Election 2012

Romney's 47 Percent Gaffe Shows He Believes in the (Untrue) Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis


Economist (and occasional Reason contributor) Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, points out that Romney's 47 percent gaffe is rooted in a misunderstanding of something political science is pretty sure of: most people don't vote based on their own perceived self interest.

As Caplan explains:

Many people believe that voters' positions are determined by their objective self-interest.  I call this the SIVH—the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis.  A massive body of evidence shows that the SIVH is just plain wrong.  Self-interest has no more than sporadic marginal effects on political views.

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (New Edition)

Successful politicians usually seem well-aware of the weakness of the SIVH.  To win support, they appeal to the public interest and ideology, not self-interest.  What's really strange about Romney's recently revealed gaffe, then, is that he seems to take an extreme version of the SIVH for granted.  "There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what."  Why?  "47% of Americans pay no income tax."  The mechanism:

"[T]here are 47% who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what."
Wrong, wrong, wrong.  The 47% won't vote for Obama "no matter what."  Almost half of voters who earn less than the median income vote Republican in the typical election.  A person doesn't support the nanny state because he wants government to take care of him; a person supports the nanny state because he wants government to take care of us.  I say this even though I'm far more opposed to the nanny state than Romney has ever been.

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  1. So we’re asserting that what a presidential candidate says and what a presidential candidate thinks are related?

    1. Feel free to substitute “wants his listeners to think” in any use of that term, though I don’t think we have any particular reason to believe Romney doesn’t believe this.


      1. It’s hard to believe that the man who crushed Newt (asshole) Gingrich so ruthlessly is getting pooned by a dweeb like Obama.

        1. Newt crushed himself, just like Cain, Bachmann, Perry and the rest.

          1. Cain was crushed by party insiders and the same sort of Black Man as a Sex Fiend narrative that was thrown at Judge Thomas.

  2. It is not so much that they are irrational. It is that people have values besides cash. People make rational decisions for shallow reasons.

    1. This reminds me of a funny thing about self-interest: I see a fair number of comments from leftists of my acquaintance that lower- or middle-class red-staters are SOOOOO STUPID for voting Republican, because clearly Republicans are only interested in helping the rich and screwing the poor, and Democrats are so much better for the economy, so obviously it would be more in their interest to vote Democratic.

      These same leftists will in the next breath proclaim that they would be happy to pay more in taxes. The concept that maybe it’s not entirely about the cash for the Republican voters either never seems to sink in, though.

    2. Yeah, exactly. The impression I got from this post is that the only way to vote rationally is to vote for your own selfish interests.

  3. John—the SIVH is not the core of Caplan’s book nor why it has the title it has. He makes a very convincing, to me, case in it for “rational irrationality” on the part of voters. (Not the same as rational ignorance.)

    1. I don’t think they are selectively ignorant. I think they have values beyond their own financial self interest. For example, I know plenty of people who are Democrats because they feel being so is a way to show the world they are not racist and are a tolerant good person or people who are Republicans because they feel being a Republican is the best way to show you are patriotic. Those are pretty shallow reasons to support a given party. But if you really operate on the assumption that voting one way says “X” about your personality or character, it is not per say irrational.

      1. This. Voting for a particular party or set of candidates is mostly a way to signal certain things to various parties — which is perfectly rational when one considers the marginal impact of a solitary vote.

        Libertarians would do well to incorporate this into their attempts to garner support.

      2. Again, the SIVH has nothing to do with the question of rationality in Caplan’s book.

  4. This uproar over Romney actually saying something only proves the value of Obama’s determination to say and do nothing. If he can stick with that for seven more weeks, it sure looks like nobody is going to question it, and he’ll win in a walk.

  5. Thinking about it rationally, the “myth” of the rational voter is not a myth at all.

    It is irrational to think your vote would affect the results of an election, and therefore irrational to think your vote would affect your material well-being. Shouldn’t the book be called The Myth of the Irrational Voter?

