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Republicans: doing things that help people is dirty pool


Since zero Republicans voted for Biden’s fully refundable child tax credits and they will be very popular, the inevitable next step is to complain that campaigning on programs to help people and implementing them represents the purportedly illegitimate practice of “buying votes”:

The right itself has no principled commitment to balanced budgets. Its concern is with the balance of economic power. Conservatives do not want working-class voters to exchange their ballots for a greater share of the nation’s economic resources. Mitt Romney spoke to this concern in 2012, when addressing a group of Republican donors. “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for [Barack Obama] no matter what,” the then-GOP nominee explained. “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”

Like Varney, Romney described the phenomenon of politicians providing public services to working-class people in order to win their electoral allegiance as a kind of cheating or civic corruption.

But this is actually a description of democratic health.

Electoral incentives surely pose genuine challenges for sound public policy. Advancing the general welfare does sometimes require policymakers to privilege long-term outcomes over short-term ones. And the imperative to win reelection every two or four or six years can make that task difficult, as our nation’s woefully insufficient response to climate change well illustrates.

Nevertheless, allowing technocrats to override popular passions, and manage the economy as economic elites see fit, tends to go poorly for non-elites. The era of central bank independence was one of stagnant wages, mediocre growth, and meteoric inequality. Today, few economists will defend the elite consensus in favor of deficit reduction circa 2011, a policy that would have further weakened the tepid post-2008 recovery (and which was contemporaneously justified by research findings that derived from an Excel error). Congress’s response to the COVID recession — to enact large, popular relief measures (a.k.a. to “buy votes”) — proved to be much more macroeconomically sound than anything “brave” entitlement reformers wished to do a decade earlier.


In truth, America could use far more “vote buying.” The problem with our economic system is not that it gives too much deference to popular needs, but too little. Further, if recent U.S. history is any guide, the alternative to political parties “buying votes” — which is to say, competing on the basis of who can deliver more material aid to the electorate — is political parties competing on the basis of who can more effectively stoke cultural resentments and ethnic grievances.

Of course, Republicans have to believe that offering popular programs that people support is illegitimate, because it’s that or pack up shop.

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