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I have discussed the theory that the passage of the 17th Amendment was a serious blow to federalism on this blog before, and I have been supportive of the argument. Although I have not seen an explicit public choice theory for why the indirect election of senators institutionally encourages federalism, the implicit logic is obvious enough: rationally self-interested state legislators, interested in their own power and influence, jealously guard and work to expand the power of state the legislatures by voting for national legislators who defer to the states as much as possible.

Initially, I found this mechanism very convincing, and I thought that the passage of the 17th Amendment explained essentially all of the decline of Federalism in the US since 1917, but I have changed my mind, and I want to explain why.

Rational self-interest does not imply that the indirect election of national legislators strongly encourages federalism because of vote dilution. Like voters, state legislators have only a very small impact on the outcome of the vote and therefore only a very small impact on their own welfare. This means that even though legislators are rationally self-interested, their political action, like that of voters, will be largely sociotropic (perceived “good” or welfare maximizing).

Because legislators face weak incentives to protect the power of state legislatures, they are likely to follow voter preferences in this domain, even if they are weak, and it may be the case that voters increasingly want more involvement from the national government. Communication and transportation technologies continually get better, which makes the world “smaller,” and I would guess that this makes people think on a more geographically broad level.  People also increasingly have a national identify instead of a state level identity, before the union of the states, people often identified with their state, but now most people identify with their country; few people are more loyal to their state than the nation. This may lead people to think of national level instead of the state level as the appropriate level for politics to take place and therefore lead to less federalism. If this is the case, it would lead to reduced federalism no mater the method used to elect the national legislature. Riker’s (1955) account of the passage of the 17th Amendment seems to support the idea that direct election is inherently popular. Before the passage of the 17th Amendment, many states passed laws requiring the legislature to elect the candidate who won the popular vote in the state, in response to the growing trend of state legislators being forced to campaign primarily on who they would vote for for national senate instead of what they would accomplish in state.

However, there are some potential mechanisms that could motivate state legislators to actively protect the power of the state legislatures.

Indirect election of the national legislature could still systemically encourage federalism if people are biased in certain ways. For example, if people are generally cognitively biased towards accepting ideas which are perceived as in their self or group interest, then legislators will have a skewed perception of what is “good for society.” This will lead state legislators will elect national legislators that favor stronger state legislative power than if they legislators were unbiased.

Indirect election of the national legislature might encourage federalism relative to direct election of the national legislature if state legislators have biased cost/benefit information. For example, state legislators have only the viewpoint and experience of state legislators, so they will be far more aware of the costs and benefits to the state legislatures of proposed structural changes than the costs and benefits to the national government. This would lead state legislators to make decisions based about what they support at the national level largely on what the costs and benefits would be to state legislatures. I am aware of a little empirical support for this proposition: some evidence suggests that people avoid gaining information about the impact of their potential choices on others.

In addition, direct election may actively encourage the transfer of political power from the state legislatures to the national legislature because of the incentives that directly elected legislators have in their attempt to appeal to voters. Directly elected legislators (whether they are national or state) have incentives to expand the control of their legislature both “down” into areas already covered by state bodies and “out” into areas not currently regulated. Legislators have an incentive to work to expand the power of the legislature into new areas in order to claim credit for working to resolve real or perceived problems. This incentive will operate even when those areas are already controlled by the state legislatures because voters are generally ignorant of their own state laws. For example: national legislative candidates in a directly elected system might successfully tout their support for stronger national gun laws, even though the states already good gun laws. This would appeal to voters who think that strong gun laws are a good idea that are ignorant of gun laws in their own state.

Under indirect election, however, national legislators do not have the same incentives to expand the power of their legislature “down” and “out” because, state legislators will generally be far more informed about what issues state law already covers and more often realize that the national legislature does not have any advantage in solving the problem over them. Moreover, while state legislators do have similar incentives to expand both “up” into areas regulated by the national legislature and “out” into unregulated areas, the political system usually prohibits them from expanding upward, taking over areas filled by the national government.

I can’t really comment on whether these mechanisms are true or not, because, while they seem intuitively appealing to me, they mostly are empirical questions for psychology, and I have very little knowledge of the relevant literature.

Overall, It seems to me that there are good reasons to suspect that the 17th Amendment eliminated significant forces in favor of federalism, and that, more generally, the indirect election scheme encourages power sharing between national and state governments. There also seem to be few reasons to believe that indirect election of the national legislature would be a bad political institution. However, the 17th Amendment was probably not an all-important force preserving federalism. Therefore, I think that indirect election of the national legislature is overall a good idea. Unfortunately, it seems that it is a challenge to preserve institutional features like indirect elections, even if they have positive effects, when they can be replaced by popular alternatives. If through some magic, the 17th Amendment were repealed, I doubt that it would stay that way for very long because direct election is popular. While indirect election of the national legislature seems like a moderately good feature of a political system, I have trouble seeing it as a permanent one in normal political systems.

