Gary M. Galles - Contributor
Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.
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[Gary M. Galles] 10/21/04
In a sharply divided country, about the only political proposition now
attracting near unanimity is that the presidential campaign has become
the most intensely and persistently negative contest in memory.
Attempts at explanation have focused on the level of disagreement,
the closeness of the race (making each swing vote crucial),
the internet, more sophisticated targeting of campaigns, etc.
However, overlooked is the question of why politics is so negative
compared to marketing, its private sector analog, even though
every participant in that negativity claims to detest it. That
reflects two important ways political competition differs from
market competition: higher payoffs to negative attacks and
less informed "customers."
In markets, sales require customers to cast affirmative votes
to buy a product. Just convincing a potential customer to shun
a rival’s product does not mean a sale for you, because
a prospect can choose among several sellers or not to buy at
all. But those alternatives are less available in an election
with only two major parties, where customers are effectively
forced to "buy" from one.
To a candidate, convincing an uncommitted voter to vote against
the "other guy" by tearing him down is as valuable
as convincing a voter to vote for you. Getting someone who
would have voted for your rival to not vote is also as valuable
as another vote for you, and switching a rival's voter to your
side is worth two votes, since it adds one vote for you and
subtracts one from them.
That is why negative political campaigns prosper, despite turning
many voters off from even participating. So long as you think
more voters will abandon your rival than you, they improve
your electoral prospects. The private sector avoids that approach,
as it would reduce rather than increase sales.
The greater payoff to negativity in politics is further intensified
because voters are far less informed about what they are being "sold" than
private sector customers.
People acquire information to make decisions only if they expect
the benefits they receive from making a better choice to exceed
the costs of obtaining it. The benefit is substantial in market
decisions, since your vote changes your outcome. However, your
vote is but one among many in the political arena, giving you
only a minute chance of influencing the outcome, therefore
yielding you virtually no benefits from casting a better informed
vote. Further, the cost of acquiring the information necessary
for public sector decisions is higher, because far more and
more complex information is required than just how a choice
will directly affect you.
Higher costs and lower benefits to becoming informed makes most
voters more ignorant about political decisions than their market
decisions. That also raises the payoff to negative attacks,
especially using misleading part-truths. Reality is complex,
but they are simple, and therefore much easier to "sell" to
voters paying limited attention. Further, any policy and any
vote would have many effects, some adverse, and those can be
easily separated out and packaged to inflame uninformed voters.
Politics also involves compromises, and taken out of context,
any compromise provides fodder for attacks that a candidate
has abandoned principle.
In this year’s white-hot election race, participants decry
opponents’ attacks as they and their allies launch their
own. That maddens us. But negativity is built into the incentive
structure of modern politics. And it will only get worse as long
as the government continues to expand its tentacles of influence
over Americans’ lives, increasing the payoff from controlling
the political process.
The only real solution to negative politics is to reduce the
power and scope of government over our lives, returning control
to the voluntary arrangements we make for ourselves. Only then
will our individual votes determine our results and give us
sufficient incentives to know what we are voting on. However,
that solution is unlikely to come from those busily abusing
the truth to control the reins of government. CRO
2004 Gary M. Galles