Economics can help explain empty campaign promises

Economics can help explain empty campaign promises

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” – Thomas Sowell

People run for public office for a variety of reasons. For many, the decision is because they want to make a difference and help others, or they feel that elected officials currently serving have let them down. Their campaign platforms are based on a set of ideals and promises. Sometimes, those individuals fall out of favor with voters because they fail to hold true to those ideals and promises.

As both a citizen and the Platte Institute’s Director of Government Relations, I am closely monitoring policy issues that impact economic freedom, previous and current campaign promises, legislation sponsored, votes taken, and public stances on the issues. My work allows me to observe how candidate positions may change over time.

One way to explain these changes in the behavior of policymakers is called public choice theory, which is the “economics of political decision making.” Public choice theory acknowledges that individual behavior within the political system is motivated by incentives and self-interest. People respond to perceived costs and benefits when making choices.

Understanding the incentives that drive public officials can help us to better understand the ultimate actions that they take in office.

As the Platte Institute’s “boots on the ground,” I find public choice theory fascinating. Actions (and inactions) on policy issues can be interpreted through the public choice lens, explaining why a policymaker who campaigns as “pro-free market,” might back off from that policy commitment with the right special interests whispering in their ear.

The desire for re-election and potentially higher office among officials is a significant incentive for their policy choices. For example, an incumbent politician may have campaigned to fight for highly controversial “issue x.” But after serving a term in office, they may later refuse to take a public stance on the controversial issue because they are up for re-election.

This could be because the incumbent believes the base that initially elected them may not be sufficient to return them to office, that they are fearful of generating stronger turnout from voters who are not persuadable to their cause, or that they are hoping to seal a commitment for a campaign contribution that was made in a backroom deal.

And public choice theory applies to voters, too. Voters cast their ballots for the candidate they perceive will give them what they want, whether it be a tax break, various personal freedoms, or government protections. And voters tend to exercise their voting power to assure those supporting the things they want remain in office.

But it’s important to look deeper than campaign promises as you cast your 2020 ballot. When voters fail to demand consistency from candidates and officeholders, in both their words and actions, they are really providing an incentive for more of the behavior they often later regret.

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