The Symbolic Uses of Politics

30 April 2009 at 2:00 pm 3 comments

| Dick Langlois |

One of the most interesting law-and-economics scholars out there is Amitai Aviram at the University of Illinois, whom I met at a conference a few years ago. I only just discovered his recent work on what he calls bias arbitrage, “the extraction of private benefits through actions that identify and mitigate discrepancies between objective risks and the public’s perception of the same risks.” The idea is that people often misperceive the risks of various events. This creates an entrepreneurial opportunity for someone who can benefit from manipulating those misperceptions.

In some ways, this is an elaboration of Murray Jacob Edelman’s The Symbolic Uses of Politics (1964). In Edelman’s story, the citizenry are worried about various large issues about which they have no control: the Russians, global warming, swine flu, or — Edelman’s example, as I recall — the threat of business monopolies. In most cases, these fears are exaggerated or have no basis at all in fact — like the fear of spontaneous monopolies. But politicians can advance themselves by taking symbolic steps to allay these fears — like passing the Sherman Antitrust Act. (As Tom DiLorenzo, Jack High, Tom Hazlett, and others have suggested, the Sherman Act was also about diverting attention away from the McKinley tariffs, which would indeed transfer income from consumers to producers.)

Aviram’s spin is that there can be a welfare-improving effect to this process, to the extent that, by changing people’s perceptions of the underlying risks, entrepreneurs can bring people’s assessments in line with the actual underlying risks and thus get people to behave more efficiently. One example he uses is security measures at airports. After 9/11, people overestimated the probability of highjackings and shifted away in droves from air travel and toward automobile travel, which is actually a less-safe alternative. By instituting the ceremony of airline security, the government might have persuaded people that the probability of highjackings went down — even though it probably didn’t go down and was already low anyway — and therefore got them to return to (safer) air travel, an efficient outcome even taking into account the costs of the ceremony. (If you don’t believe that the ceremonies of the Transportation Security Administration are purely symbolic — or even if you do — check out this interesting piece in the Atlantic Monthly a while back.) Aviram understands perfectly well that this process can also lead to bad outcomes: the much-discussed case of seatbelt laws making car travel less safe might be an example. Whether the placebo effect (as Aviram calls it) has good or bad effects is a case-by-case question. One might well wonder whether today, eight years almost since 9/11, it isn’t the case that airport security ceremonies actually serve to remind people of terrorist threats and therefore to raise their assessments of the probabilities (?)

I thought of all of this recently in my own local context. Because of the recession, the State government has imposed on the University a variety of purely symbolic measures to demonstrate our frugality to the voting public. At least in principle, faculty can’t travel out of state even on money that came from grants or awards. And the library and museums were recently instructed to shorten their opening hours, even though those shorter hours don’t in fact save any money.

Entry filed under: - Langlois -, Entrepreneurship, Law and Economics, Public Policy / Political Economy.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steve Phelan  |  30 April 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Fascinating stuff! Thank you for bringing to our collective attentions.

  • 2. david  |  1 May 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Great piece. On the subject of security and symbolism, for my final regulation class yesterday we went through Cohen, Florentino-Cuellar & Weingast’s piece on the creation of DHS after 9/11. One of the central themes is that the massive new homeland security responsibilities basically diverted resources from what the 22 agencies’ legacy mandates. And, of course, it’s not clear that this enhanced security at all.

    One of my students at one point blurted out, “it’s almost like politicians do stuff just because they feel like they have to.” Indeed.

  • […] an excellent form of virtue signalling, can be used to reinforce international norms and a good placebo policy when public opinion demands that something be done but you can’t face the hassle of actually […]

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