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Expressive Political Behaviour: Foundations, Scope and Implications

  • Alan Hamlin and Colin Jennings

A growing literature has focused attention on ‘expressive’ rather than ‘instrumental’ behaviour in political settings, particularly voting. A common criticism of the expressive idea is that it is ad hoc and lacks both predictive and normative bite. No clear definition of expressive behaviour has gained wide acceptance yet, and no detailed understanding of the range of foundations of specific expressive motivations has emerged. This article provides a foundational discussion and definition of expressive behaviour accounting for a range of factors. The content of expressive choice – distinguishing between identity-based, moral and social cases – is discussed and related to the specific theories of expressive choice in the literature. There is also a discussion of the normative and institutional implications of expressive behaviour.

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1 For detailed statements of the basic expressive idea, see Brennan, Geoffrey and Lomasky, Loren, Democracy and Decision (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Schuessler, Alexander A., A Logic of Expressive Choice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000). An alternative response to the difficulty of the expected utility-maximizing model is suggested by Ferejohn, John A. and Fiorina, Morris P., ‘The Paradox of Not Voting: A Decision Theoretic Analysis’, American Political Science Review, 68 (1974), 525536. If the rationality of voters is understood in terms of the minimax-regret formulation, rather than the expected utility-maximization formulation, it is shown that voting is ‘rational’ even if the utility gain from the preferred candidate winning is only modestly greater than the utility cost of voting: so that a member of the electorate who is rational in the minimax-regret sense will vote in many cases where the simple expected utility-maximizing member of the electorate would abstain. We do not pursue alternative specifications of instrumental rationality here.

2 For empirical analyses of the correlation between general expressive behaviour and voting, see Copeland, Cassandra and Laband, David N., ‘Expressiveness and Voting’, Public Choice, 110 (2002), 351363; Laband, David N., Pandit, Ram, Lebland, Anne M. and Sophocleus, John P., ‘Pigskins and Politics: Linking Expressive Behavior and Voting’, Journal of Sports Economics, 9 (2008), 553; and Laband, David N., Pandit, Ram, Sophocleus, John P. and Lebland, Anne M., ‘Patriotism, Pigskins, and Politics: An Empirical Examination of Expressive Behavior and Voting’, Public Choice, 138 (2009), 97108.

3 Hillman, Arye L., ‘Expressive Behaviour in Economics and Politics’, European Journal of Political Economy, 26 (2010), 403418, identifies material utility, expressive utility and interdependent utility (that is, utility dependent on other individuals) as the components of overall utility.

4 See Dhillon, Amrita and Peralta, Susana, ‘Economic Theories of Voter Turnout’, Economic Journal, 112 (2002), 332352; Feddersen, Timothy J., ‘Rational Choice Theory and the Paradox of Not Voting’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18 (2004), 99112; Dowding, Keith, ‘Is It Rational to Vote? Five Types of Answer and a Suggestion’, British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 7 (2005), 442459; and Geys, Benny, ‘ “Rational” Theories of Voter Turnout: A Review’, Political Studies Review, 4 (2006), 1635.

5 For critical discussion, see Green, Donald P. and Shapiro, Ian, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994) and Mueller, Dennis C., Public Choice III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). The essence of these criticisms is that the inclusion of non-instrumental terms in the analysis may render it tautological and unable to generate testable predictions. Dowding, ‘Is It Rational to Vote?’, argues that these criticisms are unfair, but that the ‘desire for deeper reasons’ to be provided is nevertheless justified.

6 An early discussion of expressive choice is to be found in Buchanan, James M., ‘Individual Choice in Voting and the Market’, Journal of Political Economy, 62 (1954), 334343. Discussions of expressive choice and voting are to be found in Riker, William H. and Ordeshook, Peter C., ‘A Theory of the Calculus of Voting’, American Political Science Review, 62 (1968), 2542, who focus on duty; Tullock, Gordon, ‘The Charity of the Uncharitable’, Western Economic Journal, 9 (1971), 379392, and Goodin, Robert E. and Roberts, Kevin W. S., ‘The Ethical Voter’, American Political Science Review, 69 (1975), 926928, who focus on ethical voting. Fiorina, Morris P., ‘The Voting Decision: Instrumental and Expressive Aspects’, Journal of Politics, 38 (1976), 390415, who links expressive voting to party allegiance. Brennan, Geoffrey and Buchanan, James M., ‘Voter Choice: Evaluating Political Alternatives’, American Behavioral Scientist, 28 (1984), 185201, discuss expressive voting in more general terms and focus on the problems it causes for the normative evaluation of political outcomes.

