Blog Archives

Social Security in Three Graphs

For years, Social Security has been known as the ‘third rail’ of American politics: any legislator that touches it risks ending his political life. President Franklin D. Roosevelt designed it this way. Workers pay into the Social Security program via payroll taxes and, in return, expect the program to provide for them when they retire or if they become disabled.

As a result, voters are usually very wary of any changes to the Social Security program. This has protected Social Security from lawmakers who might have wanted to scuttle the program, but it has also made it difficult to reform. Unfortunately, Social Security’s current budgetary trajectory is unsustainable. If lawmakers want to preserve the Social Security program, they should act now to bolster its financial health.

This blog post will examine the Social Security program in three graphs. It will briefly discuss the program’s history, describe the program’s funding structure, and then examine the program’s financial health. Finally, this post will conclude that, given that Social Security’s costs will likely rise faster than its revenue for the foreseeable future, legislators must raise revenue, pare back benefits, or employ some combination of the two in order to meet its obligations to elderly and disabled Americans.


The first graph depicts how the number of workers covered by Social Security, and therefore the number of workers paying into the program, has changed from year to year. As you can see, Social Security grew rapidly in its early years, mainly due to Congress expanding the types of workers that the program covers.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, it only covered commerce and industry workers under the age of 65. Congress and President Roosevelt marginally expanded coverage four years later by eliminating the age limit and adding covered workers’ families to the program, but it was not until the 1950s that the federal government began to expand the program in earnest. Presidents Harry S. Truman (in 1950) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (in 1954 and 1956) extended Social Security coverage to agricultural workers, the military and other uniformed services, and to certain state and local government officials (as long as the government in question opted into the program).

Also, in 1956, Eisenhower established Social Security Disability Insurance, which expanded the scope of the Social Security program to include providing benefits to disabled covered workers. Two years later, he extended these benefits to disabled workers’ dependents, as well.

You can see these large expansions clearly in this first graph. Subsequent presidents extended Social Security to other workers, such as to federal and non-profit employees, but the number of active workers paying into Social Security has, on average, grown at a slower rate since the 1950s. This is significant, as the number of workers paying into Social Security at any given time greatly affects the program’s financial viability.

To understand why, we’ll take a look at how the government funds Social Security. It does so in two main ways, through:

  • Tax revenue (roughly 88 percent of current Social Security receipts); and
  • Interest income (roughly 12 percent of current Social Security receipts).

Workers and employers pay the majority of these taxes (96 percent) through payroll taxes.[1] The remaining 4 percent of tax revenue comes from income taxes levied on retirees’ Social Security benefits. Any tax revenue that comes in above what the government needs to pay out to Social Security beneficiaries gets put into the ‘Social Security Trust Fund.’ The government uses this excess ‘Trust Fund’ revenue to buy special U.S. Treasury Bonds from itself and to accrue interest as a second source of revenue for the Social Security program. Additionally, the government can redeem these special bonds at any time, if the Social Security program needs more revenue.

For now, though, we’ll focus on tax revenues. Consider the fact that around 85 percent of Social Security’s total annual revenue comes from payroll taxes that covered workers and their employers pay. This makes Social Security’s finances sensitive to the number of covered workers in the system at any given time. More covered workers means more people paying into the system; less covered workers means fewer people paying in.

This is not necessarily a problem, as long as the money that covered workers and their employers pay into the system still covers retirees’ benefits, as it has for most of Social Security’s existence. However, consider what might happen if the number of retirees grows faster than the number of workers helping pay for their benefits. In this case, Social Security will end up taking in less money than it needs cover their costs because there will not be enough workers to support the number of retirees drawing down Social Security benefits.

The second graph, which shows year-over-year percentage change in the number of covered workers and beneficiaries, illustrates this exact scenario.


As we can see, the number of covered workers grew robustly from the 1960s through the 1980s, as the ‘baby boom’ generation started entering the workforce.[2] For much of this period, the numbers of workers and beneficiaries grew at roughly similar rates; at some points, the number of workers grew faster, at other points the number of beneficiaries did.

However, starting in the late 2000s, we see the growth rate of workers and beneficiaries diverge. The growth rate of beneficiaries rises and stays consistently higher than that of covered workers as the baby boom generation retires and the much smaller succeeding generations take their place in the workforce.

Another common way to understand this demographic shift is by thinking about the worker-to-beneficiary ratio. This measures how many covered workers there are in the Social Security system for each single beneficiary, and it can give us a rough idea of how many covered workers contribute to the costs of one beneficiary. Since the 1960s, this ratio has equaled three or four covered workers to for each individual Social Security beneficiary. Within a decade, this ratio is projected to decrease to two workers for every one beneficiary. With the growth of the retiree population outpacing that of the covered workers, Social Security’s financial health with continue to suffer.

The second graph also demonstrates the effect the economy has on Social Security’s financial health. As discussed, payroll taxes constitute the vast majority of Social Security funding. The more workers employed, the more payroll tax Social Security takes in; the higher workers’ wages, the higher Social Security’s revenue. During recessions, however, a fall in business activity can cause employers to lay off workers and withhold raises. When this happens, Social Security’s payroll tax revenue drops — although, unless Congress legislates otherwise, its payouts to beneficiaries remains constant.

The graph illustrates the relationship between Social Security receipts and the economy by showing that the number of covered workers slows or even shrinks (that is, the percentage change becomes negatives) when the economy enters a recession. At the same time, the number of beneficiaries often continues to rise (or even begins to rise at a faster rate). A slow economy and a difficult job market can push unemployed workers who may have otherwise stayed in the labor force for another few years into early retirements. When faced with slim job prospects, they retire and draw upon their Social Security benefits for income. The longer an economy remains sluggish, the stronger one would expect this effect to be.

If a worker is too young to retire, unemployment and slow economic growth can push her or him onto the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) rolls, as well. Congress created SSDI to provide assistance to disabled workers, but tough economic times (and loosened SSDI eligibility criteria) can encourage healthy workers to apply after they have exhausted their unemployment benefits and become discouraged about their prospects of finding a job. A slow economy can also encourage injured workers who otherwise might have found a job that accommodated their medical needs to join the SSDI rolls too. This further increases the number of Social Security beneficiaries and decreases the number of covered workers.

Both demographic and economic forces collided during the Great Recession. The recession began in 2007 and turned into a full-blown financial crisis in 2008. The subsequent recovery has been especially sluggish. The second graph shows a large loss of covered workers during this period. It also shows that the number of beneficiaries grew faster than at any other time since the 1970s, in part because workers retired early and applied for disability. The year 2008 did not just feature the financial crisis, it also marked the first year baby boomers could seek early retirement — and faced with a dim economic outlook, many did just that.

This situation — slower growth in tax revenues and faster growth in benefit payouts — has begun to threaten Social Security’s financial health, as we can see in the third graph.


Since 2010, Social Security has cost the government more than it takes in through tax revenues, forcing the government to rely on both tax revenues and interest income. Although interest income has helped cover the total program cost as tax revenues have dipped below required payouts, using interest income to cover the difference can only be, at best, a short-term solution to the long-term financial sustainability of the program.

If the government continues to operate Social Security in a way that ensures tax revenues are lower than the program’s costs, its corresponding interest income (which is generated from interest on U.S. Treasury bonds — which, in turn, comes from other taxes that the government levies) will continue to dwindle. With the current revenue structure unable to support the program’s costs, the government will be forced to cover the shortfall by cashing in the U.S. Treasury bonds it holds in the Social Security Trust Fund. Eventually, if revenues do not rebound, both the Trust Fund and the interest income it generates will run out and the government will be unable to cover all of its Social Security liabilities through annual program revenues alone.

