What are the benefits of political injustice

Representation in Democracy: Unequal and Unjust?

There is no shortage of proposals to reform the democratic system for the purpose of more even representation. For example, further restrictions on private donations to political parties are required. Most promising, however, is to limit the ability of politics to privilege special interest groups.

Same voice, unequal influence

A constituent element of modern democracies is the equal opportunity for all responsible citizens to exercise influence on political decisions by voting in elections. Differences in wealth and income should not affect the voting weight. If the same chances of influencing actually lead to the same amount of influence, political decisions would be based strongly on the preferences of the median voter, i.e. the voter whose preferences are in the middle of the political spectrum.

However, there are obvious reasons that lead to the expectation that formally the same opportunities to influence do not result in the same exertion of influence: Different people are interested in politics to different degrees and therefore make different use of their ability to vote. In addition, they differ in their willingness to engage in political engagement beyond voting, and they want to devote different amounts of resources to convincing other people of their opinion. Such unequal influence is generally not problematic, as it follows from the conscious renunciation of influence by some voters.

But other sources of unequal influence could be more problematic: What if some people systematically act against their interests? What if some people can muster more resources to influence the opinion of others? And what if elected representatives come disproportionately from certain population groups, whose opinion they are more willing to take into account due to their character?
Many contemporaries suspect that income and wealth differences are an important cause of unevenly distributed influence: Those who have a high income or wealth buy influence and thus increase their voting weight.

Do the wealthy have other preferences?

An overrepresentation of the wealthy only has consequences if their preferences systematically deviate from the preferences of the less wealthy. So far only a few empirical studies have been able to investigate this question using representative surveys. The problem is that small groups, such as the super-rich, are often not recorded. Further problems arise because information on income is often only recorded, but not on assets. In addition, preferences are typically asked for precisely those topics for which stronger differences along the income distribution can be expected a priori, while consensus topics understandably receive less attention in opinion research.

Despite these limitations, there is some solid evidence. They show that the preference for a more liberal economic and social policy increases with income and that the wealthy tend to be more optimistic about the economic situation. An evaluation of around 1,800 surveys since the 1980s shows that the top 20% earners, even taking educational differences into account, want a significantly more liberal economic and social policy than the bottom 20% of the income distribution. The preferences of the elusive super-rich diverge particularly strongly, as was shown by a sample of the 4% top earners in the late 1970s and by 83 wealthy people living in Chicago in the top percentile. A study based on 252 surveys between 1998 and 2013 suggests that similar preference differences along the income distribution also exist for Germany.

Politics only for the rich?

In a highly acclaimed study from 2014, Gillens and Page (2014) evaluate opinion polls differentiated according to income for 1,779 political decisions in the USA between 1981 and 2002. They compare the preferences of members of different income groups with the decisions actually implemented. Their result: In contrast to the top 10% earners, median earners do not have a strong influence on political decisions. It does not follow from this that politics always decide against the interests of the median earner - but "average citizens only get what they want when the economic elite wants it too."

While Gillens and Page (2014) continued to enjoy strong media coverage, the study design came under criticism from specialist colleagues. Bashir (2015) shows that the econometric model used systematically underestimates the influence of average earners and does not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the overrepresentation of different income groups. Ens (2015) points out that the intensity of preferences also varies along the income distribution and that taking them into account in the study design largely relativizes the finding of unequal representation. Branham et al. (2016) show that the average earner and the wealthy in the data set used agree on almost all questions and that in the event of a dissent, decisions are almost as often in favor of the average income as in favor of the wealthy. Gillens and Page (2016) disagree with their critics, but agree that further research is needed.

Earlier studies paint a mixed picture

Older studies are only partially in line with the findings of Gillen and Page (2014): Bartels (2008) and Hayes (2012) find that the voting behavior of US senators corresponds to the preferences of wealthy voters, but not those of the less wealthy. Brunner et al (2013) cast doubt on these findings and show that Democratic and Republican senators differ greatly in terms of their susceptibility to the preferences of the less affluent and that the strong correlation between income and party preference almost completely explains the finding of unequal influence of different income groups. Tausanovitch (2014) comes to a similar conclusion. Flavin (2012) compares US states with regard to their social and economic policies and shows that differences between states can be explained by the preferences of wealthy voters. Rigby and Wright (2013) concentrate on the program formation process of political parties in the USA and show that the preferences of poorer voters are depicted disproportionately.

Only a few comparable studies exist for Germany. Elsässer et al (2016) find with regard to 252 political decisions in Germany between 1998 and 2013 that the preferences of the wealthy are shown disproportionately. Based on survey data for 30 democracies, including Germany, Bartels (2017) estimates that welfare spending is 10-15% below the level that would be expected if all preferences were taken into account equally. Hahn (2018) depicts political preferences in a multidimensional way and finds no disproportionate representation of the wealthy for 19 countries and 60 elections between 2003 and 2017.

Unequal Influence Beneficial for the Less Wealthy?

The current technical discussion illustrates how difficult it is to empirically prove the unequal representation of different income and wealth groups. In addition, there are conceptual problems. Tyler Cowen and Matthew Yglesias point out that voters often indicate conflicting preferences in opinion polls - for example, when they want both lower prices and protectionism. It is the task of politics to find a compromise between such contradicting preferences.

Bryan Caplan argues that greater influence from wealthier voters need not be detrimental to the less wealthy. This is supported by the finding that voters rarely vote on the basis of their economic self-interest, but rather see elections primarily as an opportunity to realize their vision of a better world. Using representative survey data, Caplan (2002) shows that affluent voters are better informed about facts as well as interdependencies than less affluent voters. Because of this, greater influence from wealthy groups would be good news for the less wealthy.

Depoliticization against politics of interests

So even though previous studies only give limited cause for concern about democracy, a healthy skepticism about the disproportionate influence of particularly wealthy groups of voters is appropriate. While there is little to suggest that certain income and wealth groups strive for a systematic “class policy” in their group interests, the commitment of particularly influential individuals and their lobby groups to specific, self-interest issues is well documented. This applies in particular to policy areas that are outside the public eye and in which costs can be widely spread.

For example, a growing body of literature illustrates the high value of political contacts for company owners, for example in the case of former US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, whose appointment in 2008 skyrocketed the share price of precisely those companies with which he had established contacts during previous activities. In the current discussion about the regulation of the banking sector, too, the special interests of particularly high income groups play a dubious role and offer an explanation for why banks are not subject to significantly higher capital requirements.

It is unlikely, however, that conventional proposals such as restricting party donations can prevent the underlying channels of influence. It is more effective to restrict the decision-making powers of politics and to insist on greater compliance with the rules in the remaining political areas.

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