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A few days ago, I linked to a paper on Voter Ignorance by Ilya Somin. There are a few points in it that I would like to talk about:

1) Here is Somin talking about retrospective voting (p. 15)

The retrospective-voting argument does, however, possess a kernel of truth. As Fiorina puts it, retrospective voting can impose a kind of “rough justice” on political leaders who have failed badly. If a policy failure is large, highly visible, and easily attributable to a particular set of leaders, it is certainly likely that they will be voted out of office, as the elections of 1932, 1952, 1968, and 1980 suggest. Moreover, the bigger the failure, the less likely it is that the opposing party’s performance will be worse. The ability of voters to punish large and obvious policy failures by incumbents is one of the major advantages of democracy over dictatorship.

This is how I think about it too. Democracy in general gives politicians a weak but significant incentive to work for good policy, because while voters are quite ignorant about politics, they are not completely ignorant; they do generally know when politicians have done an especially poor job. Unfortunately democracy also gives politicians a host of other incentives that aren’t so great.

2) Somin argues that even altruistically motivated voters are rationally ignorant because the chance that they affect the election is vanishingly small. However, as Gelman and others show, altruistically motivated voters do have an incentive to show up to vote, and extending their logic, also to be informed. What Somin forgets is that while the chance that a particular voter changes the outcome of the election is minuscule when the voting population is large, when the voting population at large, the social welfare effects are also large. Moreover, the chance that a voter decides the election and the size of the welfare effect are inversely proportional to eachother, so that when we calculate expected altruistic utility of voting, it is constant.

However, I don’t think that Gelman’s analysis is quite right either because voters aren’t interested in being altruistic per se, they are interested in the psychological rewards of feeling altruistic, and that feeling doesn’t heavily depend on how informed the voter is. I should say that while it seems intuitively obvious to me that the rewarding altruistic feeling from behaving altruistically doesn’t heavily depend on how informed a voter is, I don’t have a good explanation for why that would be the case. I suspect there’s some sort of cognitive bias at work here.


I’m almost halfway through a wonderful econ class this quarter, the best I’ve had at UW. In contrast to all my past econ classes, it is small and discussion/writing oriented. Here are some highlights.

Modern growth theory starts from the work of Robert Solow in the mid 1950s, who in turn reacted to the Harrod and Domar model of the previous decade. Solow’s innovation was to use a different form for the production function, an important part of the model, yielding very different results. Harrod and Domar are nowadays only of historical interest, whereas Solow’s work underlies contemporary theory. Read the rest of this entry »


In response to John’s post, I’d like to point out that values are not necessarily heuristics standing in for more thorough utilitarian analyses. People often think an act is wrong inherently, not because they believe it will reduce human welfare. Indeed, if a value is based on welfare, isn’t it really a position supported by a deeper underlying value, that increasing welfare is good? It seems to me that a defining characteristic of a moral value is that it is cannot be reduced to more fundamental beliefs about what is right and wrong.

As people become more informed, then, their values will not be updated based on new information. However, when formulating positions on the issues of the day, they may find the newly available utilitarian reasoning on a particular issue more compelling than the guidance provided by their values and take a different position than they would have before. Another way to look at it is that deciding your policy preferences based a utilitarian rationale is difficult and relatively expensive (in time and mental effort) when you are uninformed. Of course, somebody might stick to their values regardless of new information, but I would expect that if you made a given sample of people better informed, some would switch to voting based utilitarian concerns.  So I come to the same conclusions — I’m just quibbling over details.


Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin has a series of four posts on rational political ignorance (the first one is here, and it links to the rest at the bottom) and discuses why it exists and why it is important.

In his last post on the topic, he mentions his 2004 paper covering some recent empirical evidence for rational ignorance, which I find especially interesting because I had been searching for such a survey without much success.


Consider two ways for an individual to arrive at their policy preferences. First, an individual can consider inherent goodness or badness of a policy. For example, an individual can consider banning drugs to be good because it is inherently good to prohibit people for using drugs. I’ll call this method Specific Value evaluation. Alternatively, an individual can consider the results of a (rough) utilitarian calculus. For example, an individual can consider banning drugs to be good because they judge that it will improve overall human welfare by reducing suffering because of drugs. I’ll call this method Utilitarian Evaluation.

Here is my question: Would a person who was required to learn a lot about a certain policy rely more on a utilitarian evaluation of the policy than on judgments about inherent goodness or badness of the policy than a person who was not required to learn about the policy?

My intuition is that yes, greater information leads to judgments based more on Utilitarian evaluation than on Specific Value evaluation, because Specific Values are not values themselves but simply very simplistic Utilitarian evaluations. If this is the case, then the thought that prohibiting drug use is inherently good is simply a way of expressing the thought that prohibiting drug would very obviously improve human welfare. However, I am not very sure about this.

I am interested in this because I am curious about what sort of politics Professional Voting would lead to. I obviously hope that greater information leads people to make more utilitarian judgments, because my own preferences are quite utilitarian.

If anyone could point me to relevant research, I would be very grateful.


Your brain doesn’t treat words as logical definitions with no empirical consequences, and so neither should you.  The mere act of creating a word can cause your mind to allocate a category, and thereby trigger unconscious inferences of similarity.  Or block inferences of similarity; if I create two labels I can get your mind to allocate two categories.  Notice how I said “you” and “your brain” as if they were different things?

I am  sure that I have been guilty of ignoring this in the past, probably even on this blog.