As it stands, the Social Security Trustees Report projects that without significant changes, the Social Security Trust Fund could run out by 2033.[3]

This government has faced this situation before: the last time Social Security tax revenues fell below program costs was in 1983. In response, President Ronald Reagan and the Congress shored up Social Security’s finances by increasing the payroll tax rate, increasing the retirement age, and bringing more workers into the Social Security system, among other things.

As the third graph shows, Social Security’s financial trends were heading in the wrong direction in the early 1980s. The 1983 Social Security reform boosted the program’s revenue, which allowed it to both cover its annual expenses and bulk up the Social Security Trust Fund.[3] However, the late 2000s saw the Social Security program’s revenue fall, for reasons discussed earlier (the Great Recession and demographic shifts). Revenues have already begun to recover and grow again, but so have the program’s expenses. Social Security’s costs seem likely to continually outpace its revenues going forward, as the number of beneficiaries receiving payouts grows quicker than the number of covered workers paying into the system.

Unless the government acts to restore Social Security’s financial stability (or the economic and demographic situation improve drastically), the government may be unable to fully meet its Social Security obligations in the coming decades. The Social Security Trustees Report estimates that, over the long term, Social Security’s shortfall will be about 4 percent of future taxable payrolls, or 1.4 percent of GDP. Congress and the president will have to decide whether they want to cover this shortfall by raising taxes, cutting benefits, or employing some combination of the two. They will also have to decide whether they want to act now to shore up the program or continue to let its finances deteriorate.

President Roosevelt considered Social Security the crown jewel of his New Deal agenda and he expected it to become a lasting American institution. To that end, he recognized the important role payroll taxes play in sustaining the program, both financially and politically. By requiring workers to pay part of their paycheck into Social Security in return for promised future pension benefits, Roosevelt ensured the program’s survival. Workers would now expect that, after paying into Social Security for years, they would receive their pensions when they retired.

As Roosevelt said, “with those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.” The president shrewdly designed the Social Security program in a way that blocked future politicians from ending it through the legislative process — but not, it seems, from ending the program by doing absolutely nothing at all.



[1] In 2011 and 2012, the federal government attempted to stimulate the economy through, among other things, a ‘payroll tax holiday‘ that temporarily cut the payroll tax rate workers pay by 2 percentage points (from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent). In order to cover this temporary cut, Congress reimbursed the Social Security program through the general fund. After several extensions, the payroll tax holiday expired at the end of 2012.

[2] The ‘baby boom’ describes the high birth rate that the U.S. experienced in the immediate post-World War II period. Many Americans returned home from the warfront and began to start large families. The resulting rise in the U.S. birth rate can be seen in the graph below.

[3] Total bond holdings in the Social Security Trust Fund started to decrease in the 1970s and 1980s, when the program’s costs were greater than its tax revenues. The Trust Fund then rebounded after President Reagan and Congress reformed the Social Security program and raised its income in 1983. Today, Social Security faces a similar situation: Social Security’s tax revenues have fallen below its costs. Unless this situation changes, the Trust Fund may run out by 2033, as seen in the graph below.



2013 OASDI Trustees Report,” Social Security Administration, 2013.

Scott, Christine. “Social Security: What Would Happen If the Trust Funds Ran Out?” Congressional Research Service, 21 October 2013.

Nuschler, Dawn & Sidor, Gary. “Social Security: The Trust Fund.” Congressional Research Service, 4 June 2013.

Nuschler, Dawn. “Social Security Primer.” Congressional Research Service, 17 June 2013.

Report of the National Commission on Social Security Reform (Greenspan Commission).” Social Security Administration, January 1983.

The 2013 Long-Term Budget Outlook.” Congressional Budget Office, September 2013.

Meyerson, Noah & Dacey, Sheila. “How Does Social Security Work?” Congressional Budget Office, 19 September 2013.

Meyerson, Noah & Topoleski, Julie. “Medicare and Social Security Payroll Taxes and Benefits for People in Different Birth Cohorts.” Congressional Budget Office, 20 September 2013.

Morton, William R. “Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Reform: An Overview of Proposals to Reduce the Growth in SSDI Rolls.” 29 April 2013.

Social Security Issue Briefs, U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The Social Security Act of 1935.” Social Security Administration.

Kollmann, Geoffrey. ”Social Security: Summary of Major Changes in the Cash Benefits Program.” Congressional Research Service, 18 May 2000.



Elections Matter. Redistricting Matters More.

Poor redistricting. Given the tremendous impact redistricting has on all levels of government, voters simply do not tend to give it too much attention.

There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this. For one, redistricting — the process by which legislators redraw the political boundaries defining what towns and communities they will represent at the next election — just isn’t a ‘sexy’ issue. It deals with technical issues like adjusting districts to account for population shifts and make sure each lawmaker represents about the same number of constituents as his or her colleague. It doesn’t easily lend itself to the types of human interest stories journalists use to pull readers into articles on, say, immigration, war, abortion, and many other high-profile issues.

It’s difficult to put a face to redistricting.

Also, unlike other issues, redistricting is only really pushed into the spotlight once a decade. Although voters have to live with its effects at every election, redistricting is really only brought up in discussion when legislators engage in it, after the U.S. Census information is released. Any disgust or disapproval inevitably dies down soon after, leaving lawmakers with little incentive to reform the system.

Redistricting allows lawmakers to redraw their districts in ways that benefit them. (Image from Governing Magazine's website.)

In fact, not only do lawmakers have little incentive to consider redistricting reform, they actually have every reason to actively oppose it, because reforming redistricting would dilute their own power to choose their constituents by drawing voters in or out of their districts.

For anyone who has watched the American version of the political drama House of Cards, the characters bring up redistricting several times as key to the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the U.S. House of Representatives. They pin their hopes on a special election for Pennsylvania governor — because without a Democratic governor to oversee Pennsylvania redistricting, the Democrats are sure to lose a number of its U.S. House seats, and thus lose control of the House.

House of Cards is fiction, but the stakes are just as high in real life, as well. It was one of the first things Republicans in Texas did in 2003 once they took full control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, allowing them to lock down their control. Democrats, knowing full well the power Republicans now wielded, broke quorum and fled the state rather than allow the legislature to meet and redistrict. Eventually, though, the Republican majority passed its redistricting plans, turning the 17-15 Democratic majority in Texas’ U.S. House delegation to a 21-11 Republican majority.

Pennsylvania serves as a reminder of the power of redistricting as well. Pennsylvania Republicans have controlled the redistricting process for decades. Most recently, that control paid off in 2012. Even though Democrats swept every office up for statewide election and received more than half of all votes cast in the state for U.S. House, Republicans not only kept their majorities in the state legislature, they actually gained a U.S. House seat.

After an election in which a majority of Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for U.S. House, Republicans still wound up holding a full 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 U.S. House seats – or about 72 percent of Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation.

(It should come as no surprise, then, that Pennsylvania Republicans have also put forward plans in recent years that would distribute electoral votes in presidential elections according to redistricting, rather than popular vote. For instance, if one of these proposals, put forward by PA Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Gov. Tom Corbett, had been in place in 2012, Gov. Mitt Romney would have lost the popular vote to President Barack Obama 52 percent to 47 percent — but Romney still would have taken home more electoral votes. Under this plan, Romney would have received 13 electoral vote to Obama’s 7 votes.)

Redistricting has very real effects on both state and national politics. The immigration legislation pending in Congress is a fairly good case study.

