It’s Better To Fight When You Can Win, Or At Least Look Like You Did

In this post, Larry Bartels provocatively claims that Rich People Rule! In a nutshell, Bartels argues (correctly) that more and more political scientists are producing multiple and smart independent analyses of the determinants of public policy, one of which, by Kalla and Broockman, I have already opined on (“Donation Discrimination Denotes Deliverance of Democracy“).

Bartel’s motivation for bringing this up is essentially this quote from this forthcoming article by Martin Gilens & Benjamin Page:

economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

The Gilens and Page is an interesting read, if only because the data on which it is based is very impressive.

Unfortunately, the theory behind the work is not nearly as strong.  In particular, the study is based on comparing observed position-taking by interest groups with (solicited) individual feedback on various surveys.[1]  So what?  Well, there is at least one potential problem, containing two sub-points, the combination of which I’ll call the Pick Your Battles Hypothesis.

Pick your battles.  Interest groups do not randomly announce positions on public issues.  Rather, any interest group of political interest presumably attempts to influence public policy through strategic choices of not only what to say, but when to bother saying anything at all.  While the mass public opinion data was presumably gathered by pollsters in ways to at least somewhat minimize individuals’ costs of providing their opinions, the interest groups had to pay the direct and indirect costs of getting their message(s) out. There’s two sub-points here, one more theoretical interesting than the other and the other presumably more empirically relevant.

Sub-point 1: Pick a winner. The theoretically interesting sub-point is that an organized “interest group” is/are the agents of donors and supporters.  To the degree that donations and support are conditioned on the perceived effectiveness of the interest group, (the leaders/decision-makers of) an interest group will—ala standard principal-agent theory—have a greater incentive to pay the costs of taking a public position when they perceive that they are likely to “win.”  If there is such a selection effect at work, then the measured correlation between policy and interest groups’ positions will be overestimated.

Sub-point 2: Only Fight The Fights That Can Be Won. The more empirically relevant sub-point is that, even if one thinks that interest groups don’t fear being on the losing side of a public debate, the simple and cold reality of instrumental rationality is that, if making an announcement is costly, any interest group should make an announcement only when the announcement can actually affect something.  Moving quickly here, this suggests that interest groups should be taking positions when they believe decision-makers might be persuaded.  To the degree that these decision-makers are presumably at least somewhat responsive to public opinion (however measured), instrumentally rational (and probably asymmetrically informed) interest groups will be more likely to make announcements that run against relative strong public opinion than to join the chorus.[2]  If this is happening, the question of whether interest groups have too much influence depends on whether you think they have better or worse information and on the types of policies that their views are influential on.

Conclusion. As political scientists know, observational data is tricky.  This is particularly true when it is the result of costly individual effort in pursuit of policy (and other) goals.  I really like Gilens and Page’s paper—the realistic point of scholarly inquiry is not to be right, it’s to get ever closer to being right, and this is even more true with directly policy-relevant work.  I just think that great data should be combined with at least a modicum of (micro-founded, individualistic) theoretical argument.  Without that, we might think umbrellas cause rain, hiring a lawyer causes you to go to jail, or chemotherapy causes death from cancer.  In other words, the analyst has simultaneously more data and less information than those he or she studies.


[1] Gilens and Page also compare responsiveness to mass opinions of economic elites (i.e., those in the 90th percentile in income) versus those of the median earner.  While I have some issues with this comparison (for example, I imagine getting a representative sample of the 90th income percentile is a bit different than getting one of the median income earner and, as Gilens and Page acknowledge, the information held by and incentives of the rich are plausibly very different from those of median earners), I will focus on the interest group component of the analysis in this post.

[2]  That this is not just hypothetical crazy talk is indicated by the relatively strong negative correlation (-.10***) between the positions of business interest groups and the average citizen’s preferences.