    When someone votes, he votes for other reasons – for psychic benefits, to participate in something larger than himself, to make his group happy, to say honestly that he supported a Good Idea, to participate in some national religious ceremony, to avoid having to lie to his significant other about not caring, to being perverse (a sensual pleasure sometimes) and so on. Voting for all those reasons brings some satisfaction or pleasure or relief or respite or whatever, but they are real. And so when people vote for reasons not linked to some stupid belief that they could benefit materially and directly, they are voting rationally.

  6. Why Mitt Romney thinks 47% of the people won’t vote for him is more important than almost anything.

  7. Almost half of voters who earn less than the median income vote Republican in the typical election. A person doesn’t support the nanny state because he wants government to take care of him; a person supports the nanny state because he wants government to take care of us.

    Lower income people who vote against the parasites–think their best interest is in being free to move up in income level through hard work, smarts, etc. They vote for the Republicans because they don’t want to be forced to take care of everybody else.

    There may be some wealthy people who vote for the Democrats because they feel some sense of responsibility for their fellow man, but that’s a small group of people–and most of them aren’t voting for Democrats on economic issues anyway. They’re voting against Republicans because they perceive the Republicans as being hateful towards gay people, minorities, and immigrants.

    The overwhelming majority of Democratic voters who are voting on economic issues are doing so out of self-interest, too. How many UAW voters are voting for Romney? How many government employees are voting for Romney? Sure, you’ll find some. But if you want to make generalizations, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of Democrats–who are voting primarily on economic issues–are voting for Democrats out of self-interest.

    Showing that lower class Republican voters value their independence and don’t want to be forced to pay for other poor people doesn’t prove anything.

    1. Would make sense if Republicans actually were against spending other people’s money

  8. The last time this came up was in 2010 when Republicans pantsed the Democrats and liberals were bemoaning how so many middle class people could vote “against their own well being”.

    1. Lower-income Republican voters think they are voting for the well-being of the country as a whole, just like Democratic voters think they are doing with their votes. Both sides are wrong of course.

  9. I thought his goal was to divide Americans into “us” and “them”, paint “them” as dangerous to “us”, and increase his audience’s loyalty to “us”, in order to get money and votes. Isn’t that basically a tried and true strategy?

  10. I thought people voted Republican because they oppose abortion and for Democrats because they support gay marriage.

  11. You know how I imagine it works when you work for a union or the government?

    I imagine personal initiative doesn’t count for squat. I think you get paid based on how long you’ve been there–not how valuable your work is.

    I see union people and people who work for the government talk about those of us who get paid primarily based on performance like we’re being exploited somehow. But if I had to work for somebody in an environment where my work and ideas weren’t priced appropriately when they were superior to others?

    I’d want to kill myself.

    To think my personal value could only increase based on how many years I’d been there? That’s a prison sentence.

    I felt like that when I got the financing together for my first office and industrial park, and I felt like that when I had just turned 16 and was working a line saw in a furniture factory, too. How many opportunities that I could have had were choked off for me and never materialized because some government scumbag squandered private parties’ resources in the name of giving people like me more opportunities?

    Even when I was poor as shit, I never once thought voting for some Democrat’s economic policy would be in my long term best interest–and I was right.

    1. In government and union shops, there is no way to attach value to ideas since there is no price mechanism.

      So they must come up with other ways to assign value, with seniority being the easiest

      This means that people with good ideas are forced out, and people with shitty ideas stick around because they know that when they get seniority they can get their shitty ideas implemented.

      Yet another reason why everything government touches turns to shit.

      1. It leaves a big libertarian question unanswered…

        If we laid off 25% of the federal workers tomorrow, who would hire those people?

        Like I said yesterday, after you’ve worked for the government for five years or more, nobody’s ever going to hire you again!

        I’d rather hire someone with a criminal record.

