Academic journal article Public Finance and Management

Heterogeneity, Voting, and Public Policy

Academic journal article Public Finance and Management

Heterogeneity, Voting, and Public Policy

Article excerpt


By distinguishing between surface- and deep-level heterogeneity, this paper explores how heterogeneity among voters might be incorporated into a theory of political economy. Central to this exploration is the distinction between organizations and orders. Existing theories of political economy typically assimilate a state to an organization, and with an election being a vehicle for choosing among competing plans for the organization to pursue. This treatment imposes a deep homogeneity among voters as an analytical point of departure. In contrast, we advance a treatment of polities as orders, with many different organizations operating within their boundaries. This alternative formulation provides analytical space for deep heterogeneity to enter the analysis, and also brings into the analytical foreground the constitutional framework within which state policy emerges.


A theoretical framework can be seductive through the powerful illumination it can cast on its object of examination. The power of this illumination brings to mind the story of the person who searched for missing keys under a lamppost because the light was brighter there. The theoretical equivalent of bright light is analytical tractability, and there is much to be said for developing theories in analytically tractable ways. At the same time, however, analytical tractability can be a seductive snare that avoids gnarled and knotty issues that are nonetheless pertinent to the subject at hand. This snare can form because most of the objects we examine in the social sciences are not directly apprehensible to the senses but rather are constructed through some prior act of theorizing. We can observe someone walking into a voting both. The claim that such acts of voting constitute selection among options for public policy in a democracy, however, is not something that can be observed directly; rather, it is an inference that arises out of a particular theoretical framework. Different theoretical frameworks can yield different implications about the connection between voting and policy.

This paper explores how heterogeneity among voters might be incorporated into a theory of political economy. Starting with Downs's (1957) adumbration of Hotelling's (1929) and Smithies's (1941) treatments of spatial competition, electoral competition has been treated as the instrument by which public policy is selected in a democratic polity. With voter preferences abstracted to a space that is continuous, twicedifferentiable, and common to all voters, elections tend to produce a centerofmass outcome. For a single dimension, public policy maximizes the utility of the median voter. For higher dimensions the median is an elusive notion, and a similar centerofmass outcome is achieved by probabilistic voting. These spatial models have been employed widely and successfully in political economy, as illustrated by Hettich and Winer (1999), Persson and Tabellini (2000), Drazen (2000), and Besley (2006); however, their ability to accommodate heterogeneity among voters is pretty much limited to surfacelevel heterogeneity within a context of deeplevel homogeneity.

We start by distinguishing surface from deep heterogeneity, after which we explain how extant treatments of spatial competition typically entail deeplevel homogeneity within a form of surfacelevel heterogeneity. The remainder of the paper explores how theories of political economy might be modified to accommodate deeplevel heterogeneity among voters. One facet of this exploration considers an alternative to the common spatial representation of voter preferences by treating preference as entailing structure, which in turn yields a different orientation toward elections. Another facet treats polities as orders and not organizations (Hayek 1973). While elections obviously select among candidates, they don't truly select among policies within this alternative analytical setting. Instead, they select among people who are seeking to participate with others in the constituted processes through which policy emerges. …

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