Women's Vote Launched Big Govt, Economist Argues

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT


(CNSNews.com) - John Lott's latest book, "Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-Baked Theories Don't," praises free enterprise and scolds government ineptitude in certain areas.

Lott, an economist and senior research scientist at the University of Maryland, stoked controversy in the past with his book "More Guns, Less Crime." And in his latest, he doesn't shy away from tackling contentious issues, such as election reform, problematic public schools, the apparent link between abortion and crime and affirmative action.

In the second part of a two-part interview with Cybercast News Service, Lott discussed the assertions made in his new book and responded to some of his critics.

Cybercast News Service: In your book, you discuss a correlation between granting women the right to vote and the growth of government -- could you explain?

John Lott: There's been a puzzle that's been around academics for decades about why government started to grow when it did. From the beginning of the country to the 1920s, the federal government had been about 2 to 3 percent of GNP. You'd have a war sometimes and it would go up. After the war was over, government would go back down to where had been previously. But it began to grow through the 20s and the 30s and 40s.

You see a phenomenon that's true around the world, during about 50 years of time in which government began to grow. I've noticed from looking around at these countries that the government growth seemed to coincide with when women were given the right to vote in these places.

I looked at where women were given right to vote in the United States from the first state in 1868 to the last state in 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. One of the interesting things here is that some states voluntarily gave women the right to vote, and some were forced to because of the 19th Amendment. ...Is it the fact that you gave women the right to vote that caused the government to grow, or is it that the state was more liberal and wanted to give women the right to vote at the same time they wanted government to get bigger?

The fact that you see this growth in the states that voluntarily gave women the right to vote before the ones that were forced to indicates that it was giving women the right to vote and not just some other factor changing at the same time.

The effect is dramatic. If you look at 10 years prior to when a state gives women the right to vote, you find expenditures and revenues were flat. Once women were given the right to vote, the next year you see an increase in government expenditures. It keeps going up dramatically. In 10 years, government expenditures and revenue doubled in real terms. That growth follows closely with the percent of voters who were women.

After that you basically get to the 1960s, and what happens then is you have a big increase in divorce, and divorce tends to make women a lot more liberal than they were previously. They are more likely to depend on the government for some safety net or protection. We see this in how women's political views change over a lifetime.

Young single women are more liberal than young single men. When they get married, about half that gap disappears. When they have kids, about half of the remaining gap disappears, so about 75 percent of the original gap. If they get divorced, they become much more liberal than they were to begin with. Men pretty much stay in the same place all their life.

When a woman is on her own, she's more likely to support a more progressive income tax. But if she gets married and has kids, she's more likely to oppose those sorts of taxes. There would be similar changes to other types of social programs. Women tend to be more risk averse and more likely to turn to the government for these government programs.

The discussion about divorce is itself driven a lot by government. One of the big changes we had in the 1960s and 1970s was the movement from at-fault to no-fault divorce. When you had at-fault divorce, women were much more protected. If a man wanted to get a divorce, he had to get the wife to agree to a divorce. He had to pay her off, and give her more assets to get her to agree. So her investment in maybe staying home a lot and taking care of the family were much more likely to be protected than they are now.

Now when you have no-fault, if a man wants to get a divorce, the woman almost has to pay him in order to stay in the relationship. Many women are more reticent to stay at home and take care of kids. In this case, they have a big incentive to (work) in case there is a divorce later on-they can have a job and an income they can depend on. Not only do these (divorce) laws, explain why women become more liberal, but they also explain why women are having fewer kids.

Cybercast News Service: You contend in your book that campaign finance reform laws don't work. Why?

John Lott: When you look at the reasons for why campaign finance regulations are put in place to begin with, there is a range of benefits talked about. They're supposed to make it easier to defeat incumbents. The claim was it would encourage more people to run for office. It would take wealthy people out of the equation so they wouldn't be as important as they were before. And it would encourage more people to vote.

In fact, when you look at the evidence, the opposite is true in each case. You see incumbent election rates going up. You see fewer candidates running for office. You see wealthier candidates being more likely to be elected to office, and fewer people vote. It's very simple to explain all of those things.

Take one type of campaign finance rule we're all familiar with: donation limits. An incumbent whose been in office for 10, 12, 14 years, or whatever -- it's more likely they have a longer list of potential donors than some challenger whose running for the first time. It's just a lot easier for the incumbent to raise a small amount from a lot of potential donors than the challenger, and that ends up giving the incumbent a real advantage.

Incumbents are less likely to be challenged, and more likely to run unopposed-and even when they do run opposed their win margins are much bigger, and the rate at which they are defeated is cut in half after campaign finance regulations are put in place.

