability in most state or national elections), the expected net cost of voting for the proposal is only $.10. So if the voter receives more than a dime's worth of satisfaction from expressing support at the polls for protecting the environment, then a yes vote is a bargain. In general, the less decisive his individual vote (the less electoral choice is connected to electoral consequence), the more likely a voter is to vote for a policy for expressive rather than instrumental reasons.

Expressive voting is a factor in electoral choice only when there is a difference between what is in voters' private interests and what they feel good supporting expressively. Plenty of such differences exist. For example, most people under age 45 are adversely affected by the Social Security program, yet, at least until recently, even young voters supported the program electorally (and much of this support continues). The main reason is surely that most people feel that supporting Social Security is the right thing to do. Similar arguments can be made for welfare programs, agricultural price support programs, minimum wage legislation, mandated benefits for workers, protecting public schools against competition, import restrictions, and many others. Most people are harmed by such government policies, but large numbers of voters have been led to believe that these programs promote noble social objectives and they feel virtuous expressing support for them. And the cheapest way to express this support, with the possible exception of casual conversation, is in the voting booth.

The satisfaction people realize from expressing support for policies that reduce their welfare is not exogenous to the political process. Politicians and organized interest groups have strong incentives to persuade voters to support public policies that benefit the organized interests at the expense of the general voter. Hence, all attempts to secure private advantage through political influence are masqueraded behind the rhetoric of public advantage. This public-interest rhetoric does not necessarily attempt to convince voters that the recommended policy will be good for them, only that it will be good for the country. Public choice economists often argue that political interest groups take advantage of rational ignorance to fool voters into believing that special-interest legislation improves their welfare. Certainly this happens. Lobbyists for import restrictions for their industry clothe their case in arguments suggesting that foreign imports threaten all American jobs. Those pushing for agricultural price supports try to convince people that without these supports, farmers will be driven into bankruptcy, and food prices will increase. But much special-interest lobbying attempts to win over those who are clearly harmed, at least to some degree, by the policy being advocated. We are encouraged to support welfare programs that will cost most of us money because we should help the poor, or minimum wage legislation that will increase some prices we pay because all workers deserve a living wage. Such lobbying is explained, at least in part, by expressive voting.

We acknowledge that many policies which voters feel good about supporting, even though they work against the votersí private interests, are not ones upon which they vote directly. There are three responses to this fact. First, there is a large and growing number of referenda on issues ranging from school choice to welfare eligibility for illegal aliens indicating that voters are faced with many opportunities for expressive voting. Second, representative government implies that a vote for a political candidate is a reasonable proxy for voting directly on issues. In fact, as reported by Kau and Rubin in 1993, to be elected requires that the representative be in agreement with his constituency. Political markets do a good job controlling ideological shirking by legislators, which is strongly and quickly punished. Third, while political representatives may respond to public concerns, how those concerns are actually addressed depends far more on the influence of organized interests than on voter preferences. We elaborate on this point later in our discussion.

For our purpose, it is important to recognize that the greater the trust in government, the more satisfaction voters will realize from expressive voting and the more vulnerable they will be to the public-interest rhetoric of special-interest politics. People might be convinced that the poor should be helped, American jobs should be saved, or the environment should be protected, but if they have little confidence that government can accomplish these worthy objectives, they are less likely to achieve any expressive satisfaction from voting for government attempts to do so. So those whose interests are tied to expanding government programs wish to promote public trust in government whether or not that trust is warranted. Indeed, their motivation to promote such trust is surely greater the less that trust is warranted, since their ability to benefit politically at public expense is inversely related to the trustworthiness of government at promoting the public interest.

Unfortunately, people often trust government independently of how trustworthy government is. Since most people quite accurately feel rather powerless to change government policies, they take some comfort in believing that those policies are accomplishing the good things their proponents claim they are.

