Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Brief: Do people vote selfishly when it comes to vices?

In Bryan Caplan's eye-opening book The Myth of the Rational Voter, he devotes some time to the literature showing that voters do not vote their narrow self interests. The well-to-do favor social safety net programs, men are typically more pro-choice, and so on. In general, people claim to and do vote for what they believe will make society better off. He says that the exceptions are personal vices, such as smokers being much more against smoking bans than are non-smokers. I went to the General Social Survey to see what other examples I could dig up on this pattern.


Those who saw an x-rated movie last year, compared to those who didn't, are much more likely to want to keep pornography legal for adults, rather than ban it altogether.


Among married people, those who have cheated on their spouse are much more likely to want easier divorce laws. The idea is that if we had stricter laws, their vice could be more harshly punished, say by having to pay massive damages in divorce court if it were uncovered.


The more sex partners a woman has had in the past year, the more willing she is to support abortion for any reason whatsoever. The idea is that for such women, abortion is one form of birth control, and lacking this method of last resort would constrain their ability to indulge their vice of sleeping with a variety of men.

Finally, an exception to the "vice leads to selfish voting" rule:

These two graphs show that illegal drug users feel the same way as non-drug users about how well our drug policy is doing, rather than view it as too harsh or unjust, as we might have expected from the previous three cases. This case is different in that the vice is illegal, while the other three vices are perfectly legal. Obviously they could not vote selfishly because there are no "legalize it" pieces of legislation on the table.

But even when you just ask them their opinion, they still don't espouse the view that promotes their own self-interest. Perhaps the vices that we criminalize, on average, really are more harmful than those that we don't criminalize -- shooting heroin really is more ruinous than cheating, sleeping around, or watching porn. If that's so, then the heroin addict doesn't view his vice as something that's unobjectionable, and so doesn't view tough drug laws as an untenable constraint on his liberty, in the way that a porn addict would view his own vice and the attempts to criminalize it. He probably recognizes that shooting heroin is something that people should be protected from by making it harder to try out. The porn addict, by contrast, realizes that it never really hurt anyone, so people should not be protected from a false menace.

So, by experiencing how destructive illegal drugs are first-hand, users put on their "do what's best for society" hat and confess that current drug laws aren't as bad as ivory tower detractors might think. The other vices don't appear to destroy society, so those who indulge in them don't think about what's best for society -- you only get into that mindset when you perceive that something is a real problem that needs to be solved.

GSS variables used: pornlaw, xmovie, divlaw, evstray, abany, partners, sex, natdrug, hlth5, evidu

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