        I suspect all those government workers would eventually find something to do before they starved to death, but there are a lot of people who are better off getting overpaid to do nothing because of their seniority–just like there are a lot of UAW workers who are better off for getting paid $70 an hour to screw in lug nuts.

        What happens to all the lazy, overpaid parasites? The idea of having to do something of value for what they get paid scares them to death. That’s why the government workers and UAW people vote so disproportionately Democrat. Because they know that without the rent seeking, they have very little value anymore.

        1. What happens to all the lazy, overpaid parasites?

          Tila Tequila show, bizzow!

        2. If we laid off 25% of the federal workers tomorrow, who would hire those people?

          That’s a litte unfair.

          I’m sure that janitorial skills are transferable, as are other blue collar ones and professinal skills like attorneys and accountants.

          The middle manangemen bureaucrats, however, are pure parasites.

        3. Well, there’s the so-called revolving door between private industry and their gov’t regulators, but if the mood was such as to result in laying off 25% of federal workers, that influence would probably be considerably reduced.

          1. I think those people are mostly at the very top of the bureaucracy.

        4. What you wrote doesn’t seem to apply to persons with that much military experience, which seems to be valued by employers. I really think it depends on what you did for whast dept.

          1. No question! I was definitely not talking about people with military experience. There is nothing about having served in the military that makes you bad prospective employee–not as far as I’m concerned. To the contrary!

            But if we’re talking about the slashing, say, 25% of the 70 odd thousand people working for the Department of the Interior, who the hell is gonna hire those people?

            There are 120,000 people working at the Department of the Treasury–many of them within Washington DC. You lay off 25% of them tomorrow, who the hell wants to hire people who’ve been conditioned to work in that bureaucratic nightmare for the last five years or more?

            Those people know that. They know they have few prospects outside of government–not at the same pay rate.

            Ex-government employees can start a second career and work their way up, maybe. But they’re competing with young kids for entry-level jobs–not makin’ what they were.

            When they give their money to the public employees’ unions, that’s money well spent if the union uses it to help elect politicians that are protecting their jobs. Because without those politicians, they’d be working as greeters at Wal*Mart or deliverin’ pizzas or somethin’.

    2. I bet many teachers feel their work isn’t priced appropriately for its value.

      And many CEOs probably think they are compensated just about right, despite in many cases their value being objectively worth much, much less.

      How about instead of seeing yourself as a victim of other people’s hard work, you just chill out. Nobody will even begrudge you for doing nothing but taking whatever you can from your society and patting yourself on the back for your ingenuity. And all the government workers who facilitate your very ability to move and work and act in relative peace on a daily basis won’t ask for your praise, and same goes for all the unionized workers who were responsible for the semi-civilized conditions you work in.

      For rugged individualists libertarians sure do have a lot of grievances.

      1. Even for a stupid fucking piece of shit you sure do write a lot of stupid shit.

      2. Too many false premises. Too little time. No point.

      3. I bet many teachers feel their work isn’t priced appropriately for its value.

        Then they should go work in private schools, where their value is priced appropriately by the market.

        1. Yeah, 100K a year with a pension for 7 hours a day 9 months a year is chicken feed.

        2. Maybe not everyone wants to live out life as an Ayn Rand slaveboy. Government work tends to be essential work, unlike that done in vast segments of the private sector.

          And the market prices everything in the context of government, as I’m sure you’d agree if I were to bring up housing prices. You are asserting virtue to a tautology. Something is priced what it’s priced. What an insight. Well, governments buy teachers in the marketplace of teachers. The only difference is the buyer is a community acting via its government. Your need to see the market as a thing that needs to be purified and your hateful dismissal of public sector workers, people often doing work as noble as any work there is, is just a freakish bias, a nervous tic. You are not only full of grievances, you are full of entitlements. You think you are entitled to set aside the essential work of government, to pretend it doesn’t exist, to maintain the purity of your ideology.

          1. Government work tends to be essential work, unlike that done in vast segments of the private sector.

            It’s essential that SEC employees be able to view porn on government computers.