Although a rough consensus seems to have formed around immigration reform and the U.S. Senate passed immigration legislation by a healthy and bipartisan 68-32 vote, the bill has stalled in the U.S. House. This seems contrary to the post-2012 election narrative that Republicans are reevaluating their Hispanic outreach efforts, considering Hispanic voters tend to support comprehensive immigration reform. But it makes perfect sense once you consider U.S. House members’ narrow constituency.

After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans swept into power in state capitols all over the country — just in time for redistricting. House Republicans’ seats are safe. Unlike U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, House Republicans do not have to worry at all about swaying Hispanic voters. Their districts have been specifically designed in a way to ensure they win the general election.

Instead, House Republicans have to worry about other Republicans challenging them in primary elections. As a result, they have to tack harder to the right to avoid offending their base voters and to fend off any primary challengers. That means opposing the immigration reform bill, which is generally unpopular with conservatives. This is not to say passing the bill is impossible, only that it is made much more difficult due to the perverse incentives created via redistricting.

And perhaps that is the hook that journalists need to raise awareness about and put a human face on redistricting — by connecting redistricting to other issues, such as the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. At that point, it becomes less about lines on a map and more about the very real impact redistricting has on American families and communities.


2013 Legislative Preview Issue Brief: Elections.” Gaudini, Michael; Proft, Lena; & Rocha, J.J. Center for Politics and Governance.

Redistricting Texas: A Primer.” Gaudini, Michael.

The War on Democracy: Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.” Gaudini, Michael.

Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again.” Gaudini, Michael. Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

Reforming Redistricting.” Gaudini, Michael. Baines Report.

Republicans Win Fewer Votes, but More Seats than Democrats.” CQ Voting and Elections Collection.

Immigration Reform: Clearing the First Hurdle.” Economist.

What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

Corbett-Pileggi Election Plan Bad For Democracy,” Gaudini, Michael. Main Line Times.

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.


The Pileggi Electoral College Plan and 1960

In 1962, after the successive failures of both his presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, a weary Richard Nixon bid the press goodbye:

But as I leave you, I want you to know: just think how much you’re going to be missing. You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Of course, if Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi had his way, Nixon might not have spoken those famous words. He would not have had to: if Senator Pileggi had been in charge, Nixon might have beaten John F. Kennedy and become president in 1960.

I am referring, of course, to Senator Pileggi’s ill-conceived Electoral College plan (next session’s version, last session’s plan was defeated). The idea is simple: divide all but two of a state’ Electoral College votes up and award them to the candidates according to the percentage of the popular vote that they won. The candidate that wins the state then gets the extra two votes.

Take the 2012 election, for instance. President Barack Obama won about 52 percent of the popular vote to Governor Mitt Romney’s 47 percent. This gives President Obama 12 electoral votes (10 electoral votes for the popular vote, plus 2 more for winning state-wide).

This would not have changed the outcome of the 2012 election. Indeed, changing Pennsylvania alone might not have altered the outcome of most American elections. But it would have had an effect. For instance, in 2000, President George W. Bush’s margin of victory would have been larger, even though he still would have lost the popular vote.

But to really demonstrate how Pileggi’s system would work, imagine that his plan was in effect in all 50 states. Under this scenario, John F. Kennedy stands a good chance of beating Nixon in the popular vote, but losing to him in the Electoral College.

According to my calculations, the Electoral College votes come in like this:

  • 264 for Kennedy
  • 267 for Nixon
  • 6 Unpledged Electors

Those unpledged electors would have come from the largely Democratic Louisiana and Mississippi. But these states were part of the Southern, conservative wing of the Democratic Party — a wing that was suspicious of Kennedy and that Nixon would successfully court years later. It only would have taken 3 of those 6 to make Nixon president.

Can we say with absolute certainty that Kennedy would have absolutely lost in 1960? No. But it is surely a possibility. And a reason to be wary of any claims that Pileggi’s proposal is somehow fairer than the current system.


1960 Presidential Election Results: Pileggi Plan (Excel), Diniverse Major Blog.

Co-Sponsorship Memo, Dominic Pileggi.

Pileggi to reintroduce plan to change Pennsylvania electoral-vote system,” Philadelphia Inquirer.

Corbett-Pileggi plan bad for democracy,” Michael J. Gaudini (Main Line Times). *(This article refers to last session’s Electoral College plan)

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?

Last session, Governor Tom Corbett and Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi unveiled a plan to change how Pennsylvania votes for president. Now that the 2012 election has actually been held, Pennsylvanians can see for themselves how that system would have impacted their votes.

But first, a bit of context. Americans do not vote for president directly. Instead, they vote through the Electoral College. In the Electoral College system, each state gets a number of electoral votes for president equal to their representation in Congress. Pennsylvania has 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 2 in the U.S. Senate, so therefore it gets 20 electoral votes.

States can choose to decide how they distribute those votes, but most states give all of their electoral votes to the presidential candidate that wins the statewide election. And, for most of American history, that has worked. Four times in the past, however, president have lost the popular vote but won the presidency: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W. Bush.

The other key concept to keep in mind here is redistricting. Redistricting is the process by which legislators redraw political boundaries to account for population shifts. After all, people move, are born, and die every day. In order to make sure that elected officials represent about the same number of people, legislators redistrict their state and Congressional seats every 10 years using U.S. Census data. Without this, one official could end up representing several times as many people as another — even though they both only get one vote in Congress.

States redistrict differently. In Pennsylvania, Congressional redistricting is passed like any other bill. The General Assembly writes it and passes it, and the governor signs it. (There is a different system for General Assembly redistricting, but it is not relevant to this discussion.) There are also few prohibitions on how legislators can choose to redraw the political maps. Legislators cannot discriminate against voters based on race, but beyond that they generally have carte blanche.

This means that legislators can — and do — split up blocs of voters to help their party. If one area generally votes for Party X, legislators from Party Y can simply split up that area into numerous districts that each have a Party Y majority. Thus, Party Y maintains control by watering down Party X’s power — a process known as ‘gerrymandering.’

All of this means that whoever controls the General Assembly and the governorship essentially controls the political landscape of Pennsylvania. For the past few redistrictings, that has been the Republican Party. And so, they have drawn Congressional maps that benefit the Republican Party.

Here’s where Governor Corbett and Senator Pileggi’s plan comes in. It would have split Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by giving them to presidential candidates according to which Congressional districts they win. The candidate to win the entire state then gets an additional 2 electoral votes, to make up the difference between electoral votes and Congressional districts. Of course, the Republican Party is drawing those same Congressional districts that they want to use to distribute electoral votes.

So, how would Pennsylvania have fared if this plan was in place for the 2012 election? Well, President Obama won the Pennsylvania popular vote about 52% – 47%. Under the current system, this means Obama got 20 electoral votes. Under Governor Corbett and Senator Pileggi’s plan, however, this means Obama would have gotten 7 votes, while Governor Romney would have gotten 13 votes.

To put it another way: under Governor Corbett’s plan, Obama would have won the popular vote in Pennsylvania, but lost the electoral vote. Fortunately for President Obama, this would not have changed the outcome of the 2012 election. Other presidents would not have been so lucky. Had the Corbett system been in place in 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy would never have become President of the United States.

Elections will always be partisan affairs; what they should not be is undemocratic.


Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Gerrymandering undermines democracy in Pennsylvania,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Redistricting Texas 2012: A Primer,” Diniverse Major.

Michael J. Gaudini, “What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Diniverse Major.

Pennsylvania 2012 Election Results, CBS News.


I Voted For President! Now What?

Americans just do not like to vote.

