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Does money make people conservative? Leading to a discussion of different default models held by economists and political scientists

In an article entitled “Money makes people right-wing and inegalitarian,” Andrew Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee write:

Rich people typically lean right politically. Are they motivated by deeply moral views or self-interest? This column argues that money makes you right-wing. It shows that lottery winners in the UK are more likely to switch their allegiance from left to right.

The research paper is here.

Boris Shor notes that they cite our Red State Blue State work and that they “specifically find a geographically heterogeneous pattern; but it’s the opposite of the one we found — the effect is strongest in the most left-wing part of the country.” It’s funny about geographic variation: it’s so familiar to people, yet it’s not included in most social science models I’ve seen.

One difference between the United States and Britain is that here the richer regions of the country are more left-wing, while in Britain, it’s the lower-income parts of the country that lean left. Those tough northerners that we all hear about.

I had one other reaction to Oswald and Powdthavee’s paper. They write, “Our findings are consistent with the view that voting is driven partly by human self-interest.” The findings are also consistent with the view that (a) people vote for what they think is in the public good, and (b) people’s personal financial situation affects their view of the public good.

To the extent that voting is rational (and, we argue it can be if you live in a district or state where the vote is expected to be close and you care about the outcome), the rationality comes not from self-interest but because of your judgment that the outcome will be important in the lives of many.  But I recognize that people are not always so rational, so concerns of self-interest could still arise. But, yes, survey data and other information are consistent with the model that people vote mostly based on their view of the public good. And, yes, I think that being bumped up into a different income bracket will change one’s view of the public good. For example, if you never fly, you probably won’t consider airport inconvenience to be a major public policy issue. If you don’t drive a car, you probably won’t consider parking facilities to be a crucial public service. But if you buy a car and a bunch of plane tickets, your attitudes will change!

Oswald did not agree with me, but I think that political scientists are more likely to view people as public-spirited, and economists are more likely to view people as self-interested. Which is a funny thing, because there’s nothing in political theory to imply that people are public spirited and nothing in economic theory to imply that people are self-interested. But those are the models we typically go with.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.



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