Sunday, September 21, 2014

Libertarian Populism?

In 1986, an NBC.News/Wall St. Journal poll asked "Do you think Congress should pass legislation limiting the amount of interest credit card companies can charge, even if that means it would be much harder for people like you to get credit?"  73% said yes, 20% said no, and 6% didn't know.

I looked at the relation of opinions to a number of demographic factors.  The only ones that made a significant difference were education and age:  more educated people and younger people were more likely to oppose a limit.*

Why am I writing about a forgotten issue from almost 30 years ago?  A number of conservatives, notably Ross Douthat, have been making a case for "libertarian populism."  The idea is that programs that are supposed to help the working and middle class usually get "captured" by well-connected interest groups.  As a result, they wind up helping the rich, or maybe a minority the middle class (e. g., those notorious unionized public sector workers), while reducing opportunity for most of the working and middle classes.  So the best way to help the working and middle classes is to rely on competition and markets.  Setting aside the merits of the idea, I have been interested in whether it can be populist and have been looking for potentially relevant questions.  There aren't many, but this one is of interest as a good measure of belief in the market.

There are a lot of issues on which you can make arguments for regulation based on bilateral monopoly or asymmetric information, but this isn't one of them.  There are a lot of credit cards offering different terms (and there were even in 1986), there's no long-term commitment, and the idea of a higher interest rate is pretty easy to grasp.  So the only justifications for government action are paternalism--the idea that some people won't be able to make good decisions--or just not believing that markets work.

But even though the question has a clear statement of the argument against regulation, the great majority of the public supports it.  Also, the people who are least likely to favor limits are not those who are at greatest risk of losing access to credit, but those who have been exposed to the influence of higher education.

Things may have changed since 1986, but I doubt it.  The free-market argument rests on a paradox, so it's most likely to appeal to intellectuals, or at least those who've been exposed to the influence of intellectuals.  (See this previous post for more information pointing in that direction).

*The survey also asked people if they had a credit card.  Among those who did, education influenced opinions but age didn't seem to matter; among those who didn't, age influenced opinions but education didn't seem to matter.  I can't think of a good explanation for this pattern.

[Data Source:  Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]


  1. I'm reminded of set of poll questions on gay rights from a few years ago. I don't recall the exact details, but it was something like this:

    75% of respondents favored a law making it illegal to discriminate against gays in hiring.

    50% of respondents opposed allowing gays to be public school teachers.

    Each of these responses is plausible (from the perspective of 10 years ago, which I think is when the surveys came from), and together they make sense too: On one hand, discrimination in hiring is a bad thing and it should be illegal. On the other hand, the safety of kids is important and you don't want to put them at risk.

    On the other hand, from a libertarian position, the survey responses are all wrong. From a (modern-day U.S. intellectual) libertarian perspective, individual employers should be allowed more leeway than governments to discriminate.

    To me this is another piece of evidence (along with the familiar evidence from surveys that people tend to favor "freedom of the press" in the abstract while supporting all sorts of restrictions on free speech etc. in all sorts of specific examples) that Americans like their freedom but are not so fond of libertarian principles.

    In particular, people don't seem to care so much about other people's freedom. Consider again the finding that a vast majority of American supported anti-discrimination-against-gays laws even while opposing various equal rights measures. My take on this is that most people didn't feel that they would personally discriminate against gays so they didn't feel their freedom was being restricted by such laws, so libertarian thinking didn't come into play.

    At least, this was my hypothesis 10 years ago. Maybe there's a way to gather data to study this for real.

  2. I think the usual interpretation of that would be "framing"--that people answered the two questions without realizing that there was a contradiction. But as you say, the answers might be consistent--maybe they mean private employers shouldn't be allowed to discriminate but the government should, or that discrimination should be forbidden but with some exceptions for particular jobs.

    I had a post on a similar topic a couple of years ago: most people are opposed to racial preferences but favor a law requiring employers "to maintain a certain level of diversity."

    I suspect that part of the explanation is that most people don't have much experience in drafting general rules, so that support for a proposed law implicitly includes an "with exceptions that seem reasonable to me" clause.