Acton Commentary

Feel the Romantic Bern


Public choice theory, which applies to the realm of politics the rational-actor postulate of economists, rightly enjoys a high regard among advocates of liberty. From voting habits to inefficient, Kafkaesque bureaucracies, to the strength of special interest lobbies and rent-seeking behavior, public choice has shined a bright light on the need to affirm limited government and political freedom. It is politics, to use James Buchanan’s phrase, “without romance.”

But how well does public choice explain the current presidential election? This essay argues that public choice, insightful as it is, could benefit from greater nuance. To the self-interested maximizer of material interest should be added, I believe, the commitment model of Robert Frank—doing so would help us make better sense of some of the more anomalous behavior in the presidential primaries.

The campaign of Bernie Sanders is my primary case in point. Let’s start with what public choice does explain about him. His variance from the Progressive stance on gun control reflects the fact that he needs voters in rural Vermont to continue reelecting him. He may genuinely believe that Clinton goes too far on gun control, but it is also clear that it has been in his self-interest to take a more mainstream view for the sake of his political career.

Let’s look now at something that doesn’t quite fit the public choice model: Not only is Sanders a socialist, he actually owns up to it despite that a Gallup poll last summer indicated that only 47 percent of Americans would consider voting for a socialist and 50 percent said they wouldn’t. Gallup’s Justin McCarthy even highlighted this problem in the poll’s findings:

while a large majority of Americans are willing to vote for a candidate of his faith [Judaism], Sanders’ self-identification as a socialist could hurt him, as half of Americans say they would not vote for someone with that background.

So why would someone who seems really to want to be President (unlike candidates who appear to be using their campaigns to promote a book, for example) tell Americans he’s a socialist when half the country says they wouldn’t vote for one? How does that serve his interest? Shouldn’t it hurt his electability?

Well, we can say that it didn’t hurt him in New Hampshire, Vermont, Colorado, Minnesota, or Oklahoma. His close finishes in Iowa and Nevada speak to this as well. And we can also say it is not as if Senator Sanders were unaware of the burdens of the socialist label. CNN’s Anderson Cooper, citing this Gallup poll, asked Sanders in the first Democratic debate how he could possibly win. His answer: “We’re going to explain what democratic socialism is.” He doubles down—and then masterfully pivots to the meme of the nefarious “One Percent” that he alleges is out to get the other 99, wedding his unpopular label to a popular sentiment.

Naturally, one could object that this is perfectly in line with a rationally self-interested model of human behavior. Faced with the reality that his politics make him unelectable, Sanders covers over the difference between himself and the majority by immediately redirecting to his stump speech material about the evils of economic inequality, material that better serves his interest in getting elected.

On the other hand, that was not the only option, nor necessarily the best option, available to him. He could have said what Hillary Clinton, a Democratic Party regular, said. When it comes to policy, there actually isn’t that much difference between them. As Derek Willis of the New York Times reported last May, during the two years that Sanders and Clinton served together in the U.S. Senate, they cast 93 percent of their Senate votes the same way.

So how did Clinton follow up on Sanders’ response? She said:

It’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system. But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in … history.

Sanders had just explained that what he wanted was a European-style interventionist economy with an expanded welfare state, and though Clinton insisted that “we are not Denmark,” she still expressed support for greater government intervention and enhanced entitlements, much like what exists in European countries. (Denmark, however, isn’t all that interventionist.)

Clinton wants democratic socialism, too, she just doesn’t want to call it that. And from a public choice perspective that makes sense. If it’s the substance that really matters, labels are rhetorical tools to be used only to the extent they serve one’s interest. Why didn’t Sanders do the same thing?

To answer that, we can speak about calculations of utility. To wit, Sanders may believe he can’t change his tune now after a career of calling himself a socialist without seeming untrustworthy to voters. But there is another explanation. Perhaps he’s also committed to socialism, not just in substance, but as a cause that ought not be betrayed for political convenience. We may think here of religious martyrs: They would refuse to falsely deny their confessed faith even if it meant losing their lives. Isn’t it obviously in their interest to deny God with their mouths but affirm him in their hearts? Yet, of course, we know of many contrary examples.