A wealthier candidate is the one guy who can benefit from these rules. They can finance their own campaigns. They don't have to go out and raise a small amount of money from a lot of potential donors. That saves their time from having to go and raise the money; they can spend that time on other candidate-activities and be more productive. That doesn't mean they're the best candidate.

The reason you have fewer voters vote after campaign finance regulations is because you have fewer contested elections. If an incumbent isn't being challenged or the race isn't very close, fewer people vote.

Cybercast News Service: What impact do anti-voter fraud measures have on voting?

John Lott:One of the big problems you have with the voter fraud discussion is how do you measure how much fraud you have?

The debate between Republicans and Democrats in some ways is more similar than people might have first realized. Republicans say if you have voter ID and other types of things, you'll prevent voter fraud and you'll reduce the number of recorded votes -- and the reason is there are certain votes that shouldn't be taking place that you would be stopping. Democrats say you go and impose voter ID requirements, and the people who are going be stopped from voting are legitimate voters. Both sides agree if you impose the rules you're going to see fewer votes being recorded.

There's a third option. That is, when you go and impose these rules you could actually see an increase in the rate at which people vote.

Look at Mexico. Mexico in 1991 introduced sweeping election reforms; photo IDs, tamper-proof features, thumbprint, other biometric information put into the card, and they got rid of absentee ballots. For getting the voter ID card you had to go in twice to the voter registration place to get it. You might have to travel 100 miles in some places to get it; once to register to begin with, once to pick up the card. They wouldn't even mail out the voter registration card to you in order to try to prevent fraud. And you would think with all these costs to voting there would be a big drop in the rate at which people voted. It made it a lot more difficult to go and vote.

Yet there was something like a 26 percentage point increase in the rate at which people voted in the next presidential election -- after these election reforms were put in place. The question is why? The big reason seems to be that people thought their votes were more likely to count. There had been so much vote fraud it didn't make any difference whether people voted beforehand because the government essentially controlled the voting process and made sure their candidate won. So why bother and vote? Now, when it looked like vote fraud had been controlled, people realized their vote could count.

The question is how do you disentangle the different effects and see how important they might be in the United States? It could affect the outcome of elections. I don't think we have vote fraud anywhere near as extreme or as extensive as in Mexico, but you might still find some effects that are there.

So, I looked at the impact across all the counties in the U.S. as a result of these regulations, but I also looked at the counties where there was said to be a lot of vote fraud. What you find is that if you compare those two sets of counties, the anti-fraud regulations -- when they did reduce voter turnout -- tended to reduce it only in counties where there was said to be a lot of fraud. That seems consistent with the Republican type of story there. Because if it was just these voting regulations that made it more difficult for people to vote, that should be true in any county. It wasn't.

Cybercast News Service: The market does seem to work better than government in many areas but are there times, such as a crisis, when the government must step in with a solution?

John Lott: It's not really clear to me when you have a crisis and you're trying to rush a decision that the government is going to be any better in making the decisions on these things. They have to go and figure out how to solve these problems also.

One example where it took the market a while to figure out how to do things was with the radio -- go back about 90 years. For the first 27 years after we had radio, we had two different types of stations, either purely amateur stations where nobody got a salary or government-run stations.

Even as late as the early 1920s, people thought there was no way radio could be made to pay for itself because anybody could listen to your signal; they just had to buy a radio set or make one. And they could listen to the signals that you put out. So while everybody thought there was this huge benefit from having radio, it wasn't clear how you could actually get it to pay for itself.

How do you get those people who want to listen to pay for it? Britain, for example, went to where you have a tax on each radio set and the government would pay for the programs that were there. You had people in our government talking about doing the same thing in order to solve the problem. Even the secretary of commerce in 1922, Herbert Hoover, was saying he thought we'd likely have to have government involved in order to have radio that people benefit from.

It seemed like the classic example of market failure that people would point to. But people figured out shortly after that how to solve the problem. It was advertising. It seems incredibly obvious and trivial at this point. But it took a while for somebody to figure out that they could actually make money by putting advertising on the radio.

Maybe the government could have rushed to solve the problem by putting a tax on each radio set and later each TV set to fund it. But my guess is we would have a dramatically different type of radio market today and television market if we had done that. I assume a lot of people think we'd be missing out on a lot of the vibrancy in terms of competition and different formats and quality of the program if you had some government bureaucrat deciding what program should be on the air.

So, is it true that maybe the government could have solved that problem faster than the market could have? They may have been able to in that case. That doesn't mean that solution would have been the right solution. If the government had stepped in, its involvement would have produced a deadening impact on people's incentive to try to figure out other ways of solving that problem.

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