For all of the talk of American democracy and the importance of the ballot, a strikingly small number of eligible Americans show up at the polls each November. Presidential elections, of course, see the largest level of turnout as a percentage of the voting age population. But for many Americans, that is it. The only time they see the inside of a voting booth is in a year that is divisible by four.

Take Pennsylvania, for example. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, about 64 percent of eligible Pennsylvanians showed up at the polls. That was a couple points above the nationwide turnout of about 62 percent.

Just two years later, those numbers were down to 42 percent for Pennsylvania and 41 percent for the United States. That election, significantly, decided which party would control not only the House of Representatives, but numerous state legislatures and governor’s seats. Last year, turnout in Pennsylvania dropped even lower, to 32 percent.

The Keystone State is no outlier; most states see similarly dismal figures. Why, then, is voter turnout so much lower in midterm and off-year elections? To simplify: the president. Or, rather, the absence of a presidential candidate on the ballot. The president is the only official elected nationwide in the United States. Campaigns for the office are fought over high-stakes national and global issues. The media cover the proceedings extensively.

And the perception that there will be relatively high voter participation, possibly reinforced by friendly conversation and media coverage, could have the effect of turning out more voters simply due to social pressure. That is, people go to the polls because they do not want to be the person caught not voting.*

All of this can make presidential elections seem more relevant than off-year or midterm elections. But these latter elections — which generally feature many state and local positions — often have a direct impact on voters’ everyday lives. State and local governments are the ‘boots on the ground.’ They are responsible for keeping your neighborhood safe, paving your streets, picking up your trash, educating your children, providing for poor, zoning your community, and countless other services that affect your daily life. As Hurricane Sandy has recently reminded many Americans, state and local governments also prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

Not only that, but these elections also have far-reaching political ramifications. I wrote about just such a situation in a 2011 election op-ed:

[I]n 2009, only 21 percent of registered Pennsylvanians cast their ballots. The majority of those select few chose Republican candidate Joan Orie Melvin as the next justice of the PA Supreme Court, solidifying a 4-3 Republican majority on the bench.


This year, as in the past, the Supreme Court was called upon to choose the tie-breaking member of the commission that redraws the legislative districts in the state every decade. The resulting map was a patchwork of gerrymandering and political protection submitted on a party-line vote in the Republicans’ favor. By carefully designating which group of voters elects which representative, this map will likely dictate the outcome of Pennsylvania’s elections for years.

And it had the potential to dictate the 2012 presidential election, as well. That year, Pennsylvania Republicans (swept into office in a midterm election) introduced a bill that would have changed the way the Commonwealth distributes its electoral votes for president. Instead of following the “majority wins” system that nearly all other states use, this plan would have split its votes according to Congressional districts that the Republicans themselves drew. To put that into perspective, had this system been in place in 1960, Richard Nixon would have bested John F. Kennedy for the presidency.

Midterm and off-year elections can have huge ramifications. Keep that in mind for 2013, and beyond.


*As an aside, Pennsylvania actually has a “Voter Hall of Fame,” where it recognizes those citizens who have cast their ballots every November for 50 consecutive years or more. If you have not gotten started on that yet, now might be a good time.


Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “‘Like’ the Vote,” Diniverse Major.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again,” Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

United States Election Project: Voter Turnout,” George Mason University.

Voter Hall of Fame,” Pennsylvania Department of State.

‘Like’ the Vote

America had an electoral fraud problem. Voter intimidation was pervasive. Bribery, too, was common. Laws against both were regularly ignored. What Americans needed most was a secret ballot.

Today, many people may take for granted the fact that they are able to cast their ballots in secret, but Americans that lived up until the late 1800s had no such illusions.

“Confidence was shaken in a voting system which made known the contents of every man’s ballot,” declared an 1892 essay on a new Pennsylvania law that established, for the first time in the state’s history, a secret ballot.

The new system, known as the “Australian system” after the country in which it was first implemented in 1856, ensured secrecy and fairness in several key ways. It stipulated that all ballots must be the exact same. It ordered the names of all legally nominated candidates be printed on the ballots. And it required voters to mark their preferences in secret.

The laws combated intimidation and bribery by making it difficult to verify how a person had actually voted. But the laws, which had spread to nearly every state by 1892, had another, unintended side effect, as well.

Voter turnout in the mid to late 1800s had been fairly high, around 70 to 80 percent of the voting age population for presidential elections. In the years after the spread of the secret ballot, that percentage steadily tumbled, finally settling around about 50 to 60 percent.

What happened?

Well, the late 1800s were a period of rapid change in America. Industrialization was quickly changing the country. Immigration increased tremendously and the population exploded, with workers flocking to the nation’s cities. At the same time, reformers focused on “good government” laws, like civil service reform, and attacked political ‘bosses’ and their machines.

All of these societal changes likely had an effect on voter turnout. But so too did the secret ballot.

Voting has long confounded economists, as the act of voting seems to be inherently irrational. The gains — one lousy vote in an election decided by hundreds of thousands — seem small compared to the time and effort spent waiting in line at the polling place.

True, there is also the satisfaction of performing a civic duty, but there is also another important component to why people vote: social pressure. Simply put, people know they are “supposed to vote,” and do not want to be caught otherwise.

A 2008 study of Swiss voter turnout after the adoption of optional postal voting demonstrated this. Postal voting, in which citizens can mail in their ballots, is meant to reduce the costs of voting and increase turnout. Yet in small Swiss communities — the types of places where one might expect voters are more likely to know each other — turnout actually went down. Postal ballots, it seems, may have eliminated the social pressure to be seen at the polls because, well, maybe that person mailed in their ballot.

The opposite also appears to be true. In 2006, researchers sent out several kinds of mailers to Michigan citizens, one of which  promised to publish whether they and their neighbors voted in the next election. They found that those people who thought their voter turnout information would be publicized were more likely to vote.

Which brings us to Facebook. If social pressures impact voter turnout, then it would make sense that social media affect it as well. And, in fact, this is exactly what researchers studying the 2010 election reported. On Election Day, Facebook provided an “I Voted” button at the top of users’ news feeds for them to show they had cast their ballots. Some users were shown the pictures of friends who had voted; others were not. By comparing friend data with voter rolls, researchers determined that the first group were more likely to vote in that election.

So go ahead and tweet your followers or update your status this Election Day to let everyone know you voted. You never know who might be watching.


Charles Binney, “American Secret Ballot Decisions,” American Law Register and Review.

Charles Binney, “The Merits and Defects of the Pennsylvania Ballot Law of 1891.”

Robert Bond, et al, “A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization,” Nature.

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, “Why Vote?New York Times.

Patricia Funk, “Social Incentives and Voter Turnout: Evidence from the Swiss Mail Ballot System.”

Michael J. Gaudini, “Election-time reflections on the irrational voter,” Main Line Times.

Alan Gerber, et al, “Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment,” American Political Science Review.

John Markoff, “Social Networks Can Affect Voter Turnout, Study Says,” New York Times.

Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828-2008,” The American Presidency Project.


On Conservatism

In a 1975 interview with the libertarian magazine Reason, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan said:

If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

As President Reagan notes, the meanings of the words ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have changed, depending on the time and place. Even as recent as the past few decades, the terms have generally evolved, with many Republicans who were formerly considered ‘conservatives’ now known as RINOS (or, ‘Republicans In Name Only’ — a term that questions their ‘conservative credentials.’).

So then, what actually defines what Americans would today call ‘conservatism’? And what does that definition tell us about current political events in the United States?

In this post, we’re going to define and describe contemporary conservatism by discussing economist and political theorist F.A. Hayek’s 1960 essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” (taken from his book The Constitution of Liberty).* After that, we’re going to use this definition to look at both current events and the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism in America today.