7 For simplicity, we focus on net benefits so as to avoid separate discussion of the classification of costs. Nothing significant hangs on this.

8 Examples include such things as the provision of private benefits such as discounts on insurance or access to sporting facilities to incentivize membership of trade unions.

9 To be a ‘Z-performer’ as Schuessler puts it (Schuessler, A Logic of Expressive Choice, p. 54).

10 Although we must recognize that some writers do not use the terms ‘instrumental’ and ‘expressive’ in this way, but rather seem to use ‘instrumental’ to identify what we have termed the ‘all-things-considered’ choice.

11 Of course, one can always add special features to the example: perhaps I am concerned not to cry out because it may wake a sleeping child; but while such additional features may make the possibility of my crying out relevant, this relevance is achieved by adding further instrumental detail rather than focusing on the expressive aspect of the cry.

12 See Brennan and Lomasky, Democracy and Decision; Brennan, Geoffrey and Hamlin, Alan, Democratic Devices and Desires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Brennan, Geoffrey, ‘Psychological Dimensions in Voter Choice’, Public Choice, 137 (2008), 475489. Of course, there is also the possibility that the relationship between instrumental and expressive considerations in the all-things-considered evaluation is lexicographic or incommensurable in some way. This possibility is explored in Baigent, Nicholas, ‘Preferences for Acts and Choice Functions on Outcomes’ (London: LSE Choice Group, 2011).

13 This would locate voting within a more general ‘economics of low-cost decisions’ as discussed by Kirchgässner, Gebhard, ‘Towards a Theory of Low-Cost Decisions’, European Journal of Political Economy, 8 (1992), 305320. Kirchgässner compares decisions, such as voting, ‘where the individual decision is irrelevant for the individual himself/herself, but the collective decision is relevant for all individuals’ with decisions such as judicial decisions, ‘where the individual decision is irrelevant for the individual himself/herself, but it is highly relevant for other individuals’ (pp. 305–6). See also Kliemt, Hartmut, ‘The Veil of Insignificance’, European Journal of Political Economy, 2/3 (1986), 333344.

14 Of course, this is not to suggest that many collective action problems do not form one arena in which expressive choice is relevant; just that this is not the only arena and so cannot define expressive choice.

15 Brennan and Buchanan, ‘Voter Choice’; Brennan and Lomasky, Democracy and Decision.

16 But note that this would not explain the phenomenon of the individual cheering for his team while watching it perform on television. Here, it is the basic nature of the situation that implies the inconsequential nature of the action, rather than any collective action problem.

17 See Hillman, ‘Expressive Behaviour in Economics and Politics’, for a detailed discussion of expressive rhetoric. For a general depiction of the nature of the rhetorical situation, see Bitzer, Lloyd F., ‘The Rhetorical Situation’, Philosophy & Rhetoric, 25 (1992), 114. Note that recognizing the expressive target for political rhetoric undermines the idea that such political rhetoric is ‘cheap talk’, as discussed by Farrell, Joseph and Rabin, Matthew, ‘Cheap Talk’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 10 (1996), 103118.

18 We recognize that this chain of argument involves an element of instrumentality; voting ‘expressively’ in this case is instrumentally related to further expressive behaviour. We do not believe that this undermines the claim that the vote is nevertheless ‘expressive’ in nature since it is part of a more general pattern of behaviour that can only be explained by recognizing its expressive relevance.

19 This is not the place to press deeper questions of the endogeneity of preferences (whether instrumental or expressive) or the nature of the ‘truth’ sought in the phrase ‘true preferences’.

20 Note that this may be entirely consistent with specifying rational choice in terms of the maximization of a utility function that includes both ‘instrumental utility’ and ‘expressive utility’. Hillman, ‘Expressive Behaviour in Economics and Politics’, offers one such formulation, using ‘material utility’ rather than ‘instrumental utility’. Also note that specifying ‘expressive utility’ in this way does not imply that all expressive utility derives from a particular source (for example, the confirmation of identity).

21 See Riker and Ordeshook, ‘A Theory of the Calculus of Voting’, and Jones, Philip and Hudson, John, ‘Civic Duty and Expressive Voting: Is Virtue Its Own Reward?’, Kyklos, 53 (2000), 316.

22 See, for example, Michael Alvarez, R., Boehmke, Frederick J., and Nagler, Jonathan, ‘Strategic Voting in British Elections’, Electoral Studies, 25 (2006), 119.

