Dr Maik Schneider is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Bath.
Are less trustworthy candidates more likely to make it through to elected office? And how can we regain trust in politics?
Trustworthiness of political leaders has been a central issue in the lead up to this week’s general election. While trust in politicians has always been of great concern to voters, and there is a long history of broken campaign promises in politics, it appears that trust of voters in the political actors has further eroded over the last few years.
The derisive laughter of some TV debate audiences at political leaders’ answers on why people could trust them seems testimony to this development. In a 2018 Gallup poll which asked, ‘Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields …’ politicians came in last out of 21 occupations. Yet at the same time, several studies show voters appreciate honesty in politicians. It seems paradoxical that they then vote dishonest politicians into office. However, how well general elections can select good leaders depends on the quality of the candidates in the electoral race. So the question of whether less honest individuals are more likely to stand as candidates for political office could provide an answer to the voters’ dilemma.
In recent research, we used a game-theoretic model and a laboratory experiment involving 308 participants to explore this question, and find that indeed those who are more willing to renege on their campaign promises are more likely to make it into elected office.
The experiment considers a two stage political process, which first involves individuals vying against each other to win their party’s candidacy (similar to the US primaries, UK party leaders’ election, or the selection process within parties for deciding constituency candidates for MPs).
To do so the ‘candidates’ had to decide how much they would invest (on a scale of 100) as a measure of how eager they were to gain selection in terms of money, time and effort they would put in to get through the selection phase. Those who invested the most had the highest probability of getting through to round two.
If selected to stand for office, candidates next had to choose how much money they would promise to voters in an election, attempting to win over an undecided public. This set-up can reflect many types of campaign promises in the real world, for example around taxation, public spending or direct redistribution where voters lose out if promises are reneged.
Other participants - the electorate in the experiment - could see the different promises made by prospective candidates and were tasked with voting for just one of them. This required them to weigh up campaign promises against a candidates’ own credibility and the perceived likelihood that they would end up with the best deal.
Finally, if elected, politicians had to decide how to actually make decisions outside the election race choosing how much they would transfer to voters and whether to renege on promises.
We found that once elected, those who were most eager to be selected as a candidate (invested most in the first round) deviated most from what they promised in the election campaign. In our study this higher likelihood of a more dishonest individual making it into office cost the voters around 10% of welfare. This number certainly cannot be taken as an estimate for welfare losses happening in this context in the real world, they may be lower or even higher, but it rather points to the identified effects’ likely significance, next to the more fundamental issue that democracy as a whole depends on the trust of the population in its central actors.
Does this suggest we should just accept that in democracies we will end up with untrustworthy political leaders every so often or can we find ways to restore trust in our political institutions?
Our study suggests that greater transparency can make a difference. While in the basic scenario in the experiment the voters only knew the candidates’ campaign promises, we also considered a second scenario where the electorate would additionally see the information about how eager a candidate was to gain office (investments in the first stage) and therefore could draw conclusions about a candidate’s credibility.
In this second scenario with greater transparency the correlation between the scale of politicians reneging on promises and the entry investments they made at the first stage of the political selection process disappears. This suggests that in order to improve trust, more robust fact-checking, transparency around campaign finances and public scrutiny of campaign promises would help.
However, even under greatest possible transparency, in the real world one problem remains: Will a staunch Conservative voter, when knowing that the Conservative candidate may not be trustworthy, vote for a Labour policy platform? Even if their leader could be trusted more, and vice versa? If the political platforms of the major parties are polarised, it is therefore unlikely that dishonesty, even if transparent, can be severely punished by voting behaviour in elections.
To regain trust in political leaders the question then arises whether we can make campaign promises binding. For example, we could augment our democratic institutions with legally binding contracts on campaign promises, which stipulate a very substantial monetary fine for the party or the party leader themselves when violated if in government.
Spending pledges and promises about tax rates could certainly be specified in a contract and it would be possible to verify whether such promises have been honoured. We examined this idea in two theoretical papers [Gersbach and Schneider 2012 a,b], and argue that if offered to make their campaign promises legally binding the parties would use such political contracts as an opportunity to make their promises credible and win back trust from voters. Furthermore, the promises would likely be more moderate (as the parties now really have to deliver) and voter welfare would typically increase.
Augmenting democracy with such political contracts is certainly an exciting option to restore trust in politics, however more research is still needed so that it can be introduced in the right way.
This blog is part of the IPR 'General Election 2019' blog series. Visit the IPR blog to read more.
The research from Dr Schneider and colleagues, ‘Honesty and Self-Selection into Cheap Talk’ has just been accepted for publication in the Economic Journal. It builds on earlier work from the same team titled ‘Honesty and Self-Selection into Politics’, both available via maik-t-schneider.net/research and http://ftp.iza.org/dp10258.pdf.
- Gersbach, Hans and Schneider, Maik T. (2012a): Tax Contracts and Elections, European Economic Review 56(7), pp. 1461-1479.
- Gersbach, Hans and Schneider, Maik T. (2012b): Tax Contracts and Government Formation, Mathematical Social Sciences 64(2), pp. 173-192.