In that particular essay, Hayek discusses his opposition to being labeled a conservative, preferring instead ‘liberal’ in the classical sense (today’s readers would call him a ‘libertarian,’ though he rejects that term as too “manufactured”). True, he notes, today’s classical liberals often find themselves voting for the conservative party (in this case, the Republicans) — but this is more of an alliance borne from common opposition to modern liberalism (the term commonly used today to describe left-of-center ideals, generally found in the Democratic Party).

Hayek goes on to define conservatism (through comparison with classical liberalism) as an ideology characterized by:

  1. Resistance to change (and thus opposition to modern liberalism),
  2. Fondness of authority, and similarly,
  3. Defense of established hierarchies,
    a. (Revealing itself through, among other things, imposition of moral/religious beliefs and norms)
  4. Obscurantism
  5. Nationalism (or, more specifically, anti-internationalism)
    a. Imperialism

I should stress that this summary does not do justice to Hayek’s piece, and while I will dig a bit deeper below, you really should read his original essay.

The most basic point Hayek makes about conservatism (and the one that underpins each of the five points listed above) is that it is an ideology opposed to change. This is reflected in the movement’s very title, which implies that its adherents wish to ‘conserve’ the familiar.

The underlying aversion to change plays out as a defense of established authority (which generally seeks to uphold the status quo and advocates for ‘law and order’ policies) and outright rejection of facts that may challenge that authority (be it religious or political). This later point is the ‘obscurantism’ mentioned above, and it is interesting to note the example Hayek uses to explain it:

I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all.


By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position… Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

Hayek’s essay, of course, was published in 1960 — but even today, conservatives remain quite skeptical of science. In 2012, four of the GOP’s eight contenders from the presidential nomination (Perry, Paul, Bachmann, and Santorum) rejected evolution in favor of creationist views, while a whopping 58 percent of registered Republicans believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.”

Republican voters and candidates are similarly skeptical of other positions that may challenge an established worldview but are nonetheless backed by scientific consensus, such as global warming.

The key point here is not that Republican voters (and here I am using ‘Republican’ in the implicit understanding that today’s Republican party is the conservative party) are ‘stupid’ or even anti-science. I do not think they are stupid, and I only think some of them are anti-science insofar as that science challenges their defense of the status quo. After all, Democrats in the 1800s (who were, at that time, the conservative party in the United States) were more than happy to justify the subjugation of African Americans through appeals to the ‘scientific theories‘ of the day.

The conservative resistance to change also shows itself through simultaneous anti-internationalism and imperialism.

On the prior, Hayek argues:

It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.

Again, his words remain relevant today. Consider the nationalistic rhetoric GOP officials employ to excite their base. Or the foreign terms they use to criticize their opponents’ policies (the phrase “European-style” comes to mind). The implication, of course, is that such policies are inherently bad simply because they are ‘un-American.’ Hayek, on the other hand, urges addressing policy proposals on their merit, regardless of their country of origin. (As an interesting aside, the association of conservatism with nationalist sentiment seems to be so strong that simply exposing voters to the stars and stripes appears to make them more likely to vote Republican.)

Take this notion that conservatism is distrustful of that which is foreign and then consider Hayek’s contention that “the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes,” and we arrive at Hayek’s charge of imperialism. In other words, conservatism’s tension with foreign ideas causes it to attempt to forcibly impose its owns ideals on other nations.** Hayek argues strongly for the marketplace of ideas, maintaining that conservatism’s fear of the unfamiliar leads to the kinds of democracy promotion now associated with neoconservatism.

[T]he more a person dislikes the strange and thinks his own ways superior, the more he tends to regard it as his mission to “civilize” others – not by the voluntary and unhampered intercourse which the [classical] liberal favors, but by bringing them the blessings of efficient government.

I would argue that this passage provides a fairly apt description of modern Republican foreign policy, with the Bush Administration’s pursuit of democratization through military force being one obvious example. Additionally, opinion polls reveal that conservative voters tend to hold foreign policy views in sync with Hayek’s description. For instance, registered Republicans generally see Islam and democracy as incompatible and see conflict between Islamic countries and the West as inevitable.

This brings us to our next point regarding Hayek’s definition of conservatism: religious authority. Remember that Hayek roots conservative philosophy in resistance to change and, accordingly, fondness of established authorities; for many, there is no higher an established authority than their particular religious beliefs. Here, both classical and modern liberals favor the view that religion should not factor into policy decisions.

The conservative, in contrast, often defends governmental policies that publicly preserve (or even promote) society’s dominant religious beliefs. Liberal efforts to maintain a “wall of separation” between church and state are thus seen by conservatives as an attack on the established order, rather than an attempt to maintain equality before the state.

Consider gay marriage, to take one example:

  • The average conservative would likely oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it violates religion and tradition. Accordingly, they would generally view it as an attack on an established religious and moral code.
  • The average modern liberal would likely favor marriage equality on the basis of maintaining equality of opportunity before the state. They would reject the idea that religious codes should play a role in defining which group of people should be able to claim state-conferred benefits.
  • The average classical liberal would likely say that marriage should be a purely private matter altogether. The government should neither recognize marriages, nor provide benefits on a basis of marriage.

Those positions are, admittedly, grossly simplified; each ideology has a number of subgroups and individuals with differing opinions. Still, the basic point stands: in general, conservatism feels threatened by modern liberalism’s perceived attack on established social and cultural institutions.

This plays into the suspicion of science (discussed above) as well. First, as religious explanations of natural phenomena are (for many conservatives) the established authority, any scientific claims that challenge them are seen as threatening. Hayek also describes conservative distrust of science as a tension between the fear of the unknown and the allure of certainty offered by established authority.

What I have described as the [classical] liberal position shares with conservatism a distrust of reason to the extent that the [classical] liberal is very much aware that we do not know all the answers and that he is not sure that the answers he has are certainly the rights ones or even that we can find all the answers.


He also does not disdain to seek assistance from whatever non-rational institutions or habits have proved their worth. The [classical] liberal differs from the conservative in his willingness to face this ignorance and to admit how little we know, without claiming the authority of supernatural forces of knowledge where his reason fails him.

Despite these various differences between the classical liberal and the conservative, Hayek acknowledges their political alliance (think Ron Paul’s alliance with conservatives in the Republican Party, though he is a libertarian). This alliance, however, is viable only because “it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions.” In other words, the history of a policy or institution seems largely to define the conservative position, while it is largely irrelevant to the classical liberal. Rather, their alliance results from the fact that classical liberals are able to frame their preferred policies as a defense of traditional society, and their mutual dislike of modern liberalism.

Now, view all of this in light of the last four years.

Discontent with the status quo (The Afghanistan/Iraq Wars, the Great Recession, the post-9/11 security state apparatus, a dysfunctional health care system, etc…) swept Democrats into the executive and legislative branches of government in 2008. Rejected and fractured, the Republicans were able to regroup and form a unified front against the Obama Administration.

This is key: the Republicans’ organizing principle was not a platform of alternative policies but, rather, opposition to any policies that President Obama and congressional Democrats advocated — despite the fact that many of them (health care reform, cap and trade, the DREAM Act, etc…) were policies that Republicans either created or previously supported. By characterizing the president’s policies as a foreign attack on traditional America (and even decrying the president himself as foreign, through the ‘birther conspiracy’), the conservatives were able to reinvigorate themselves at a time when the modern liberals had greater political momentum.

But that is only part of the story. The other, crucial part recognizes role the ascendant Tea Party played as a hybrid libertarian-conservative movement that espoused libertarian ideals through appeals to conservatism. But let’s walk that back a little and approach it a bit slower.