3. Subverting the Public Trust

Communicating voter demand for a given amount of public goods does not ensure their efficient provision, or even their provision at all. Voting empowers government, but not necessarily to do what voters want. Voters may point government toward general objectives, but the power granted to achieve those objectives is invariably controlled by interest groups that determine the details of what is done. Also, these interest groups influence the agendas that get voted on, agendas which commonly have nothing to do with providing genuine public goods. And, the more the public trusts government, the more power organized interests have compared to voters.

Consider that once voters have indicated majority support for a program, for example, to help the poor, they have taken only the first step in securing more government help for the poor. Taking the necessary next steps requires designing an effective program and then implementing it properly so that it actually performs as designed. Public input, in the form of informed citizens monitoring their political agents is crucial to ensuring that these steps are taken. But while voting for helping the poor costs an individual almost nothing, this is not true of becoming informed on the problems inherent in any attempt to help the poor, monitoring politicians and bureaucrats to see if they are avoiding these problems, and then attempting to correct them when they arise. Engaging in these activities is personally quite costly. Not surprisingly, once a person walks out of the voting booth feeling virtuous for voting to help the poor, he will spend more time watching TV commercials on hemorrhoid relief than working to improve the chances that his "compassionate" vote translates into real help for the poor.

We do not mean to imply that there will be little interest in the design and implementation of government poverty programs. Numerous groups stand to gain or lose, depending on how those programs work. Obviously the poor have an interest, but so do farm groups (which benefit from the food stamp program); physicians and pharmaceutical companies (concerned with Medicaid); the construction industry (public housing), along with the self-proclaimed advocates of the poor and employees of the agencies that administer these programs. Except for the poor themselves, members of all of these groups can capture private benefits with policies that do less than is possible to help the poor for the money spent. And again, except for the poor, all these groups can exert a lot of political influence because they are well-organized professionally, experts on the relevant programs, and vitally concerned with those programs.

Of course, members of these special-interest groups are no less concerned with behaving virtuously and doing the right thing by the poor than is the typical voter. So can we expect them, like the voters, to largely ignore their private interests and exert their influence on behalf of the needy? No. Not because they are less virtuous than voters, but because exercising that virtue costs them much more since their influence makes their "vote" far more decisive. If public housing contractors knew that their support for housing vouchers, which the poor could use to rent private apartments, would not reduce the probability of massive government funding for public housing construction, it would cost them nothing, in terms of the political outcome, to provide that support. But since they can affect the outcome of housing policy, supporting housing vouchers requires they sacrifice a very valuable alternative. Like the demand curve for everything else, the demand curve for behaving virtuously is downward sloping. Virtue costs little in the voting booth, but it is expensive in the corridors of political influence. Public-interest considerations can control voter choices, but private interest is the dominant concern of special-interest groups.

So voters are seldom instrumental in achieving the noble objectives they vote for. They are, in fact, duped by the rhetoric of public concern and civic virtue into granting power to government that will be captured and corrupted by politically powerful private interests. This is true even when expressive voting communicates a public desire for something close to the efficient quantity of a genuine public good. It is even more true when, as is commonly the case, the temptations of expressive voting lead to public support for government actions that, despite the rhetoric, have nothing to do with public goods. The greater the public trust in the social good that government can do, the more easily that trust is subverted by the organized few into social destructive policies.

4. Some Additional Implications

We have acknowledged that some minimum level of public trust may be necessary for government to function properly. But we have emphasized the negative influences of trust resulting from the indecisiveness of individual votes and the corresponding lack of any meaningful sense of voter responsibility for the consequences of electoral choices. We now consider some additional implications of expressive voting for the appropriate level of trust in government. An immediate implication of our discussion is that the more decisively the general citizen can influence political decisions, the more trust there can be in government before the benefit from that trust is offset by special-interest abuse. This suggests that citizens can safely trust local governments the more local they are, and there is evidence that they do. According to a recent survey of American opinion (Hunter and Bowman, 1996, p. 21),

While just one-third of all Americans have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of "confidence in the federal government," only a slightly greater number (39 percent) has the same level of confidence in state government. Yet as one moves to the local community, the sentiment of disaffection begins to change appreciably. ... Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed say that they are at least content, if not pleased with their local government.

