I see Jack Grant over at Random Fate was struck much as I was by a story in the Christian Science Monitor a few days ago comparing gas prices and fuel economy in Europe and the USA.
I recommend reading both the original piece and Jack’s commentary, but the punchline is here:
Europeans feel they have a â€œrightâ€ to government-provided social services such as â€œfreeâ€ health care.
Americans feel they have a â€œrightâ€ to cheap gasoline.
Yes, it is about political choices, but I think a case can be made that it is more fundamental even than that. European political systems generate more public goods, of which I would include their generally fantastic urban and inter-urban public transit systems and lower fuel consumption itself, along with universal health care and others that Jack alludes to.
What political science has not really figured out is the extent to which these outcomesâ€”more government-provided public goods in Europe, lower consumer prices in the USAâ€”are a result of preferences (what people “feel” they have a “right” to), as Jack suggests, or of the institutional structure of government.
A good case can be made that some significant portion of the difference rests with the institutions. European political institutions (always fundamentally parliamentary, and usually proportional representaion) tend to delegate citizens’ electoral choices to strong national parties. Our institutions (presidential with single-member districts), on the other hand, tend to delegate more authority to individuals (president and congress members alike). Individuals have to finance their own campaigns, are less bound by party platforms, and have both shorter time horizons and narrower constituencies than disciplined party organizations and the coalitions they form in most European systems. These characteristics render individual politicians realtively more vulnerable to pressures from “special” interest groups like oil companies, auto manufacturers and organized workers in the latter industryâ€”all of whom have a vested interest in low gas prices and the consumption habits they foster. (Note to those who have their “conspiracy theory” meters set at too sensitive a level: I am not saying there is anything conspiratorial about this! I am saying there is a political logic within variations in the structure of democracy itself, and how those structures frame choices for voters.)
Cheap gas and other consumer products have their upside, to be sure, but they have their environmental and national-security downsides and other broadly imposed costs that are not factored into the prices. Cheap gas prices are not very helpful if you are one of those without any health care, for lack of insurance. And cheap gas prices are not so necessary in the first place if you have publicly funded alternatives like comprehensive and low-fare urban and suburban transport that runs frequently more or less around the clock.
The relationship between between political institutions and policy (which, note: might be seen as the “fruits” of people’s votes!) is one theme I intend to develop over time here at Fruits and Votes, so please stay tuned.
(And as a footnote, I will add that my criticism of US institutions indeed can be reconciled with my admiration for James Madison’s original insights at the founding. Another theme I will be developing.)