23 Brennan, ‘Psychological Dimensions in Voter Choice’.

24 See, for example, Akerlof, George A. and Kranton, Rachel E., ‘Economics and Identity’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115 (2000), 715753; Akerlof, George A. and Kranton, Rachel E., Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010); Sen, Amartya K., Identity and Violence, the Illusion of Destiny (London: Allan Lane, 2006).

25 Hillman, ‘Expressive Behaviour in Economics and Politics’.

26 Schuessler, A Logic of Expressive Choice.

27 Rotemberg, Julio J., ‘Attitude-Dependent Altruism, Turnout and Voting’, Public Choice, 140 (2009), 223244.

28 Hamlin, Alan and Jennings, Colin, ‘Group Formation and Political Conflict: Instrumental and Expressive Approaches’, Public Choice, 118 (2004), 413435; Hamlin, Alan and Jennings, Colin, ‘Leadership and Conflict’, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 64 (2007), 4968.

29 Brennan, Geoffrey and Pettit, Philip, ‘The Hidden Economy of Esteem’, Economics and Philosophy, 16 (2000), 7798; Brennan, Geoffrey and Pettit, Philip, The Economy of Esteem: An Essay on Civil and Political Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

30 Brennan, Geoffrey and Hamlin, Alan, ‘Expressive Voting and Electoral Equilibrium’, Public Choice, 95 (1998), 149175.

31 Poutvaara, Panu, ‘Party Platforms with Endogenous Party Membership’, Public Choice, 117 (2003), 7998, applies the idea of alienation and indifference to party membership decisions prior to elections.

32 Greene, Kenneth V. and Nelson, Phillip J., ‘If Extremists Vote How Do They Express Themselves? An Empirical Test of an Expressive Theory of Voting’, Public Choice, 113 (2002), 425436. Nelson, Phillip J. and Greene, Kenneth V., Signaling Goodness: Social Rules and Public Choice (University of Michigan Press, 2003) provide their own version of expressive choice which is founded on imitative behaviour. This version of expressive voting (similar to Schuessler's) is based on identification with fellow voters rather than with candidates and for that reason they argue that it explains why extremists are not less likely to vote than moderates.

33 Drinkwater, Stephen and Jennings, Colin, ‘Who Are the Expressive Voters?’ Public Choice, 132 (2007), 179189.

34 Calcagno, Peter T. and Westley, Christopher, ‘An Institutional Analysis of Voter Turnout: The Role of Primary Type and the Expressive and Instrumental Voting Hypotheses’, Constitutional Political Economy, 19 (2008), 94110.

35 In an earlier work, Guttman, Joel M., Hilger, Naftali and Shachmurove, Yochanan, ‘Voting as Investment vs. Voting as Consumption: New Evidence’, Kyklos, 47 (1994), 197207, find evidence in the 1976 US presidential election which supports the expressive story that where non-voting occurs, it is more likely due to alienation than to indifference. They find that voting was a function of absolute utility and not utility difference.

36 Brennan, Geoffrey and Hamlin, Alan, ‘On Political Representation’, British Journal of Political Science, 29 (1999), 109127.

37 They are developed in Brennan and Hamlin, Democratic Devices and Desires. See also Brennan, Geoffrey and Pettit, Philip, ‘Power Corrupts, but Can Office Ennoble?’ Kyklos, 55 (2002), 157178. For related discussions, see Besley, Timothy, Principled Agents? The Political Economy of Good Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

38 See, in particular, Brennan, Geoffrey and Buchanan, James M., The Power to Tax: Analytical Foundations of the Fiscal Constitution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); and Brennan, Geoffrey and Buchanan, James M., The Reason of Rules (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

39 This link is developed in Brennan and Hamlin, Democratic Devices and Desires; Brennan, Geoffrey and Hamlin, Alan, ‘Revisionist Public Choice Theory’, New Political Economy, 13 (2008), 7788; and Hamlin, Alan, ‘Political Dispositions and Dispositional Politics’, in Giuseppe Eusepi and Alan Hamlin, eds, Beyond Conventional Economics: The Limits of Rational Behaviour in Political Decision Making (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2006), pp. 316.

40 See Brennan, Geoffrey and Hamlin, Alan, ‘Expressive Constitutionalism’, Constitutional Political Economy, 13 (2002), 299311; and Brennan, Geoffrey and Hamlin, Alan, ‘Constitutions as Expressive Documents’, in Barry R. Weingast and Donald A. Witman, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Political Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 329341. We return to this theme just before the concluding section below.