According to a 1998 study by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in 1997 every category (sex, race, age, education, and party affiliation) of respondents trusted (distrusted) the federal government less (more) than their state government to handle problems (The Pew Research Center, pp. 5 & 6). The message should be clear to those who want to restore trust in government; they should advocate more devolution of responsibilities from the federal level to the state and, better yet, local levels.

Voter decisiveness varies not only between levels of government, but also between different electoral decisions at each level. The probability of a decisive vote can vary significantly for a given number of voters, depending on how evenly the electorate is split.9 Since trust in government can vary over issues, our model suggests that people should have less trust in government on issues for which there is large majority support than on those over which the public is evenly divided. Of course, overwhelming support for an issue may reflect the fact that the government can, with good reason, be trusted to handle it competently. But surely, people often place a lot of trust in government to perform particular tasks because of the expressive considerations discussed earlier. They believe some things are important to do, and they can feel better about themselves by first trusting in, and then voting for, government to do them. Consistent with this view are recent survey data showing that even when people have little trust in the general performance of government, they seem to trust government's ability to perform specific and emotionally appealing tasks. For example, The Pew Research Center study just cited found that 72 percent of those surveyed favored government's ensuring that no one goes without food, clothing, or shelter, and 74 percent thought it was government's responsibility to eliminate poverty in the country. But in the same survey, 64 percent agreed that government controls too much of our daily lives, and 57 percent agreed that government regulation does more harm than good (The Pew Research Center, p. 16). So the temptation to trust government on specific issues is obviously strong enough for significant majorities to do so, and this is precisely why the trust is misplaced. The more overwhelming the vote, particularly when based primarily on expressive rather than instrumental considerations, the greater the power transferred to government, and the less the accountability of those who will end up controlling that power.

Similarly, the greater the emotional appeal of an issue, or the more charismatic a favored political candidate, the smaller the desirable level of trust for a given degree of voter decisiveness. The lower level of trust is needed to counteract the temptation voters feel to make decisions on emotional grounds with little regard for the collective consequences.

Let's consider again proposals to protect the environment which, because they are packaged in emotionally appealing ways, tend to command overwhelming public support regardless of their benefit/cost implications. When expressive rather than instrumental considerations dominate voter choice, voters will favor pollution-control proposals that, even if implemented efficiently, cost more than they are worth, and empower organized groups to benefit from inefficient pollution-control approaches. For example, the uniform requirements typical of the command-and-control pollution approach allow well-established firms to restrict the entry of competitors and impose disadvantages on smaller, less-established competitors.10 Also, government agencies enforcing environmental laws can justify larger budgets under the command-and-control approach because it requires more detailed involvement in pollution-control decisions.11 Unfortunately, these special-interest benefits come at an enormous cost. The uniform requirements of the command-and-control approach can cost 22 times more than the least-cost approach for the same amount of pollution reduction.12 The inefficiencies in pollution policy would be reduced, though never eliminated, if the emotional appeal of environmental protection were countered with more skepticism about government's ability to protect the environment.

Nothing in our discussion suggests any natural tendencies toward the desirable trust in government. We could emphasize that people trust local governments more than the federal government as an indication of such tendencies, but in 1972 exactly the opposite was true (The Pew Research Center, pp. 6 & 7). As should be clear by now, we see strong and unrelenting pressures toward too much trust in government, although most discussions on trust in government we have read see a destructive dynamic leading to not enough trust. For example, according to Nye (1997, p. 4), "And if government can't perform [because of the lack of public trust], then people will become more dissatisfied and distrustful of it. Such a cumulative downward spiral could erode support for democracy as a form of governance."

