≡ Menu

A Tale

Once upon a time in the town of Crowville, somewhere deep in the heartland of America, the town elders secured the imposition of a poll tax to be paid by everyone in Crowville who votes in any political election in that handsome burgh.  The tax took the form of a flat $100 fee to be paid by every man and woman each time he or she seeks admission to a polling place in Crowville.

The elders further arranged for the proceeds of this tax to be used to subsidize transportation to the polls of low-income Crowvillians.

The elders heartily patted themselves on their backs for their wisdom and charity.  “This tax – er, really, a magnanimous benefit to Crowville’s poor – will increase the political participation of poor Crowvillians.  The poor will now find voting to be less costly as a result of this tax.  The poor will therefore vote in larger numbers than before – and, certainly, not in smaller numbers.  Yeah for us!!”

A small cadre of skeptical Crowvillians frowned.  These skeptics (they thought of themselves as realists, so that is what we will call them from here on in) asked the elders: “How do you figure that imposing a tax on the act of voting will increase people’s willingness to vote?  Aren’t you worried that the monetary value to poor Crowvillians of whatever transportation subsidy you supply will be far less than the direct cost to each of them of the poll tax that they must now pay in order to vote?  Surely a Crowvillian who is too poor to buy a bus ticket to a polling place, or who can’t find a friend to drive him or her, will be very negatively affected by your poll tax.  The final result will be less, not more, voting.”

The elders snarled at the realists.  “Don’t be so simple-minded, you ideologues you.  Yes, in simple textbook theory raising the cost of voting with a poll tax discourages voting, especially of the poorest of our citizens.  But the real-world is much more complicated than your basic theory.  First, we’re recycling the bulk of the proceeds of the tax into our ‘Transportation to the Polls” initiative.  Second, it’s really an empirical question of whether or not a poll tax in fact discourages voting.  One should not prejudge the matter based merely upon theory.  And you do realize, don’t you, that people’s demand to vote is such that they are unlikely to be dissuaded from voting merely by a extra monetary charge to do so?”

The realists’ jaws dropped.  Never mind the obvious logical inconsistency in the elders’ argument for why a poll tax is unlikely to discourage voting.  The realists were flabbergasted that the elders really were confident that conditions affecting real-world voting were such that their poll-tax scheme would not discourage voting.

The realists pointed out to Crowville’s elders that they – the realists – actually have several empirical studies that show that poll taxes do in fact, as common sense suggests, reduce people’s willingness to vote.  The elders snarled even more dismissively, insisting that those empirical studies are naive and flawed.

The elders continued: “On our side are the best politimetricians in the world.  These quant-jocks have done serious empirical research into the effects of poll taxes on voting and they conclude that, when the models are properly specified and all the relevant real-world trends are correctly accounted for, higher poll taxes do not reduce voting.  To deny these results is to deny Science.  To deny these result is to substitute ideology for fact.  We elders have Science on our side!  The poll tax is supported by Science!”

The realists responded with more – and more elaborate – empirical studies of their own.  The realists’ studies found that, when the models are properly specified and all the relevant real-world trends are correctly accounted for, higher poll taxes do indeed reduce voting.

There ensued a duel of quantitative studies.  This duel went on endlessly; indeed, the duel continues down to this very day.  (One of the elders’ most popular studies is the study that found that while in fact voting did decline in jurisdictions in which poll taxes were raised, when controlling for the independent – ‘exogenous’ – trend of a decline in voting in those jurisdictions, the higher poll taxes in fact appear not to discourage voting at all.)  Study after study, each one more elaborate and technical and minutely specified than its predecessor, poured forth.

Astonishingly (for it is, isn’t it, astonishing?) the elders’ studies always found that poll taxes do not discourage voting while the realists’ studies found that poll taxes do indeed discourage voting.

The elders, while they cannot be said to have won the scientific argument, won the public-relations argument.  The elders successfully portrayed the poll tax as a way to help poor voters; the elders’ intentions were oh-so-good and noble.  The people sided overwhelmingly with the elders, and the poll tax was raised (and, indeed, indexed to inflation!).  And all realists were ridiculed as unfeeling knuckle-draggers when they pointed out that the empirical record in favor of the poll tax is far too weak – and the logical argument against it is far too strong – to justify a poll tax.  The elders’ self-professed morality and good intentions gave credence to their dismissal of the realists’ concerns and to their assurances to the people that science is clear that poll taxes do not discourage voting.