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We know what's good for you

Poor people are stupid. That is, ultimately, the thesis behind this Economic Scene column in the New York Times by Alan Krueger. Krueger reports on a study by political scientist Larry Bartels which suggests that most Americans don't vote intelligently. Poor and middle class people support tax cuts which won't benefit them, and the explanation proffered is "unenlightened self-interest." That is, they stupidly think that they're going to benefit from these cuts when they really aren't; if they knew better, they'd support higher taxes.

A few problems with this. First, it ignores economic mobility, and hence fails to consider that people may support tax cuts on the rich because they hope to benefit from these cuts someday, even if they won't do so now.

Second, it considers only short-term, first-order benefits. That is, "If this tax cut passes, will my take-home pay be bigger tomorrow?" It ignores the possibility that people believe in the essence of Bush's ideas: that tax cuts stimulate the economy, create jobs, and benefit everyone, even those who don't receive the tax cuts.

Third, and perhaps most important, it proposes a model of voter behavior which would not be particularly desirable if people generally adhered to it. Do we want voters to vote based solely on "self-interest"? Do we want the poor to vote for tax hikes on the rich, the rich to favor the elimination of welfare, whites to support racial profiling, blacks to endorse slavery reparations, etc., based solely on their membership in these groups? I don't think Krueger or Bartels really want that. (As I've mentioned before, I wouldn't mind the All-Nieporents-Get-Millions-of-Dollars Government Grants -- but somehow, I don't think it would be good for the country.) So why single out the poor as the unenlightened ones for not voting the way Bartels/Krueger want them to?

UPDATE: Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok had a similar take on this column, and added this observation:

Moreover, isn't it interesting that when the poor vote against their "self-interest" they are labeled "uninformed" - Bartels compares them to Homer Simpson. But when Hollywood liberals like Barbara Streisand or rich philanthropists like Bill Gates Sr. vote against their "self-interest" they are called enlightened. What Krueger and Bartels refer to as self-interest is actually masking an ideology.
Yep. And while there's nothing wrong with having an ideology, what makes the Krueger/Bartels position particularly obnoxious is that they don't appear to realize that they have one. They don't even demonstrate any recognition of the possibility that there could be good reasons -- or at least good motives -- for supporting tax cuts.


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