First, we should recognize that Hayek essentially lays the groundwork for this in his essay. He discusses his problems with the traditional Political Spectrum Line (seen below) that places modern liberals on the left (he calls them ‘socialists,’ though I would disagree with this label), conservatives on the right, and classical liberals somewhere in between.

Hayek believes this line diagram misstates the three ideologies’ relationships by assuming that classical liberalism is caught between modern liberalism and conservatism. In its place, he offers a triangular diagram (seen below) in which all three ideologies occupy a distinct space.

In order to fully understand this, we must recall Hayek’s argument that conservatism is defined by its defense of the status quo. Thus, in Hayek’s diagram, conservatism does not move in any particular direction. Rather, it only offers resistance to the opposing directions of modern liberalism and classical liberalism. Whichever side pulls harder dominates the political scene, with conservatism merely slowing (rather than halting) the march in that direction. Hayek goes on to say that as modern liberalism has, to date, pulled harder than classical liberalism, it has set the agenda (that is why, in the diagram above, conservatism is being pulled in the direction of modern liberalism).

“[T]he main point about [classical] liberalism,” Hayek writes, “is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still.” Yet because the libertarian movement in America has generally existed (in politics) as a faction in the Republican coalition, it for years had to be largely content with helping them pull against modern liberalism.

Since Hayek’s essay was originally published, however, libertarians have increasingly employed a strategy of historical revisionism in order to exert a stronger pull on the conservatives. As implied by Hayek’s political spectrum diagram, after a certain amount of time, the policies of whichever ideology’s pull is stronger become established American institutions.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Social Security. When President Eisenhower took office, numerous Republicans wanted a wholesale repeal of the New Deal. But a sea change had occurred, and post-1930s conservatism was defending a different status quo than pre-1930s conservatism. As a result, Eisenhower took to defending the New Deal programs that had been broadly accepted, and was satisfied to reign in the excesses.

From a letter Eisenhower wrote to his brother in 1954:

Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it.



Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

The first sentence of that second paragraph is noteworthy because eliminating those programs is precisely the aim of the libertarian movement. The obvious problem they faced was the same one Eisenhower mentions in his letter: should libertarians have tried to implement such an agenda, it would have been so unpopular (with both modern liberal and conservative voters), that “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

A mere 10 years later, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would be attacked by President Lyndon Johnson for suggesting an overhaul of Social Security that most feared would be a step toward dismantling the program (see video below). Goldwater, it should be said, held distinctly libertarian views on domestic and economic issues (such as repealing labor laws and civil rights legislation), though his foreign policy was more conservative.

This Time article from that election observed that Social Security, “so long accepted by so many, has become a red-hot issue in a presidential campaign for the first time in 28 years.” [emphasis mine] The article notes the broad consensus reached between modern liberals and conservatives about Social Security, and their common opposition to Goldwater’s libertarian views on the subject.

Just what are the merits of Goldwater’s notion of voluntary social security? Most authorities, whether liberal or conservative, or whether in or out of government, agree that it is totally impractical.

Even though, since New Hampshire, Goldwater has virtually purged the word “voluntary” from his vocabulary, it has not done much good… Like it or not, it seems that Barry is going to have a tough time convincing voters that he did not mean what he said before he was sorry he said it.

[emphasis mine]

In 1964, Goldwater was decisively defeated by Johnson, the latter garnering 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. Worries about Goldwater’s stance on established institutions like Social Security undoubtedly contributed to this landslide, along with anxieties about Goldwater’s aggressive foreign policy rhetoric.

The circumstances that resulted in the creation of the official Libertarian Party also emphasize its fervent opposition to Republicans’ defense of the post-New Deal status quo. The Libertarian Party was founded in America in 1971 — during the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon. In fact, it was Nixon’s own actions, imposing wage-price controls and ending the gold standard, that prompted the formation of the party.

So, if conservatives accepted (and even defended!) programs like Social Security along with modern liberals, how could the libertarian movement overcome that kind of broad consensus?

Well, the first step in overcoming a broad consensus is to chip away at it. And the easiest way for the libertarian movement to do that is to recruit as many conservatives to its cause as possible. Remember that one of the differences between classical liberals (or libertarians) and conservatives is that the prior feels no loyalty for traditional policies and institutions simply on the basis of tradition. They (as with modern liberals) have little qualms about overhauling or changing existing policies and structures, whereas conservatives feel an affinity for what has already been established.

A basic strategy, under these circumstances, would be to redefine what is traditional and established, in order to court conservative support. This is exactly what has happened. Take the Tea Party as a more recent case study of this type of tactic. The need to reclaim lost traditions and re-establish the Founders’ America is a unifying theme of the Tea Party. By contrasting an imagined ‘Golden Age’ with a today in which traditional American institutions have been defiled or destroyed, the more libertarian wing of the Republican Party is able to exert a greater pull toward its own direction (as per Hayek’s Political Spectrum diagram).

This strategy rests, to a large extent, on historical revisionism. The Founding Fathers were a diverse group of thinkers that ranged from those (like Thomas Jefferson) who argued for a weak central government to those (like Alexander Hamilton) who argued for a strong one. They could not agree with each other while they lived, but some people today nevertheless wish to bestow upon them a manufactured consensus. The Constitution was not drafted by gods convening to create a perfect government, but by a group of incredibly brilliant men who disagreed about almost everything.

It may surprise some people to learn that Alexander Hamilton argued for a Congress elected for life, that James Madison considered giving Congress the ability to veto state laws, or that George Washington had his doubts that the Constitution would last more than a few decades. Given the controversy Obamacare’s individual mandate has caused, few people probably realize that both George Washington and John Adams signed health care mandates during their presidencies.

Thus, the very idea of a “Golden Age” is fundamentally flawed. Someone was always disappointed. Each of the Founders had different ideas about the proper role and size of government — and we are still debating these same issues today.

This strategy of redefining established institutions as un-American and unwise impositions in order to build a stronger coalition between conservatives and libertarians is, of course, not new. But the past four years has seen its use expand rapidly, as the coalition unified against the Obama Administration. Energy from opposition to new and unfamiliar policies (like Obamacare) was harnessed to redefine and attack formerly established ones (like, say, unemployment compensation and Social Security).

This is a very rough indicator, but Google searches (top line) and news stories (bottom line) using the word ‘unconstitutional’ soared during the 2010 midterms, and have remained high since.

Unfortunately, the term ‘unconstitutional’ is often misused, because deploying it is seen as a quick and easy way to question whether something is American. After all, the Constitution defines the lawful role of government in America, so deeming something ‘unconstitutional’ is saying that it is contrary to America’s founding document.

Here are a list of established programs and institutions Rep. Ron Paul believes are unconstitutional:

And here are the corresponding Supreme Court cases declaring every single one of these to be constitutional:

This is just a sampling, too. There are numerous other programs, policies, and institutions that are decried as unconstitutional by various other representatives and public figures. To offer just one more example, the Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for Senate in Alaska in 2010, Joe Miller, said that unemployment compensation was unconstitutional. (It’s not.) As an aside, Miller lost the race after the Republican incumbent he had unseated in the primary launched a successful write-in campaign.

Of course, a common refrain one hears when raising the fact that the Supreme Court has found all of these to be quite constitutional is that the court itself has been corrupted and its rulings are thus somehow invalid.

This ignores the fact that a body must exist to interpret the Constitution’s meaning when questions or disagreements arise. That body is the Supreme Court. To refer again to the Eisenhower letter quoted earlier:

I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is.

