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Gary M. Galles - Contributor

Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. [go to Galles index]


Tear-down Politics
Going negative...
[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

copyright 2004 Gary M. Galles




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