41 Brennan and Lomasky, Democracy and Decision.

42 A ‘merit good’ is a private good which some authority nevertheless judges should be consumed in quantities greater than those actually demanded. The existence of ‘merit goods’ is controversial, but often lies behind proposals to offer benefits in kind rather than in cash. See Musgrave, Richard A., ‘Merit Goods’, in John Eatwell, Murray Milgate and Peter Newman, eds, The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics (London: Macmillan, 1987), p. 452. For an overview of the literature on merit goods and paternalism, see Hillman, Arye L., Public Finance and Public Policy: Responsibilities and Limitations of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

43 For an early paper making this point, see Roberts, Kevin W. S., ‘Voting over Income Tax Schedules’, Journal of Public Economics, 8 (1977), 329340.

44 The idea of Pareto optimal redistribution requires some such concern; see Hochman, Harold M. and Rodgers, James D., ‘Pareto Optimal Redistribution’, American Economic Review, 59 (1969), 542557. See also Paul, Ellen F., Miller, Fred D. Jr and Paul, Jeffrey, eds, Altruism (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1993); Andreoni, James, ‘Giving with Impure Altruism: Applications to Charity and Ricardian Equivalence’, Journal of Political Economy, 97 (1989), 14471458; and Andreoni, James, ‘Impure Altruism and Donations to Public Goods: A Theory of Warm-Glow Giving’, Economic Journal, 100 (1990), 464477.

45 The argument was set out in Tullock, ‘The Charity of the Uncharitable’; Brennan, Geoffrey, ‘Five Rational Actor Accounts of the Welfare State’, Kyklos, 54 (2001), 213233, revisits the argument as one of five accounts explaining the welfare state. See also Sobel, Russell S. and Wagner, Gary A., ‘Expressive Voting and Government Redistribution: Testing Tullock's “Charity of the Uncharitable” ’, Public Choice, 119 (2004), 143159.

46 Hillman, ‘Expressive Behaviour in Economics and Politics’.

47 Carter, John R. and Guerette, Stephen D., ‘An Experimental Study of Expressive Voting’, Public Choice, 73 (1992), 251260; Fischer, A. J., ‘A Further Experimental Study of Expressive Voting’, Public Choice, 88 (1996), 171184. Later papers include: Eichenberger, Reiner and Oberholzer-Gee, Felix, ‘Rational Moralists: The Role of Fairness in Democratic Economic Politics’, Public Choice, 94 (1998), 191210; Feddersen, Timothy J., Gailmard, Sean and Sandroni, Alvaro, ‘Moral Bias in Large Elections: Theory and Experimental Evidence’, American Political Science Review, 130 (2009), 175192; Sobel and Wagner, ‘Expressive Voting and Government Redistribution’.

48 See Tyran, Jean-Robert, ‘Voting When Money and Morals Conflict: An Experimental Test of Expressive Voting’, Journal of Public Economics, 88 (2004), 16451664, where the argument could be viewed as complementary to the idea that expressiveness may help to explain high levels of turnout even where the margin of victory is large. Empirical evidence for this is provided by Ashworth, John, Geys, Benny and Heyndels, Bruno, ‘Everyone Likes a Winner: An Empirical Test of the Effect of Electoral Closeness on Turnout in a Context of Expressive Voting’, Public Choice, 128 (2006), 383405, and by Coate, Stephen, Conlin, Michael and Moro, Andrea, ‘The Performance of Pivotal-Voter Models in Small-Scale Elections: Evidence from Texas Liquor Referenda’, Journal of Public Economics, 92 (2008), 582596.

49 Of course, we might also identify cases in which market choice may be distorted, perhaps by informational asymmetry and practices such as advertising.

50 Kuran, Timur, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).

51 This more general approach to political collective action and expressiveness is explored in Jones, Philip, ‘ “All for One and One for All”: Transactions Cost and Collective Action’, Political Studies, 52 (2004), 450468; and Jones, Philip, ‘The Logic of Expressive Collective Action: When Will Individuals “Nail Their Colours to the Mast”?’ British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 9 (2007), 564581.

52 Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1957).

53 Caplan, Bryan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007).

54 Caplan argues that these biases can be seen in four main areas: an anti-market bias, an anti-foreign bias, a make-work bias and a pessimistic bias.