So too, I suspect, with Sanders and socialism. Where Frank’s commitment model is helpful is that it “is less a disavowal of the self-interest model than a friendly amendment to it.” Frank highlights that in some circumstances “persons directly motivated to pursue self-interest are often for that very reason doomed to fail. They fail because they are unable to solve commitment problems.”

By commitment problems, Frank has in mind, for example, what social science calls prisoner’s dilemmas. To briefly summarize, the thought experiment involves two participants, each of whom can either cooperate with the other by maintaining solidarity, or defect. If one remains silent (maintains solidarity) and one rats the other out to the authorities (defects), the rat gets the highest reward/no penalty while the one who maintains solidarity gets nothing/the worst penalty. The inspiration is the “Bonnie and Clyde” situation in which one person’s confession undermines the other person’s silence.

The possible results are along these lines:

  Bonnie confesses Bonnie is silent
Clyde confesses 5 years in prison each No time for Clyde, 20 years for Bonnie
Clyde is silent 20 years for Clyde, No time for Bonnie 1 year in prison each

If rational self-interest is the ultimate motivator, the best strategy is to confess to the authorities, since one faces either five years in prison or none at all, motivating the criminal to risk betraying his or her accomplice. The problem, however, is that if both people defect, they will do worse than if they had both cooperated. So their self-interested behavior undermines maximizing actual utility.

As it turns out, however, plenty of people do, in fact, behave in non-purely-self-interested ways. Frank summarizes:

We vote, we return lost wallets, we do not disconnect the catalytic converters on our cars, we donate bone marrow, we give money to charity, we bear costs in the name of fairness, we act selflessly in love relationships; some of us even risk our lives to save perfect strangers.

In order to solve commitment problems, in many cases we need some signal to others that we might not do the “rational” thing. To use one of Frank’s examples, if the day in court to sue over a stolen $200 briefcase would cost $300 in lost earnings, why would anyone sue the thief? If they wouldn’t, why wouldn’t there be more open thievery?

The reason is that we do have such signals: body language, a blush, a look of the eye, a tone of voice—all of these things may signal that material interest is not a person’s highest interest. Commitment to justice, to fairness, or to blind vengeance might be a stronger motivator. These signals are also hard to fake, unless you’re a good actor, sociopath, or real estate mogul. Through signaling such a non-materialistic response, however, one actually protects one’s material interest. And the best and easiest way to do that is to actually mean it.

Might Sanders’ romantic commitment to socialism be part of a larger signal to voters, one that he could only have faked with great difficulty? According to the Associated Press, exit polls from New Hampshire showed that under 50 percent of Democrats polled found Clinton honest and trustworthy, “a stark difference from Sanders.” Polled as to which of them had those qualities, half of the respondents “said only Sanders had them, and nearly all of those people voted for him.”

This seems especially important to younger voters, who also happen to have a more favorable view of socialism than the general population. While that may explain why the label doesn’t drive them away from Sanders, it doesn’t of itself explain why they would vote for him. Yet they did, in the main. In New Hampshire, Sanders won the votes of 84 percent of Democrats under 30.

Sanders himself offered an explanation that fits with Frank’s commitment model, and his words may explain what positive effect the socialist label has. The day after the New Hampshire primary, Late Show host Stephen Colbert asked, “Why do you think the younglings like you?” Sanders’ answer: “By definition young people are idealistic, and they look at a world with so many problems and say, ‘Why not?’” They can tell he’s just as idealistic as they are. Far from a liability, that idealism has served his interest, at least to this point.

Clinton seems to have recovered her footing as the leader of the regular Democrats with her overpowering win in South Carolina and most Super Tuesday states, giving her a probably insurmountable delegate lead. Sanders will likely come up short for the Democratic nomination in the end, but having outperformed expectations in many respects, his campaign shows that sometimes a little romance in one’s politics can go a long way.

This article first appeared at the Library of Law and Liberty.