The Political Weakness of the Poor - An Argument for Limiting Government Power:

One of the strongest traditional arguments for expanding government power in a democracy is that doing so can improve the lot of the poor by enabling them to use their voting power to promote redistributive policies. Yet numerous recent studies (primarily by left of center scholars) show that, in fact, the poor have very little influence over public policy. Recent empirical studies by political scientists Martin Gilens and Larry Bartels actually conclude that the poorest 20-30% of Americans have almost no political influence at all. In his 2003 book, The State of Democratic Theory (which I reviewed here), prominent liberal political theorist Ian Shapiro summarized the evidence that democratic governments generally achieve little in the way of net redistribution to the poor. Indeed, the biggest spending programs in most advanced democracies (notably old-age pensions and farm subsidies) tend to benefit wealthy and upper middle class interests, partly at the expense of the poor. The latter pay for Social Security through regressive payroll taxes, don't collect as much Social Security as the more affluent because they die much younger, and also suffer disproportionately from the increase in food prices caused by farm subsidies that promote cartels and restrict production below free market levels.

The relative political weakness of the poor is not surprising. Studies have long demonstrated that the poor are less likely to vote than the rich, less likely to participate in politics in other ways, have lower political knowledge, and of course make fewer and small campaign contributions.

Shapiro, and to a much lesser extent Gilens and Bartels, argue that the political weakness of the poor should be overcome by limiting the power of the rich through "campaign finance reform." I am skeptical. Any reform measures must be enacted by incumbent legislators. Yet what incentives do such legislators have to enact reforms that might imperil their own reelection by empowering groups that contributed little or nothing to their initial election? In fact, as John Samples shows in this excellent new book, real-world campaign finance measures mostly strengthen incumbents and powerful interest groups rather than the poor.

In my view, the political weakness of the poor is an argument not for campaign finance reform, but for reducing the role of government in society. If big government is not a good way to redistribute wealth to the poor and instead tends to transfer wealth to wealthy and middle class interest groups (sometimes at the expense of the poor), that undercuts one of the main arguments for the the massive modern state.

Obviously, the more affluent members of society also have superior buying power in the free market. However, the difference is much smaller than in the political arena. While each individual poor person has relatively little purchasing power in the market, collectivey they have a great deal. Many of the world's most successful businesses (notably Wal Mart) have made enormous profits precisely by finding ways to sell cheap, yet reasonable quality, products to the poor. In the political arena, by contrast, politicians can either ignore the wishes of the poor entirely (as Gilens and Bartels claim they usually do), or exploit their severe political ignorance by enacting symbolic "feel good" policies that do little or nothing to actually benefit poor people, and in some cases even harm them.

I do not claim that this consideration by itself justifies libertarianism, nor am I categorically opposed to all government redistribution to the poor. Indeed, I think that some redistributive programs for the poor are both justifiable and necessary. If it were up to me, I would prefer a constitution that forbids all or most redistribution to the wealthy and middle class, while permitting redistribution to those below the poverty line.

At the same time, however, the political weakness of the poor is a strong argument against claims that big government is justified by the need to fight poverty and empower the disadvantaged. Quite the opposite may well occur in cases where expanded government power means transferring authority to an entity over which the poor have almost no influence.