55 Caplan, , The Myth of the Rational Voter, pp. 138–9.

56 Jones, Philip and Dawson, Peter, ‘How Much Do Voters Know? An Analysis of Motivation and Political Awareness’, Scottish Journal of Political Economy, 55 (2008), 123142, in a study of Britain, find that voters are better informed than non-voters.

57 Akerlof, George A., ‘The Economics of Illusion’, Economics & Politics, 1 (1989), 115. See also Fiorina, ‘The Voting Decision’, and Cowen, Tyler, ‘Self-Deception as the Root of Political Failure’, Public Choice, 124 (2005), 437451, on the same theme.

58 See Glazer, Amihai, ‘An Expressive Theory of Voting on Strikes’, Economic Inquiry, 30 (1992), 733741, on expressiveness and strikes. Hamlin and Jennings, in ‘Group Formation and Political Conflict’ and in ‘Leadership and Conflict’, discuss group conflict and the potential role for the expressive selection of group leaders who are willing to engage in conflict. See also Brennan, Geoffrey and Hamlin, Alan, ‘The European Constitution and Peace: Taking the Heat out of Politics’, in Charles Blankart and Dennis Mueller, eds, A Constitution for the European Union (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004), 123; and Brennan, Geoffrey and Hamlin, Alan, ‘Nationalism and Federalism: The Political Constitution of Peace’, in Gianluigi Galeotti, Pierre Salmon and Ronald Wintrobe, eds, Competition and Structure: The Political Economy of Collective Decisions: Essays in Honor of Albert Breton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 259283.

59 Kaempfer, William H. and Lowenberg, Anton D., ‘The Theory of International Economic Sanctions: A Public Choice Approach’, American Economic Review, 78 (1988), 786793.

60 See Karahan, Gokhan R. and Shughart, William F. II, ‘Under Two Flags: Symbolic Voting in the State of Mississippi’, Public Choice, 118 (2004), 105124, for an analysis of expressive voting and flags.

61 Glazer, Amihai, ‘Voting to Anger and to Please Others’, Public Choice, 134 (2008), 247254.

62 Tyran, Jean-Robert and Engelmann, Dirk, ‘To Buy or Not to Buy? An Experimental Study of Consumer Boycotts in Retail Markets’, Economica, 72 (2005), 116.

63 Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A., ‘Inefficient Redistribution’, American Political Science Review, 95 (2001), 649661. See also Tullock, Gordon, The Economics of Special Privilege and Rent Seeking (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989); and Coate, Stephen and Morris, Stephen, ‘On the Form of Transfers to Special Interests’, Journal of Political Economy, 103 (1995), 12101235, on ‘sneaky’ transfers.

64 See Jennings, Colin, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Populist: A Model of Political Agency and Emotional Voting’ (University of Strathclyde, Department of Economics Working Paper (University of Strathclyde, 2009) for an analysis of populism and expressive voting in the context of a political agency model.

65 Kliemt, ‘The Veil of Insignificance’; Guttman, Joel M., ‘Can Political Entrepreneurs Solve the Free-Rider Problem?’ Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 3 (1982), 357366.

66 Hillman, ‘Expressive Behaviour in Economics and Politics’, focuses on what he terms ‘expressive policy traps’.

67 Buchanan, James M. and Tullock, Gordon, The Calculus of Consent (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962); Brennan and Buchanan, The Reason of Rules.

68 Brennan and Hamlin, Democratic Devices and Desires.

69 Brennan and Hamlin, ‘Expressive Constitutionalism’.

70 Crampton, Eric and Farrant, Andrew, ‘Expressive and Instrumental Voting: The Scylla and Charybdis of Constitutional Political Economy’, Constitutional Political Economy, 15 (2004), 7788.

71 Brennan and Hamlin, ‘Constitutions as Expressive Documents’.

72 Jennings, Colin, ‘Political Leadership, Conflict and the Prospects for Constitutional Peace’, Economics of Governance, 8 (2007), 8394.

73 Besley, Principled Agents?

74 Besley, Timothy, ‘Political Selection’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19 (2005), 4360.

* Politics – School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester (email: ); and Department of Economics, University of Strathclyde, respectively. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at a conference on Economics and Democracy held at ANU, Canberra, Australia, in December 2008 and at several seminars. The authors acknowledge helpful comments from participants and particularly from Geoffrey Brennan, Keith Dowding, Bob Goodin, Tim Besley, Nick Baigent and Arye Hillman, and also comments from three referees and from the Editor, Hugh Ward.

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British Journal of Political Science
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