We do not dismiss Nye's concern, but we see it as less of a concern and more of a reassurance. We believe that the level of trust in government is subject to negative feedback. Trust is also subject to long cycles around some central, though unlikely most desirable, level, and the departures from that optimum are significant. Unlike Nye and others who worry about the erosion of trust in government, we have emphasized the power of organized interest groups to promote trust in government, and then, exploit that trust to secure private advantage at public expense. This power and exploitation, however, can eventually sow the seeds of their own destruction by creating mistrust in government. These seeds can take a long time to germinate and grow given the resistance of rational voter ignorance and apathy, the temptations of expressive voting, and a growing number of influential interest groups. But eventually, as government expands too far and its failures dominate its successes, public trust will reverse and begin declining.13 During the decline phase, trust can fall too far, with the arguments of those who are worried about the erosion of trust in government becoming relevant. But, with a lag, declining trust can cause reductions in the size of government and the power of interest groups, with improved government performance over a more limited range of activities. The result can be a reversal in the declining trust in government, and the beginning of a new cycle as trust begins increasing.14

Information on public trust in government going back to early in this century is sketchy, but what does exist, along with more recent data, is consistent with long cycles .15 Robert Lane detected an increased trust in government in the 1930s, which he saw resulting from the expectation that the federal government could bring the economy out of depression.16 We add that the relatively limited economic role of the federal government into the 1930s, along with the perceived success of many of the progressive measures enacted earlier in the century, was also important in the increased trust in government, an increase that probably began earlier than the 1930s. Data from University of Michigan polling that began in 1958, indicate that trust in government continued to increase into the 1960s, peaking around 1964. Since that time trust has declined significantly (though not monotonically), with it reaching about 25 percent in 1994.17 This decline in trust coincides with the expansion in the federal government's economic role and corresponding increase in federal spending, beginning with President Johnson's "Great Society" initiatives in the mid-1960s, which have been largely subverted by organized-interest groups and seldom generated the public benefits promised. Whether this decline in trust results in a significant reduction in government spending and influence, with an eventual turnaround in public trust, remains to be seen.

5. The Case for Constitutional Constraints

A clear understanding of the role of trust in government and the problems associated with expressive voting also provides a strengthened case for constitutional constraints. It is entirely feasible that well devised constitutional constraints can effectively expand the realm of government activities over which public trust is both warranted and beneficial. For example, a constitutional limitation prohibiting the Federal Reserve System from expanding the money supply faster than the real growth rate of GNP could significantly increase trust in the governmentís ability to maintain a stable price level. This same constraint could limit governmentís ability to become Leviathan by financing itís expansion through money creation. A constitutionally imposed flat tax could increase all taxpayerís trust in government since an individualís taxes could not be changed without changing those of all other taxpayers simultaneously. As illustrated by Brennen and Buchanan in their 1980 treatise on The Power to Tax, "if government is constitutionally required to follow precepts of generality in its fiscal dealings with citizens the revenue potential that could possibly be derived from sophisticated discrimination among separate persons and taxpayers is foreclosed." We contend however, that such constitutional constraints would also be subject to cycles of public trust in government and therefore, limited in effectiveness. As early as 1951, Henry Simons supported this notion with the position that "Constitutional provisions are no stronger than the consensus that they articulate. At best, they can only check abuses of power until moral pressure is mobilized; and their check must become ineffective if often overtly used."

6. Conclusion---Is Trust Incompatible with Trustworthy?

Addressing the issue of trust in government requires considering how good an agent government is to the general interest of the public. The better agent government is (the more control the general public has over it), the more trust it can safely be granted. The more trustworthy the government, the more it can be trusted. While this point seems obvious, it is often ignored by those who want more trust in government. But we agree with those concerned with the erosion of trust that the connection between trust and trustworthy is more complicated than putting trustworthy before trust. Surely, without some minimum level of trust, a government cannot be trustworthy. But we believe that this minimum level of trust is very minimal, with trust in government easily increased into the range in which it destroys trustworthy government.