Eisenhower goes on to say that though some Supreme Court decisions “have been astonishing to me,” he cannot ignore or change them. A constitutional amendment is necessary to do that, in lieu of the court overturning its own ruling. Neither of these options are impossible, though they are difficult to achieve. A constitutional amendment provided for the income tax, for instance, after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional (Ron Paul still believes the income tax is unconstitutional, despite the fact it is now part of the Constitution). And the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling, ending segregation in public schools, overturned the court’s earlier Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”) ruling.

For those that employ this strategy (such as the Tea Party), though, accuracy seems secondary to achieving policy objectives — because achieving those objectives necessarily requires a broader coalition involving conservatives, which in turn requires recasting established institutions and policies as unconstitutional impositions. To do this, historical accuracy must be sacrificed.

One final observation. Although conservative economic views can be enlisted to the libertarian cause by redefining what is traditional and familiar, conservative social views are much more difficult to manage because they are generally rooted in religion. Because the conservative believes religious codes should be the basis of governance while the libertarian believes that what little government they find permissible should remain neutral, it is very difficult (if not impossible) for the latter to recruit the former to his social views. Conservatives may be content to join libertarians against the idea of even a minimal social safety net if they think it represents creeping socialism, but they are averse to the idea of accepting things like full repeal of drug laws, abortion as a personal choice, and equal rights for homosexuals.

This divide has the potential to poison the libertarian-conservative coalition. Hayek notes this, writing that the average conservative “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.” Since the conservative bases his political beliefs in what he considers ‘the highest authority’ (polls show a significant number of Republicans cite religion as the most important factor influencing social views), he is unable to tolerate those that disagree with those political beliefs.

Accordingly, many libertarians downplay their social views, accepting that they must be sacrificed in order to achieve a broader coalition with the conservatives on important economic issues. Early on, the Tea Party purposefully eschewed social issues in favor of economic ones. And while the Tea Party eventually did begin to engage social issues, it always did so in a conservative fashion, maintaining the coalition.

Finally, let us return to President Reagan’s 1975 interview with Reason magazine. At the beginning of this post, I quoted Reagan as saying that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” One should keep in mind that as this was an interview with a libertarian magazine during a time in which Reagan was courting the Republican presidential nomination, his words were likely crafted carefully to appeal to the libertarian vote.

That said, even if Reagan was embellishing a little by calling libertarianism “the very heart and soul of conservatism,” his general point about the modern relationship of the two ideologies still stands. He follows up with this:

Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.

Perhaps, but the destination has largely been determined by the libertarians.


*As much as I may disagree with F.A. Hayek’s Austrian economic theories (and, accordingly, the governmental policies he advocates — though, it should be said, his views are more reconcilable with the mainstream than Mises’), I nonetheless appreciate his writings.

**To clarify, the contemporary Democratic Party’s foreign policy has similar goals of democratization, but does not focus as much on military intervention as on diplomatic efforts and ‘sticks and carrots’ (that is, punishments and rewards to push countries toward adopting preferred policies). To the extent that they support military intervention, it is usually in favor of limited humanitarian intervention. Hayek, of course, rejects both.


The Trouble With Voter ID Laws

When it comes to civics, few things are more frightening than the idea that shadowy forces are subverting our elections. Americans, as citizens of a Democratic Republic, stake the legitimacy of their governments and representatives upon the will of the majority (or, in some cases, plurality). And while there may be political differences, most Americans would agree upon the sanctity of free and fair elections.

Therein lies the danger of voter identification legislation: these types of bills capitalize on fears of shadowy forces undermining the integrity of our democracy to then undermine the integrity of our democracy.

As I noted in a previous post, voter fraud is incredibly rare. The Bush Department of Justice made it a priority to vigorously prosecute voter fraud, and between 2002 and 2007 made only 86 convictions (many of which were residents who simply mistakenly believed they were eligible to vote). This, over a period of time in which 196,139,871 ballots were cast in federal elections.

As the Brennan Center notes, you are statistically more likely to be struck by lightening than you are to commit voter fraud.

Keep in mind the 86 convictions (which, as noted above, includes many cases that boil down to simple misunderstanding of eligibility rules) refer to the broader category of voter fraud. Voter ID bills, on the other hand, are aimed only at one, very specific form of voter fraud: voter impersonation. This latter form occurs only when a person tries to vote as someone that they are not.

So, the incredibly low number of 86 convictions nationwide is actually too high of a number when discussing the specific form of voter fraud that Voter ID bills would actually address.

But why is voter impersonation extremely rare? I handled this in an earlier blog post, but the short version is because the risks of committing voter impersonation fraud hugely outweigh the benefits. Voter fraud can carry penalties of up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for a benefit of a handful of extra votes in an election that will likely be decided by thousands.

The larger question is, why are legislatures pursuing costly new Voter ID laws (Pennsylvania’s is projected to cost between $4 million and $11 million)? The Economist explains this phenomenon fairly well:

[T]echnology and the presence of outside observers is complicating the election-rigging business, requiring dodgy politicians to work harder and more cleverly. Most manipulators make only sparing use of blatant election-day frauds, says Sarah Birch of the University of Essex. She compared observer reports of 136 elections held between 1995 and 2006 and found that a more frequent tactic is to alter election laws, often as a means of deterring opposition candidates or gerrymandering unlosable constituencies.

Or, in this case, as a means of deterring opposition voters.

Governor Corbett’s administration has contended that 99 percent of Pennsylvanians have the appropriate form of voter identification. But this statistic is fundamentally flawed. The 99 percent figure was arrived upon by the administration by taking the number of photo IDs the PA Department of Transportation has issued divided by the voting age population.

The obvious issue with this is that not everyone that has been issued an identification by PennDOT is eligible to vote. Among them are: people who are under 18, people who have since died, people who are not citizens, or people who have since moved. By artificially inflating the number of photo IDs that have been issued, this measure artificially inflates the number of people that are estimated to have the identification needed to vote.

While state figures are hard to come by, 11 percent of all Americans lack valid photo identification. And these Americans are not random — particular groups of voting age citizens would be disproportionately affected by Voter ID laws, including:

  • 25 percent of voting age African Americans
  • 15 percent of people making below $35,000/year
  • 18 percent of senior citizens
  • 20 percent of young voters (18-29 years old)

One would also imagine other groups that there are not yet photo ID statistics on (such as handicapped populations) might also not have the identification these Voter ID laws demand.

Of course, it is no coincidence that, in general, these groups of people tend to vote Democratic, and that Voter ID laws have been passed on in states controlled by Republicans.

That this is a targeted disenfranchisement is reinforced by state laws on acceptable forms of identification. For instance, Texas’ photo ID law appears to be designed to disenfranchise certain types of citizens (fortunately, it was blocked by the U.S. Department of Justice). Current Texan law allows various ways to prove your identity without needing a specific form of photo identification. The revised law, however, provides for only government-issued photo identification, which disproportionately affects the aforementioned groups of people. Licenses to carry concealed handguns are permissible, of course, while student IDs are not.

In Pennsylvania, the original version of the Voter ID law allowed only government-issued ID, though the definition of acceptable identification was loosened up slightly before final passage. The final bill claims valid student identification and IDs issued by care facilities (like assisted living communities, nursing homes, etc…) are acceptable. Yet caveats abound. Many elderly people who are likely without photo ID do not live in care facilities. And the law specifies that only student IDs from Pennsylvania universities are permissible. Furthermore, these forms of identification are only valid if they are not expired, but many student IDs, for example, have no listed expiration date.

