Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Hugh Hewitt, Harriet Miers and public choice 

I'm not speaking abouth whether I support or oppose Harriet Miers. I still don't know enough about her, and I have the hope that the confirmation hearings will give me enough insight to decide whether the president has made a good choice -- dashed in part by Captain Ed's pessimism over the nature of modern confirmation hearings (as expressed on NARN last Saturday). So requests of me from NZ Bear or Watchman's Words, frankly, to take a stand must be held in abeyance. Judgment is premature. If the question is "should Miers' name be withdrawn before the hearings?", my vote would be "no, we must give the president's candidate her chance, just as we've demanded for every judicial nominee in the past." But that's trust in the process, not the nominee.

Hugh Hewitt, in his vigorous defense of Miers, however, makes a statement about which I can say something. From a post yesterday:
Public choice theory holds that electeds do what is in their self-interest. It is not in the self-interest of any GOP senator to vote against Miers. I look forward to reading any post that argues the opposite.

Paul Musgrave tries to correct Hugh's brief description of public choice theory, an explanation which Hugh dismisses. But Musgrave is right and Hugh is wrong on this, and since unlike Musgrave I do work in public choice, let me take another try at getting the message to Hugh.

Public choice theory does not view elections as the goal of politicians but as a constraint on their behavior. What is in their self-interest may be simply power, or may be a desire to make certain legislation into law, or to spread government largesse on friends, or ... it's hard to enumerate all the items that are in one's self-interest, since that is unknowable. But the point is that election is just a means to an end, not an end in itself. Preserving status as "the party in power" is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Hugh's discussion of the public choice explanation for GOP unity on Miers is based on the senators having as a goal some monolith party structure. It is not. Each politician takes a party identification for the purpose of advertising her- or himself to voters.

Hugh couches everything in reference to election and party in power, for example here:

The upside of voting against Miers for a senator is so limited as to be almost non-existent in the real world of politics. The promises of glorious battles with the Dems and the break-up of the Gang of 14 means to them shattering their comfortable worlds and opening themselves up again to the enormous pressures that built throughout the spring. To those who, like Senators Graham and DeWine, took the most heat for the Gang of 14 deal, or like Senators Chafee and Snowe, facing re-election with restive conservative bases, or even stalwart Jon Kyl, facing a deep pockets opponent in Arizona, smashing up the president nominee just doesn't figure to be a good move. Try explaining to the Arizona Pro-life Network why Miers wasn't good enough.

And then there is the prospective trauma of losing, again as in 2001, the majority from which all their influence over legislation and hearings flow.

The italics are mine. Jon Kyl will view the lost pro-life voters as a constraint on his behavior, but only to be balanced both against the gained voters from those who oppose Miers and the value to Kyl of voting for his own principles. It strikes me odd that pro-life voters, who often launch quixotic campaigns in the name of preferring being right to winning, are now making a public choice case.

One preserves majority status by moving towards a center, by trimming one's own desires. That is the nature of the median-voter model that simple public choice theory says. But a more sophisticated view of congressional behavior (consider this paper I co-authored in 1991 for example, or just about anything Sam Peltzman ever wrote on the subject) says that not only constituent preference but the senators' ideologies count as well. What we have found in the Miers nomination is that the GOP Senate caucus has multiple ideologies, and that the Miers nomination cuts across these ideologies differently. Hugh may argue well that voting against Miers hurts the chances of a GOP majority in 2006; public choice theory teaches that the caucus is not monolith.