Certainly when trust has reached the point where government action is recommended for solving almost every imaginable social problem, it is inconsistent with government's performing in a way that justifies that trust. Such a level of trust will open the door for politically compelling demands for government to do things it cannot do, or only do poorly, at costs that exceed the benefits. Public skepticism is necessary if government is to be limited to activities in which it can add to social value. Such skepticism is needed to overcome the temptation of voters to feel good by supporting government programs that will invariably be corrupted by organized interests. What do we mean by a healthy dose of skepticism in government? A level that would find a majority of voters feeling noble about voting against government proposals, no matter how noble the objectives of those proposals are claimed to be. Finally, constitutional constraints can extend the realm of activity over which trust in government can be both beneficial and effective and significantly reduce the need for Buchanan and Brennanís ĎNobel lieí.

REFERENCE PAGE

Ackerman, Bruce A. and Hassler, William T. Clean Air/Dirty Air, or How the Clean Air Act Became a Multibillion Dollar Bailout to High-Sulfur Coal Producers and What Should Be Done about It, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Brennan, Geoffrey and Buchanan, James M. "Voter Choice: Evaluating Political Alternatives," American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 28, No. 2, Nov/Dec 1984, pp. 185-201.

Brennan, Geoffrey and Buchanan, James M. "Is Public Choice Immoral? The Case for the 'Nobel' Lie," Virginia Law Review, Vol. 74, No. 2, 1988, pp. 179-89.

Brennan, Geoffrey and Lomasky, Loren. Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Brennan, Geoffrey and Buchanan, James M. The Power To Tax, Analytical Foundations Of a Fiscal Constitution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Buchanan, James M. and Tullock, Gordon. "Polluters' Profits and Political Response: Direct Controls Versus Taxes," The American Economic Review, Vol. 65, No.1, March 1975, pp. 139-47.

Downs, Anthony. The Economic Theory of Democracy, New York: Harper & Row, 1957.

Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1962.

Hunter, James D. and Bowman, Carl. The State of Disunion: 1996 Survey of American Political Culture, Vol. One, Summary Report Charlottesville: The Post-Modernity Project University of Virginia, 1996.

Kau, James B. and Paul H. Rubin. "Ideology, voting and shirking," Public Choice, Vol. 76, May 1993, pp. 151-172. (Also see Paul Rubin's chapter in this volume entitled Ideology.)

Maloney, Michael T. and McCormick, Robert E. "A Positive Theory of Environmental Quality Regulation," The Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 25, No. 1, April 1982, pp. 99-123.

Nye, Joseph S. Jr. "Introduction: The Decline of Confidence in Government," pp. 1-19 in Nye, Joseph S. Jr., Zelikow P. D., and King, D.C. eds. Why People Don't Trust Government, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Nye, Joseph S. Jr., Zelikow P. D., and King, D.C. eds. Why People Don't Trust Government, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Orren, Gary. "Fall from Grace: The Public's Loss of Faith in Government," pp. 77-107 in Nye, Joseph S. Jr., Zelikow P. D., and King, D.C. eds. Why People Don't Trust Government, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Parshigian, Peter B. "The Effects of Environmental Regulation on Optimal Plant Size and Factor Shares," The Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 27, No. 1, April 1984, pp. 1-28.

Samuelson, Robert J. The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement 1945-1995, New York: Times Books, 1995.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. The Cycles of American History, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1986.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. "Government Isn't the Root of All Evil," The Wall Street Journal, January 30, 1998, p. A14.

Simmons, Henry C. Economic Policy for a Free Society, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951, p. 20.

The Economist, "William Reilly's Green Precision Weapons" March 30, 1991, p. 28.

The Pew Research Center For The People And The Press, "Deconstructing Distrust; How Americans View Government," March 10, 1998, Washington D.C., selected tables, tables 6, 7, & 26, pp. 5, 6, & 16.

