Response to Will Wilkinson

by Larry Bartels on December 9, 2010 · 1 comment

in Unequal Democracy Roundtable

While Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson fault me for paying too little attention to hyper-concentration at the top of the income distribution, Will Wilkinson argues that “inequality is a distraction and the real issue is that of improving the welfare and opportunity of the poor.” He argues that the policies favored by poor people themselves may not serve their economic interests, in which case the unresponsiveness of the political system to their preferences may be “a feature, not a bug.”

Whether the point of a democratic system should be to reflect citizens’ preferences or their interests is one of the biggest and most vexed issues in democratic theory. Unlike many economists, Wilkinson is refreshingly willing to entertain the possibility that citizens do not know what is good for them. And when they don’t, he comes down firmly on the side of “improving the welfare and opportunity of the poor” rather than attempting to “equalize political voice” for its own sake.

My own position on this issue is closer to Wilkinson’s than he seems to suppose.

Having spent much of my career studying public opinion, I have become increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of making citizens’ preferences the basis of a coherent theory of democracy, much less a substantively attractive one. That is not to suggest, as Hacker and Pierson claim I do, that “voters don’t really have views at all.” In an essay on “Democracy with Attitudes” I attempted to specify how citizens’ views, or attitudes, differ from the preferences underlying traditional liberal democratic theory. I urged political philosophers and political scientists to clarify how a psychologically realistic account of attitudes might provide a basis for judgments of democratic legitimacy—a basis transcending Wilkinson’s assessments, or mine, about which policies will maximize the welfare of which citizens. (So far, the urging has not been notably efficacious.)

Despite these qualms, I consider the responsiveness or unresponsiveness of a government to its citizens to be a very important social fact. After all, for many people responsiveness is a hallmark of democracy, and they deserve to know how much reality there is behind the mythology. Moreover, equal responsiveness could (and, I think, should) be viewed as intrinsically valuable, even if it results in policies that are less than optimal from a narrowly utilitarian perspective, because it connotes respect for the equal dignity and worth of all citizens.

Wilkinson focuses on political ignorance and disengagement as threats to the ability of low-income citizens, specifically, to protect their own economic and political interests. “It would be ideal,” he writes, “were each and every citizen to have the income and education typical of well-informed, motivated voters.” This seems to me to overstate both the strength of the correlation between income and political information and the ability of well-informed citizens to make sensible political decisions. For example, my analysis suggests that affluent voters are, if anything, more likely than low-income voters to engage in myopic retrospection (table 4.4), and that increasing political attentiveness sometimes makes people more likely to deny uncongenial facts (figure 5.2). Many other scholars have produced many similar examples. Findings like these have cured me, at least, of the notion that the views of well-informed people might provide a reliable basis for assessing the “enlightened preferences” of less-well-informed democratic citizens (see here), much less an acceptable substitute for them.

Finally, Wilkinson complains that I offer “surprisingly little discussion of the way specific policy initiatives might help or harm the poor and middle classes.” I agree that “we need policies that will actually work”—and that affluent voters (and politicians!) may be “more interested in signaling concern for the welfare of the poor … than in actually getting down to the business of finding out what would really improve it.” But alas, I am not a policy analyst, and determining what policies will actually work is not my comparative advantage.

I chose the specific policies I focused on—the Bush tax cuts, estate tax repeal, and the minimum wage—in part because their implications for “the welfare of the poor” seem comparatively straightforward. Armies of economists have spent decades studying the effects of minimum wage laws. My reading of the evidence suggests that, for politically relevant wage levels, the negative effects on employment are small and the positive effects on the incomes of the working poor are substantial. Of course, the work I cited to that effect by David Card and Alan Krueger and David Lee may be unpersuasive to Wilkinson; but in that case, how likely is it that “some evidence” of my own would convince him “that the minimum wage actually helps”?

The economic literature on the effects of taxes is equally voluminous, and here too I have had to leave the heavy lifting to others. In any case, not even enthusiastic proponents of estate tax repeal pretend that it would bolster the well-being of the poor; rather, they argue that restricting the liberty of rich kids to inherit their parents’ millions would be fundamentally unjust.

Of course, I agree with Wilkinson that much government spending does little or nothing specifically for poor people. But would a trillion dollars in tax revenue really help disadvantaged families in Chicago and Miami? In a country where “fiscal responsibility” means paying for new nutrition programs by cutting the budget for food stamps, I’ll go with “yes.”

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