Defending Romney's "Gift" Remarks

Romney's explanation of his election loss may be closer to the truth than a lot of people want to believe.


Mitt Romney's explanation of his election loss—that President Obama bought the election with "gifts" such as health insurance coverage and student loan forgiveness—may be closer to the truth than a lot of people want to believe.

The losing Republican presidential candidate's remarks were made in a telephone conference with campaign donors that was monitored and reported on by the Los Angeles Times. The comments were immediately denounced by journalists and by other Republican politicians. Politico's Mike Allen enumerated "five problems" with Romney's explanation and quoted the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, a Republican, as describing the Romney remarks as "absolutely wrong." Plenty of other critics piled on, too; Newt Gingrich, for example, called Romney's remarks "insulting and profoundly wrong" and also "nuts."

In fairness, Romney's remarks, at least as they were conveyed by the Los Angeles Times, were less than artfully phrased, and, by characterizing the gift recipients in terms of racial groups, did have the potential to be unnecessarily and unfortunately divisive.

The professions of shock, dismay, and outrage that greeted the Romney remarks are nonetheless exasperating. The situation brings to mind Michael Kinsley's definition of a gaffe as when a politician tells the truth.

At least two important points are being missed in the discussion of Romney's remarks. First, there's a double standard at work. When reporters suggest that donors to Republican causes are motivated by self-interested desire to keep their taxes low and their businesses unhampered by environmental or labor regulations, that's groundbreaking investigative journalism. (See, for example, The New Yorker magazine's Jane Mayer on Charles and David Koch.) Yet when Romney suggests that Democratic voters might have been motivated by self-interest, his comments are condemned.

The second missed point is that Romney is hardly the first to suggest that voters might be swayed by the government benefits they are receiving. There's an entire field of economics, known as public choice theory, devoted to the idea that, as the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics summarizes it, "people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests and…as such, voters 'vote their pocketbooks,' supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off…Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics."

As the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences put it in a press release back in 1986, when it announced it was awarding the Nobel Prize in economics to James Buchanan, a pioneer of public choice theory, "individuals who behave selfishly on markets can hardly behave wholly altruistically in political life."

The idea that voters might consider what's in it for themselves, in other words, isn't some screwball sour-grapes idea dreamt up by Mitt Romney as an excuse for his defeat. Rather, it's been part of mainstream social science for decades.

Faced with these insights, free-market-oriented political candidates and their advisers and backers can respond in a variety of ways.

•They can give up on winning, figuring that they'll never outspend, or outgift, the left-wing Democrats. This approach leads, also, to talk of secession, or of emigration to overseas tax havens.

•They can give up on the free-market approach and try to compete with the left-wing Democrats on the gift-giving front. Romney tried some of this during the campaign, saying in one debate, "I want to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing." President George W. Bush was accused of this by some critics when he added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

•They can try to exhort or educate voters to altruism, preaching some sort of modern version of President Kennedy's, "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."

•They can try to make the case to voters that the voters would be better off under the free-market policies. With lower taxes, you'll have more money in your pocket. With less government spending, the share of the national debt that you will have to pay off will be lower. With school vouchers or tuition tax credits, you can send your children to private school. With free-market health care, you'll have better medicine and more innovative medical devices than under a system with more government involvement.

Which combination of these responses Republican candidates choose in the months and years ahead will be a big factor in determining whether in the days following future elections they will again be, like Romney, offering explanations of why they lost, or whether they instead will be savoring victory and turning to the details of governing.