Monday, January 19, 2009

Do voters have a conservative bias rather than a pessimistic bias?

This post further considers the question of whether most people have a pessimistic bias, which was discussed in my last post.

Bryan Caplan defines “pessimistic bias” as “a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the (recent) past, present, and future performance of the economy” (“The Myth of the Rational Voter”, 2007: 44). On reflection, however, it seems to me that Caplan’s discussion relates to two separate questions: whether people are generally too pessimistic about economic performance in the recent past, the present and the near future; and whether people are unduly susceptible to arguments appealing to nostalgia, and to gloom and doom prognostications. I argue below that Caplan’s answer to the first question is probably wrong and that the second question has more to do with loss aversion than pessimism.

As discussed in my last post, Caplan’s argument that people are too pessimistic about economic performance rests mainly on a survey which showed that economists were more optimistic about short-term economic prospects than the general public. As subsequent events have shown, the economists were probably too optimistic. Moreover, the survey results do not seem to me to suggest that the American public were particularly pessimist about economic prospects at the time of the survey. In an earlier post, ‘Would a chain index provide a better guide to change in the quality of life’, I argued that surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center imply that over the last 30 years Americans have tended to perceive their quality of life to be rising more rapidly that per capita GDP. If anything, this would suggest an optimistic bias, rather than a pessimistic bias.

I therefore reject the view that people generally have a pessimistic bias in considering short-term economic performance. I think there is probably a pessimistic bias at present, but as a rule I expect that public opinion about economic prospects is as much prone to irrational exuberance as to irrational pessimism.

I think Caplan is probably on much firmer ground in relation to the second aspect of bias – susceptibility to arguments appealing to nostalgia, and to gloom and doom prognostications. It seems to me that the common element here is fear of change, or more precisely, loss aversion. Research by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has shown that most people will reject a gamble with even chances to win and lose, unless the possible win is at least twice the size of the possible loss (refer Kahneman’s Nobel Prize lecture p 461). It seems reasonable to speculate that such considerations impart a conservative bias to political choice.

Some of my “conservative” friends might think that a conservative bias among voters should be encouraged. I am not so sanguine because a conservative bias - a bias in favour of the status quo - tends to favour retention of government regulation that has outlived its usefulness (if indeed it was ever useful). A conservative bias may also tend to favour increased regulation to prevent changes that some groups fear – whether economic, social or environmental – irrespective of cost.

I have been reminded that Milton and Rose Friedman wrote a book entitled "The Tryanny of the Status Quo" in 1982. This "tyranny" was seen to be the result of the the actions of politicians, bureaucrats and special interest groups who advance their own interests at the expense of the public.

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