            1. Have any of you actually worked in a typical private sector office?

              Models of efficiency and innovation they are not.

              1. Good thing I’m not forced to pay the typical private employees salary then, huh?

          2. Nothing says “Ayn Rand slavery” like teaching at a Montessori school. LMAO

          3. Maybe not everyone wants to live out life as an Ayn Rand slaveboy.

            1) Teaching children in a private school that pays for superior performance isn’t slavery.

            2) Private school teachers typically make less than public school teachers.

            The National Center for Education Statistics puts it this way: Using 2007-2008 data (the latest available), the average “total school-year and summer earned income” for public school teachers was $53,230 . The equivalent for private-school teachers was $39,690.

            That’s a whopping $13,540 differential on salary alone.


    3. Nice post Ken, but that first office and industrial park? You didn’t build that! The government built the roads to let your employees and customers get there, and the government regulated the financial markets you used to get your financing… Clearly you need to pay more in taxes so the government can create more good conditions for job creation.

      Oh, I can’t keep it up. It’s just too ludicrous.

      1. I can’t get past him saying that.

        I didn’t build that?

        I will never get past him saying that.

        That statement made Obama worse than stupid.

        The man’s evil.

  12. Something that is interesting about this kerfuffle is how different Romney’s view of politics is from folks like Reagan. Whatever else you can say about him, Reagan campaigned on and believed that he was representing a “silent majority” — that no matter what people said or how much material stake they had in big government, they had an instinctive and American appreciation for freedom that just needed to be tapped into by the right candidate. Romney, in contrast, writes off nearly half of the country as a lost cause.

    That, IMO, is why Romney will either lose or not amount to much as a President — he will always be reacting to what he perceives to be at best a razor-thin majority that would favor liberty.

    1. I think it’s a razor thin percentage (not majority) who favor liberty. Ron Paul only managed 2 million votes.

  13. This is all a misreading of Romney’s comments.

    Why will around 47% of the people probably vote for Obama no matter what? Because that’s what the polling seems to indicate. THAT is what Romney said.

    Then he threw out a few reasons individuals might be in that 47%, but he certainly did not claim the list to be either exhaustive or universal. He simply stated the apparently true, that 47% are decided Obama voters for various hard to convince reasons.

    Come on, Reason. Be better than the rest of the mis-reporters!

  14. Not about left/right. Not about rich/poor. It’s about right/wrong.

    Receiving free (okay reduced price) government services at the expense of someone else is inherently wrong and I’ll vote against it no matter what I stand to gain in the short term.

    I put it to you though, that it IS about self interest. It’s about long term self interest. I (and everyone else) will be better off in the long run if the policy is implemented equitably.

  15. [T]here are 47% who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.

    We refer to these people as public school teachers.

  16. Romney was just parroting what Rush Limbaugh says every day.

    47 percent won’t vote for Obama no matter what, though. Obama can probably count on 40 percent of the voters (20 percent of adult Americans) backing him regardless of what he says or does. Another 40 percent of voters will back Romney no matter what.

    20 percent of voters are up for grabs, and Romney was right when he said that they make up their minds for random things like likeability, although he pegged it at 5-10 percent undecided.

  17. There are statistics to bear this fact out: the more government dependence there is in a region of the country, the more likely that region is to vote Republican. Romney has got everything pretty much bassackward.

    1. And? It’s not as if blue state politicians are voting against the welfare programs which redistribute money to poorer states.

  18. What stunning idiocy.

    Voters don’t vote in their own self interest? Really? Is is a ‘false consciousness’ thing?

    Or have you defined self interest in such a tortured fashion that you can make it mean anything you want?

    Ah, thought so.

    People vote for candidates for various reasons, very few of which are ‘I really hate this guy and think he’d be awful for this office’. Which would be voting against their own self interest–if self interest is defined in a normal fashion–as ‘I think this thing will be better for me and mine than that thing’–and moving upwards from there.

    But you go on and be clever.

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