An economist’s analysis of optimal voting strategy for Republicans
As the Republican primaries approach, voters are dutifully attempting to determine which candidate best embodies their own principles. Republicans are watching the debates, absorbing the campaign speeches, and even considering the pronouncements of pundits in order to make an informed decision. They say: “Which candidate’s principles most closely resemble my own? His policies are the ones I want so I shall vote for him.”
Yet voting for the candidate who advances the policies one would most like to see implemented has contributed to the political hopelessness that Americans experience today. From NDAA to SOPA, it has left voters once again pondering why the democratic process has failed them, giving rise to an engorged Leviathan. Americans are left scratching their heads when politicians like Barack Obama seem to genuinely champion civil liberties in their campaigns only to orchestrate dangerous and unprecedented power grabs once they wield the state apparatus.
Election after election, voters cling to the notion that their best hope for America is to vote for the candidate who advocates the policies they prefer. Paradoxically, this is a strategic error; it rests on their failure to consider the political realities that must compel us to distinguish between the policies a candidate supports and the policies that will actually emerge under his presidency. A rational voter must consider only the latter in choosing a preferred candidate.
Most of us are familiar with the median voter theorem, a political economy model that attempts to depict policy outcomes under majority rule. It holds that policy is ultimately determined by the pivotal agent, a position of power that accrues to the voter at the median point along a one-dimensional political spectrum. Such public choice models frequently assume that voters vote sincerely, i.e. they have the incentive to vote their true preferences in an election. I wish to advance the following claim: Given that the separation of powers created by the Constitution necessitates compromise between the President and the Congress, Republicans are well-advised not to vote their true preferences but to vote for a candidate who is in fact more pro-liberty than themselves, even extremely so.
In the political battles that will ensue after the general election, when the Congress will no doubt demand more spending, more wars, and more police powers, the policies that are actually implemented will be the result of compromise with the President. While such compromises forged by the typical Republican candidate will result, as always, in policies to the left of most Republicans’ preferred outcomes, for an extremely libertarian candidate such as Ron Paul these policy compromises will be pulled much further toward the pro-liberty side. Whereas typical Republican presidents will oversee more government growth than any of us asked for, a libertarian one will render a national policy relatively closer to the side of freedom, bringing about a state of affairs that is closer to what most Republicans actually want.
Everybody knows that the sensible way to begin a negotiation is by making high demands and then working downward, not by going straight to one’s minimum acceptable trade. And yet I hear Republicans agonizing over such things as the fact that Ron Paul’s policy on taxation is not precisely what they would have it be, and so intend to vote for another candidate with a tax plan that they agree with, apparently believing that this alternative tax policy as stated is exactly what will be implemented once their candidate is in office and fighting the Congress. Similarly, these Republicans lament the fact that Ron Paul’s foreign policy is not precisely what they think US foreign policy should be. Fearing the 1/50 million chance they will be killed by a terrorist if we do not maintain 1000 bases overseas, they find a candidate who is more in line with their own beliefs, as if his will be the exact foreign policy implemented by that candidate once in office. And so it goes, issue after issue.
Such Republicans are in desperate need of an injection of political reality because manipulating the American political process to best suit one’s own ends requires a ruthless, detached, and calculated assessment of the nature of politics inside the Beltway. National policy emerges out of the interactions between the branches, shaped by their respective checks and balances. The final result is an aggregation of the desires of competing factional interests. Some Republicans harbor the misguided yet unshakable contention that Ron Paul’s policies would result in chaos. Nonetheless, fears that his consistent and uncompromising policies of peace and freedom would be perfectly achieved belie an ignorance of the structure of our constitutional republic. Actual policies will lie somewhere between his preferred outcome and that of the Congress.
It is for this reason that hawks need not fully support Ron Paul’s position of avoiding foreign entanglements before endorsing him; they merely need be opposed to the status quo of endless wars, the abandonment of the War Powers Resolution, or the immense foreign aid our government gives away. Those who seek to roll back but not eliminate such utter despotism would still be well-advised to vote Paul. Likewise, one need not fully support abolishing the IRS, the CIA, or the Department of Education to vote for him. The actual changes that will be brought about in Washington through President Paul’s fights with the Congress will likely fall short of his highest aspirations, but I’d wager an original printing of Locke’s Second Treatise that the final result will be much closer to the typical Republican’s ideal than if the likes of Gingrich or Romney were elected instead, leaving us with more laws, more debt, more taxes, and more wars.
It is mistaken to believe that national policy will resemble one’s own ideal if the candidate who embodies that ideal is elected to the presidency. On the contrary, voters must consider the policy outcomes that would actually emerge under each candidate. They should vote for a candidate not based on the policies he advocates but on a thoughtful and realistic expectation of what policies will emerge during his administration. Not only will they be less surprised when their candidate takes office and falls short of his stated ambitions, but they will also be less susceptible to lies when well-spoken wolves in sheep’s clothing promise them the world in exchange for power.
As the Republican primaries approach, I implore Republicans of all stripes to remember that national policy will necessarily emerge out of fights between the next President and the Congress. To those Republicans who think Ron Paul’s policies are “too extreme,” for your own sake try to imagine the resulting policies of President Paul standing athwart the Congress’s insatiable lust for power as opposed to Gingrich or Romney and consider which outcome is closest to the America you want for yourselves and your children.
– Joseph Newhard, Econ PhD student at Clemson