Conservatives, Liberals and the Elasticity of Demand for Voting

Robert Miller —  12 January 2008

One of my favorite intellectual puzzles is figuring out what deep conceptual presuppositions cause some people to be conservatives, others to be liberals. That is, on a range of issues that would seem largely unrelated—say, abortion, affirmative action, and gun control—it turns that people’s positions are highly correlated. For instance, people who are pro-life tend also to be against affirmative action and against gun control, whereas people who are pro-choice tend also to be in favor of affirmative action and in favor of gun control. Why is this?

I’m still working on a general solution, but one thing is pretty clear. Conservatives tend to think that demand curves are elastic, liberals that they’re inelastic. Economists talk about demand for a product or service as being elastic if a 1% increase in price produces more than 1% decrease in quantity sold, inelastic if a 1% increase in price produces less than a 1% decrease in quantity sold. Elasticity is a precisely defined concept, but the basic idea is easy enough to understand: roughly, demand is inelastic if, when you raise the price, people keep buying the product at the higher price, but elastic if, when you raise the price, people cut back on their purchases of the product and do something else with their money.

So, for example, conservatives think the demand for crime is elastic: if you raise the price of crime to the criminal by increasing prison sentences, you’ll get a lot less crime. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to think that increasing prison sentences will have little effect on crime rates: in other words, they think the demand for crime is inelastic relative to prison sentences. Similarly for taxes. Conservatives tend to think that if you raise income taxes, people will work a lot less, whereas liberals tend to think that if you can raise income taxes, people will generally work as much as they did before the tax increase.

A fascinating role-reversal is thus at work in the voting rights cases that the United States Supreme Court heard earlier this week. As this story in the Legal Times explains, the Court is considering a constitutional challenge to an Indiana statute that requires citizens who want to vote to show at the polling place a state-issued photo identification such as a drivers license. Conservatives generally favor the law, and liberals generally oppose it, perhaps because the law is generally perceived as helping Republicans and hurting Democrats.

Whatever may be the real motives on either side, the Indiana Democratic Party and the ACLU say that the law is unconstitutional because it will deter people—especially old people, the poor, and minorities—from voting. They are thus in effect saying that the demand for voting is very elastic: make it even a little more difficult for people to vote, and many people will stay away from the polls. The conservative supporters of the law, on the other hand, are saying just the opposite: raising the effective cost of voting will not affect how many people vote because the demand for voting is inelastic.

Where does the truth lie? As a political conservative, I usually think that demand curves are pretty elastic. Nevertheless, all my intuitions run in favor of the view that the Indiana statute would not deter many people from voting. If I ask myself why my intuitions run in this direction, however, and if I’m being completely honest, I would have to say that I don’t really know.

7 responses to Conservatives, Liberals and the Elasticity of Demand for Voting


    Yes, I must agree with David. Seeking an underlying explanation on the basis of beliefs about elasticity not only fails as an explanation (as Mr. Miller’s post itself shows, as in this case his intuition about elasticity is contrary to his usual intuition, though he reasoneth not the reason why), but also more generally fails to target the substantive concerns that push people’s beliefs in one direction or the other.


    Don’t you think that a more plausible explanation is that, given this country’s deplorable history of poll taxes, literacy requirements, and other canards used to supress the African American vote, that even a very small number of votes lost to this rule is unacceptable?

    Political participation, particularly by historically oppressed communities, is too important an issue to be trifled with. This is especially true when the purported rationale for the rule, preventing voter fraud, has virtually no empirical support as being an actual problem.

    I think this holds true for many of the phenomena you identify–there are simply other values at stake besides raw utility and demand functions.


    The problem with any theory that might provide a compelling explanation of the drivers of “liberal” vs. “conservative” ideology is the existence of philosophically consistent libertarians or totalitarians, who combine preferences for social or economic freedoms (or lack thereof) in different ways from traditional American liberals or conservatives.

    With regards to the instant question on voting rights, I think Deb is close, but that the answer is more cynical. Republicans may pretend that there is no elasticity among traditionally Dem voters, but believe that there really is, and not care because it plays to their benefit. I think the same thing of politicians generally when it comes to many populist issues. I think that the ones who actually use those issues to get elected are either willfully ignorant or agnostic of the negative effects of their populism, even the potentially negative effects among their own supporters.


    As to why logically unrelated attitudes tend to adhere together in particular ways, the point may be that together such attitudes lead to a view of the world that satisfies not as a coherent argument satisfies but as a work of art does; some remarks of JM Cameron seem aproopos:

    Attitudes, expressed and evoked, may have deeply felt connections with each other of such a kind that they constitute a unified attitude—a kind of political Weltanschaung—which may be immensely effective in winning support despite—even, in some cases, on account of—the logical incoherence of the constituent parts….

    Justification within (such worldviews) is not a process of inference such that we can say of it that it is valid or invalid. Here the political philospher “brings it off”—or doesn’t—in the way the painter or the poet succeeds or fails. To succeed is to shift the centre of vision so that what is really there is seen in a new perspective and as disclosing unsuspected relations….

    In the end we have to say of the world seen from the centre which they propose that it is more or less like the world as we know it.


    An Occamite explanation for your intuition is that, like all humans, you rely on the empathic neurons of your monkey-brain to estimate how others might behave in hypothetical situations. Thus, you are biologically wired to believe that everyone else will act as you would. You would not be deterred from voting if you had to present valid ID – because possessing valid ID is a tiny but core aspect of who you are within our society. The same presumably is true for most conservatives. Liberals, with a “fight the man” attitude essential to their core values, probably do not include valid ID, a signifier of acceptance by “the man”, as a fundamental aspect of their personalities. However, liberals generally are turned off by procedural limitations on things they want. Thus, when liberals activate their empathic neurons to ask “what would the impact of this policy be”?, they generally perceive much greater elasticity in voting.


    Intersting theory, Robert. I want to think about it a little more. In the meantime, I’ll note Judge Posner’s stab at distilling the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives (though I think the distinction better explains the difference between liberals and libertarians):

    “[L]iberals think that the average person is good but dumb, conservatives that he or she is “bad” (in the sense of self-interested) but smart. Liberals trust the intellectual elite (because they are good) to guide the masses (because they cannot guide themselves); conservatives distrust the elite (because the elite are bad and therefore dangerous) and think the masses can guide themselves.”

    Posner made this point in discussing Social Security reform. See here.


    Interesting line of thought. Does it the elastic/inelastic concept permit consideration of segmentation or is it really applied just to total market measures of impact?

    It seems to me that conservatives are in fact consistent in portraying voting demand as elastic since (as I understand it) the justification for the state-issued IDs is the cost would only be felt by two small segments of voters – those that are criminals/desire to fraudulently vote, and those that have no existing acceptable form of identification. Of the former, the effect of deterring voter fraud is the desired outcome. Of the latter, deterring legitimate voters is not desired and therefore conservatives cite and support a number of mitigating programs are necessary to minimize or eliminate the added cost.

    The Democratic party position strikes me as being inconsistent within this single voter-ID issue. They seem to be taking the position that fraudulant voters will not be deterred (the criminal segment is inelastic), but that legitimate voters will (that segment is elastic).