In 2015, Jen Henderson, a 23 years-old college student, ended up as the sole voter in a scheduled vote to impose a sales tax increase. The case of Jen Henderson and the Columbia, Missouri Community Improvement District is an entertaining and illustrative case of altruistic and self-interested values at play in our voting behavior.
In April of that year, the Columbia City Council stablished the Community Improvement District as requested by a group of property owner along a 1.5 mile-strip of Business Loop 70. Under the prevailing law, a sales tax could only be imposed by the voters within a jurisdiction unless there were no voters in the jurisdiction. If there were no voters, the tax could be imposed by the property owners within the jurisdiction.
The property owners wanted a sales tax because it imposed the costs not on themselves, but on shoppers. Without such a tax, the property owners would have to bear the expenses of their plan to pay down development debt and finance capital improvements on the strip. Consequently, they designed a Community Improvement District without registered voters so that they could freely impose a half-cent sales tax increase.
However, things did not go as planned. The property owners were not counting on Jennifer Henderson, a student at the University of Missouri and a resident of a university-owned residence within the district. As it turned out, Henderson was the only voter in the district and had the power to enact or reject the sales tax proposal. Henderson was not inclined to vote for the sales tax noting that it would negatively impact low-income residents nearby. The property owners tried to get Henderson to “unregister,” and when she refused they decided to postpone the election.
Most (but not all) studies of voter motivation conclude that voters behave similarly to Jen Henderson, and do not vote based on their narrow self-interests. Social scientists call this altruism, “sociotropic” voting. Sociotropic voters vote on the perceived interests of society as a whole rather that on their own self-interest.
We do know that self-interested behavior does influence voting in at least some issues such as gun control and smoking policies, but scholars are divided on the preponderance of sociotropic vs self-interested voting. Yet, it is clear that a self-interested majority can, for their benefit, inflict higher costs on the minority. Here is a simple illustration borrowed from political scholar Ilya Somin:
Consider a policy that creates $100 of benefits for each person in 51 percent of the population at a cost of $200 for each person in the other 49 percent of the population. In this illustration, the harm imposed on the minority ($200 x 49 = $9,800) is almost twice as much as the benefit to the majority ($100 x 51 = $5,100). And yet, a self-interested democratic majority is likely to adopt this policy.
The underlying proposition here is whether selfish voting behavior undermines democracy itself. Does democracy require altruistic voters? It may be tempting to answer no; but we must keep in mind the consequences from voters in the Jim Crow-era in the American South, voters in the anti-Semitic Germany of the Weimar Republic, or more recently, voters in the newly democratized countries in the Muslim world.
If voting behavior is self-interested, we need constraints on the scope of government powers to prevent a majority from engineering undesirable policy outcomes. Limiting government power is necessary to mitigate the potential problems of selfish voting behavior, and also the excesses of sociotropic voting.
Unfortunately, in the United States, the executive branch of the federal government alone has grown to fifteen cabinet-level departments, fifty-six independent regulatory agencies, and four “quasi-official” agencies (Somin). And, total government spending accounts for over 36 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product.
We continue to increase the scope of government and it is not clear to me if this is because we vote sociotropically or because we vote selfishly. But, as F.A. Hayek reminded us: “Thought democracy is probably the best form of limited government, it becomes an absurdity if it turns into unlimited government.”
Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”