Monday, December 13, 2010

Labels versus Teams

Matt Yglesias argues in favor of political labels:
If you go to a store you’ll find that a huge quantity of the goods on sale are labeled to indicate which brand makes them. There’s a good reason for this. Normally, how much you’re willing to pay for a good or service depends on the quality of the good or service in question. But there’s no way to sample the quality of a can of soda without buying it first. So how am I to know whether or not I want to buy that can of Diet Coke? Well it’s simple. I may not have had that can of Diet Coke before, but I have had many other cans of Diet Coke. And I can infer that the Coca-Cola corporation, having invested a great deal of time and money in building the Diet Coke band is going to make a good-faith effort to turn out a consistent product. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will like the taste of Diet Coke. But it does mean everyone knows more-or-less what Diet Coke tastes like, and then they can make their soda-consumption choices in a coherent way.

Politics, he argues, should be the same way. Political labels provide a coherent and efficient method of sorting candidates, making it easy for the electorate to identify which politicians match their policy preferences.

There's something to this, but I think it may assume a considerably more informed and engaged electorate than we have. The better analogy might not be to labels, but to one's favorite sports team. Most people come by their favorite teams fairly arbitrarily (most commonly, the location where they're born). And while theoretically the labeling of different teams could enable easy sorting for a fan to optimize her rooting pleasure ("The Devils specialize in tight, neutral-zone trap defense backed by stellar goaltending. That's my kind of hockey!"), nobody really does that.

Political participation, by and large, seems to operate the same way. The best predictor of what party a given American supports is what party their parents support. People support their political "team" because it's fun to root for a side (indeed, this is one of the ways to overcome widespread rational political ignorance), not because they've sampled the various brands and come to a rational voting decision.

Indeed, when one tries to break down the analogy, a host of problems crop up. All one needs to know about Diet Coke to know if one will like it or not is to buy one can and taste it. There's no easy parallel in politics. Political campaigns are highly suffused in rhetoric designed to appeal to all voters (everybody hates crime, everybody likes education, everybody wants more jobs), so there isn't really effective branding along a host of politically salient axes. The real impact of a given politician on any specific aspect of any particular citizen's life is going to be, at best, highly attenuated, making it difficult to say whether John Doe's advocacy of X policy really is something one likes or dislikes beyond mere gut instinct.

Of course, if one has extremely well-developed policy preferences and pays close attention to the political arena, then it is possible to rationally sort good politicians from bad ones. But if one is that engaged, then one likely doesn't need labels to serve as a proxy. Put another way, the level of participation one needs to have in the soda market in order to rationally order preferences is very low, while the level of participation one needs to have in the political system in order to rationally order preferences is extremely high. Political labels don't really overcome this information deficit so much as they give people a reason to participate in politics notwithstanding their general lack of information.


joe said...

These are all imperfect metaphors. But before the "branding" metaphor is dismissed I would note that in reality, our tastes for consumer products are also shaped by what they drank, ate, and used growing up. There's no super-rational blind vacuum from which we choose. If I like the taste of Diet Coke, who is to say that is more "rational" than if I like Harry Reid's position on stem cells?

And, in reality, all branding campaigns are "highly suffused in rhetoric" designed to appeal to all consumers, or at least as broad a cross-section as can be hoped, given the product.

PG said...

People's tastes are affected by what they had growing up, but usually not to the point of a strong brand loyalty. Also, of course, children's tastebuds are literally different from adults'; most children dislike dark chocolate, for example, because it tastes horribly bitter to them due to their bitter tastebuds not yet having been rubbed down over time. Children also like intensely sweet flavors that appeal to few adults. The same hopefully is true in the transition from youth to maturity with regard to politics: children have to be socialized out of their natural selfishness and tendency toward short-term thinking, but adults are presumed capable of considering the well-being of others (such as their own offspring) and making short-term sacrifices for a long-term goal (dieting in order to have better health). If at 35 you're still drinking wildberry KoolAid and voting for the candidate who promises pizza for lunch every day, I think it's reasonable to say that your tastes are not merely different, but juvenile.

David, I think you gave Yglesias's metaphor way more respect than it deserved. Your analogy comes closer to political reality. Then again, I don't have a lot of brand loyalty or sports loyalty, and I vote differently than my parents do.

N. Friedman said...

The trademark laws, it should be noted, enshrine the view that a trademark not only serves to identify and distinguish the source of goods (or services) of one company from those of another company but that the goods are of a consistent level of quality. The quality issue became the basis upon which the law came to permit the licensing of trademarks, something frowned upon under traditional common law analysis.

With the above in mind, I am not sure that Yglesias is off base although, from a practical point of view, quality consistency has not been the actual hallmark of either branded products or politics.