The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Ira Stoll on ‘Gifts’


As one of the many conservatives who took strong exception to Mitt Romney’s explanation of why he lost the 2012 presidential election, I found Ira Stoll quasi-defense of Romney’s ‘gifts’ remark to be a useful corrective. Stoll acknowledges that Romney’s remarks were clumsy and that his characterization of gift recipients in racial terms was needlessly divisive. Yet he suggests that Romney’s core insight was sound: 

Mr. Romney is hardly the first to suggest that voters might be swayed by the government benefits they are receiving. There’s an entire field of economics, known as public choice theory, devoted to the idea that, as the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics summarizes it, “people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests and…as such, voters ‘vote their pocketbooks,’ supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off…Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics.”

As the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences put it in a press releaseback in 1986, when it announced it was awarding the Nobel Prize in economics to James Buchanan, a pioneer of public choice theory, “individuals who behave selfishly on markets can hardly behave wholly altruistically in political life.”

The idea that voters might consider what’s in it for themselves, in other words, isn’t some screwball sour-grapes idea dreamt up by Mitt Romney as an excuse for his defeat. Rather, it’s been part of mainstream social science for decades. 

And earlier on, Stoll observes that most political observers barely bat an eyelash when it is suggested that Republican donors and high-income voters back the GOP out of narrow self-interest. We are left to conclude that while high-income voters are mindful of their economic interests and vote accordingly, low-income voters are not. 

Stoll’s column reminded me of John Hudak’s elegant take on the politics of Medicaid expansion, which I often reference:

Does principle really motivate Democrats and Republicans in the health care debate? No. A more base, self-interested, and political motive drives behaviors over health care. The statistics that appear to suggest that governors are acting contrary to the health care needs of their constituents fail to account for the demographics of the uninsured. While support for or opposition to the president surely affects governors’ views on the health care law, responsiveness to their electoral constituencies plays a central role. University of Rochester professor Richard Fenno describes an elected official’s electoral constituency as a subset of their broader constituency. The electoral constituency is a voting bloc large enough to secure continued electoral success, and politicians primarily cater to this subgroup.

In fact, because the president’s and Democratic governors’ electoral constituencies share demographic characteristics, their pursuit of similar voters motivates support for the law. By contrast, Republicans are successful because of the support of different demographics than Democrats. These electoral forces (not principles such as liberty or empathy) drive elected officials’ positions on health care.

Republicans often depend on white and wealthier voters for electoral success. Democrats’ electoral constituencies have a larger percentage of non-white and/or lower income voters. White and wealthier individuals are insured at dramatically higher rates. The national average for non-elderly uninsured is 18%. The rate for white Americans is only 14%. However, black Americans and Latino Americans are uninsured at rates of 22% and 32%, respectively. As one would expect, there is an inverse relationship between income and the rate of uninsured.

One might characterize Hudak’s interpretation as ungenerous to Republicans, for whom the liberty interest may well be sincere and public-spirited in the broadest sense, i.e., many conservatives believe that high levels of public social spending can undermine the prospects for economic growth and/or contribute to the deterioration of the collective capacity for self-help. Yet something like Hudak’s view is well-aligned with the “gifts” remark.

My own take is that Romney framed “gifts” in a particularly thoughtless way. Had he said that low-income voters are inclined to favor redistribution in the absence of a compelling alternative and that he — and Republicans more broadly — had failed to articulate a compelling alternative, I’d be first to congratulate him. Instead, he came across as unreflective and callow. 


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