The fact that these laws are not truly about safeguarding elections is further reinforced by Wisconsin’s experience. After passing a strict voter ID law, Governor Scott Walker moved to close down 10 DMV offices where photo identifications could be secured. This was done under the guise of economics — the money needed to implement this Voter ID law must come from somewhere, after all. Longer DMV office hours, increased demand for the necessary documentation (ex: birth certificates), the cost of providing these identifications, all have associated costs. But it certainly seems odd that the revenue for extending DMV office hours would come from closing other DMV offices, restricting the number of available locations for obtaining the identification needed to vote. Fortunately, the Wisconsin courts have recently struck down this Voter ID law as unconstitutional.

Likewise, in Pennsylvania, amendments that would have at least sought to blunt the impact of this bill were voted down by the majority Republicans. Such rejected amendments included:

  • Extended DMV hours
  • More locations at which to secure a Voter ID
  • Mobile units to help people register

It is similarly curious that Governor Corbett, who has followed a strict rule of cutting state spending at all costs, both endorsed and signed this Voter ID legislation. Despite drastic cuts in eduction investment, Governor Corbett nevertheless found it appropriate to spend between $4 million and $11 million to combat the non-existent threat of voter fraud, where simple enforcement of existing law would suffice.

The reason for this is that the bill was never about voter fraud to begin with — it was about rewriting the rules to favor the majority party. This is not an isolated incident. Other election law changes dominated Pennsylvania Republicans’ 2011 legislative agenda, from redistricting PA Senate and PA House districts into gerrymandered ‘safe seats’ to rewriting the way Pennsylvania would distribute its electoral votes for president.

The courts may yet strike this Voter ID law down — and they would be correct in doing so. The costs of obtaining a Voter ID are tantamount to a de facto poll tax (such fees were outlawed by the 24th Amendment). Advocates claim that the IDs are free, but that ignores the costs of obtaining the underlying documentation (such as the fee for replacing a lost birth certificate or the transportation costs), as well as the huge barriers of wading through the added bureaucracy (Pennsylvanians without photo ID must take additional steps to get another copy of their birth certificate). Securing the documentation needed to get a Voter ID will take time, especially now, as funding and personnel for government agencies handling such services are cut.

Furthermore, some voters may actually be eligible to vote, only to be disenfranchised in the days or weeks just before an election, if their license is suspended. Young people, especially, are at risk for this, as any instance of underage drinking (whether it involves a vehicle or not) results in a license suspension and now, disenfranchisement. Believing that underage drinking is unacceptable is one thing, stripping someone of the right to vote because of they consumed alcohol before turning 21 is another entirely.

Voting is a right, and playing politics with election law in order to gain an advantage at the ballot box has no place in a modern democracy. Democratically elected governments do not always make the right choices, but they can at least claim legitimacy of broad elections. Restricting that legitimacy would be an egregious error indeed.


Church, State, and Contraceptives

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput recently described the Obama Administration’s move to ensure access to birth control for women as both “dangerous” and “unprecedented.” Fortunately, neither of these charges is true.

The ruling in question requires employers to offer insurance plans that cover the cost of contraceptives. Such laws already exist in 28 states, and have been upheld by state courts. It would appear that there is a very clear precedent for the “unprecedented.” These states’ experiences also reveal that the fear of Catholic-affiliated universities and hospitals suddenly dropping employee health coverage in order to avoid providing contraceptives is unfounded.

Archbishop Chaput also argues that this decision undermines the Constitution by forcing Catholics to “violate our consciences.” But such action is not necessarily unconstitutional. After all, Catholic taxpayer dollars continue to fund the death penalty, an act that likewise violates the Catholic conscience, according to the Vatican. Yet the death penalty is undeniably constitutional.

Furthermore, the archdiocese does not object when the terms involve violating other people’s consciences. It has not come out against the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, despite the fact that many Americans feel it violates the Constitutional protections of the Establishment Clause. And just last fall, the Pittsburgh Archdiocese sought to use tuition assistance as leverage to convince parents to lobby the state legislature in favor of a school voucher bill. They eagerly supported this bill, ignoring that it explicitly violates Article 3, Section 15 of the Pennsylvania Constitution by providing funds for religious schools.

Also, one should keep in mind that the Obama Administration’s decision does not require any woman to violate her conscience. It does not force anyone to take contraceptives. Rather, it simply makes them more accessible by offering to cover the cost. Contraceptives, it should be noted, is one of the most effective ways to reduce the abortion rate because it addresses a key underlying cause of abortions: unintended pregnancies. It also has additional health benefits, such as reducing the risk of cancer, and is also widely accepted by Catholic Americans. Almost all sexually active Catholic American women use contraceptives, and a solid 58 percent of Catholics Americans believe health insurance should cover contraception.

Finally, it is important to remember that churches, with a specifically religious mission, are exempt from this mandate. The Catholic-affiliated institutions that are not exempt have secular aims, such as health care or education. That they employ and serve people of all different faiths underlines this fact.

With all this in mind, one can probably think of many ways to describe the Obama Administration’s recent ruling on contraceptive coverage – but “dangerous” and “unprecedented” are not two of them.

Governor Corbett Wrong on Food Stamps

In Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, “Don Quixote,” the titular character rides off into battle against several windmills he believes to be giant beasts. His hapless sidekick Sancho Panza watches helplessly as the crusader launches his ferocious assault on imagined monsters.

Similar images come to mind when discussing Governor Corbett’s new policy regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. The Corbett Administration recently announced that it would bar people under 60 with more than $2,000 in savings or other assets (home, retirement benefits, and one car not included) from collecting food stamps. A higher limit would be set for seniors. This was all done under the guise of clamping down on fraud.

Yet a closer examination reveals these vague claims of fraud to be more akin to Quixote’s imaginary monsters than to any real threat to taxpayers. A Department of Agriculture report on how well the states administered their food stamps program shows that no fraud claims were established in 2010. In fact, the costs of agency errors far exceeded that of non-existent fraud, raising the question of whether an asset test could have unforeseen costs. It is widely accepted – except, of course, by the Corbett Administration – that the additional training, paperwork and document verification accompanying this policy change will mean higher administrative costs. An increase in agency errors resulting from the added bureaucracy could have a similar effect.

But the cost is not only monetary. Food stamp usage has increased as a result of the Great Recession and its aftermath, which dislocated workers and wreaked havoc on families’ finances. Yet putting a limit on the amount of savings and assets one can hold punishes people that choose to save for the future, encouraging them instead to deplete their reserves.

The Corbett Administration claims this will stop people from taking advantage of the system. But food stamps are already limited to those with low incomes, and food stamp payments are low enough only to help people, not to provide for them entirely. Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom tenth of the nation as far as average state food stamp payment amounts go – below even Texas. The average monthly benefit for a Pennsylvania household ($262.61 in 2010) would only go so far in covering that average household’s grocery bill. The Department of Agriculture’s estimates that monthly food costs for a family of four range from around $550 to $800 per month, depending on how old the children are. And those estimates are for the spending plans it labels “thrifty” and “low-cost.”

Losing such aid would hurt not only the recipients, but businesses and the economy as well. Food stamps help prop up demand, preserving jobs in grocery stores and the trucking and warehouse services they employ. The spending done by workers in those preserved jobs, in turn, ripples through the economy. Moreover, food stamps are the most effective form of economic stimulus, since they are given to cash-strapped individuals who usually spend them immediately. A Moody’s Analytics study found that food stamps generated $1.73 for every dollar spent.

So one could be excused for feeling a bit like Sancho Panza as he watches his leader gallop off full-speed at a windmill. Perhaps Quixote truly believes in the imaginary beasts he seeks to slay, or perhaps he has some inkling of the absurdity of his quest. No matter – the result is the same.