Tietenberg, Tom. Environmental and Natural Resource Economics, 3rd edition New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 1992.

Tullock, Gordon. "The Charity of the Uncharitable," Western Economic Journal, Vol. 9, 1971, pp. 379-92.

 

ENDNOTES

1. Quoted in Samuelson, 1995, p. 187.

2. Quoted in Schlesinger, 1998.

3. See Figure 3-1, Orren, 1997, p. 81. There is some evidence that the hostility toward government has declined some since 1994, but the long-run trend in the public attitude toward government remains decidedly downward.

4. Not all see declining trust in government as a problem, but most do.

5. See Nye, Zelikow, and King, 1997; Hunter and Bowman, 1996; and The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 1998.

6. See Downs, 1957, chapters 11-14.

7. Tullock, 1971, was the first we are aware of to consider the low cost of voting against one's private advantage when discussing the political popularity of transfer programs. Brennan and Lomasky, 1993, provide the most complete economic analysis of the implications of the low cost of voting expressively.

8. Or is considering a vote on a candidate who promises to support such a proposal.

9. One might be tempted to argue that the probability of a tied election is so small, no matter how evenly the voters are split, that any relevant difference in this probability can have no noticeable effect on voter behavior. But this is not true, particularly for local elections, where the number of voters can be relatively small. For example, if the number of voters is 2001 and the voters are evenly split i.e., the probability is 1/2 that a randomly chosen voter will vote for A or B, then the probability that the total vote will end up 1000 to 1001 in which case each voter is decisive is 1/56. In this case the individual considering a vote for an environmental proposal that, if passed, will cost him $1,000, would have to receive at least $17.86 worth of expressive satisfaction to motivate him to vote yes. One can expect a lot less expressive voting when the cost is $17.86 than when the cost is $.10, as in our example in Section 2. Even when the number of voters is 10 million, the probability of a tie vote is only 1/4,000 when the voters are evenly split probabilistically. However, as the probability that a randomly chosen voter will vote for A and B diverges even slightly from 1/2, the probability of a tied election quickly becomes indistinguishable from zero, with the decline more dramatic the larger the number of voters. See Brennan and Lomasky, 1993, pp. 55-59, for more detail on the relevant calculations.

10. The literature on this subject includes work by Ackerman and Hassler,1981; Buchanan and Tullock, 1975; Maloney and McCormick, 1982; and Parshigian, 1984.

11. As observed in The Economist, 1991, p.28, "The EPA exists to regulate things, not to see the market do the job for it."

12. See Table 15.2 and the accompanying discussion in Tietenberg, 1992, pp. 402-405.

13. Samuelson, 1995, pp 200-201, discusses this phase of the cycle in trust in similar terms when he says:

There is a vicious circle. Government that grows must do more of its work in obscurity; otherwise, it could not function at all and would inevitably fail in many of its missions. But government that works in obscurity will become increasingly dominated by narrow groups, which will bend it to their own purposes and make government seem even more removed from popular will.

14. Arthur Schlesinger, 1986, p. 245, considers this stage in the cycle when he comments, "The fewer responsibilities loaded on the national authority, the better it will be able to discharge those it cannot escape." And three sentences later, he points to the beginning of the next stage in the cycle: "Sometimes government intervenes too much. Its regulations become pointlessly intrusive. Its programs fail. After a time exasperations accumulate and produce indictments."

15. One could argue that the polls from which our information on trust in government is drawn are also flawed because of "expressive voting." For example, when the polls are taken, no individual attaches any instrumental or outcome significance to his or her response and therefore, expressive motivations dominate the responses they give. However, there is no reason to believe that any distortion resulting from this phenomenon has changed over time. So while the magnitude of the trust or distrust may not be accurately measured by the polls, the directions of change should be.

16. Lane's observations are discussed in Nye, 1997, p. 10.

17. See reference in endnote 1.