Saturday, May 21, 2011


The other day, someone (thanks, Drew!) forwarded me this story about the Senate filibustering a proposed reduction in oil subsidies. Now I feel pretty much compelled to blog about it. Which is okay, because it's interesting!

And one of the most interesting things about the article is that the chart it provides basically disproves the contention the article's own contention: that the subsidies were protected by industry-backed senators. It's accurate that the senators receiving the largest sums from the oil and gas industries all voted to keep the subsidies. But that's only true for the top ten or so beneficiaries; after that, it's not at all clear whether there's any correlation between contributions received and the senator's vote.

There is, of course, a much easier-to-spot correlation. All the Republicans, minus two, voted for subsidies; all the Democrats, minus three, voted against them. And in a way that's a lot more telling than anything that can be gleaned from poring over records of political donations.

Now obviously my opinion of the general correctness of the Republican Party's views are fairly public at this point, so I'm not going to go any further down that road today. But taking a step back, I do think it's interesting the way a vote in favor of subsidies seems completely incompatible with the party's professed belief in free markets and laissez-faire economics. Tax subsidies distort the marketplace just the same as regulation or anything else, and if anything, are even more vulnerable to the sort of rent-seeking behavior that free market purists fear and abhor.

So what's going on here? I think the answer is relatively simple: whatever its claimed ideological commitments, the Republican Party, at the end of the day, represents interest groups. That's no less true of the GOP than it is of the Democrats. Both parties go to great lengths to disguise this fact: Democrats by talking about social justice and fairness, Republicans by talking about business and the free market. But either way, when push comes to shove, the parties break in favor of the groups that fill their coffers and set their agenda. For Republicans, those are mostly industry groups, for Democrats, it's some confused mixture of industry groups, unions, poor people, minorities, and god knows what else.

You'll note the stark contrast between the behavior of the parties writ large, the (1) behavior of commentators on TV and in the papers, who are mostly driven by the need to develop and defend their beliefs, and (2) the behavior of individual politicians in the parties, who are mostly driven by their need to not run afoul of the party base.

Anyway, while the disproportionate influence of industry relative to other groups is deplorable, I'm actually glad that Republicans sometimes vote in accordance with the interests of their benefactors and not in accordance with their ideals. That's how a democracy is supposed to work: everybody gets a lawmaker who can defend their preferences. Whatever this system lacks in ideological fidelity, it makes up in predictability and stability. After all, ideologues run amok can be scary.

1 comment:

  1. Now that I had some time, there was a significant difference in contributions between the senators voting for the bill and those voting against; meaning, senators with larger contributions were more likely to vote against the bill (p = 0.000043). Your point about party lines is much more relevant anyway.