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Brodsky and Thompson: Ethos, public choice, and referendum voting

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Brodsky and Thompson. 1993. Ethos, public choice, and referendum voting. Social science quarterly 74:22, 286-299.

In Brief

  • Who/what are they challenging? Public choice theory (esp. Banfield and Wilson (1964, 1971)
  • What are they testing? Self-interested voting behaviour in local referenda
  • Brodsky & Thompson ask 3 main questions. They are listed below with the findings.
  • Main point: Critique public choice theory
  • Data used: Local referendum to increase funding for public transportation via local gas tax. [similar to Shabman and Stephenson's test of Roanoke flooding. All/most will pay, few will benefit. How can we explain those who support paying even though they won't benefit?].

Questions and Answers:

Question 1: "What is the distribution of private-regarding and public-regarding attitudes in the electorate?"

Answer 1: There is no significant difference between distribution of public-regarding vs. private-regarding voters (45.7%: 54.3%)

Question 2: Do ethos attitudes explain vote choices by individuals?

Answer 2: Yes. The high correlation between the justification voters gave for their voting decisions (public vs. private) and Brodsky & Thompson's prior classification of those individuals as public vs. private-regarding demonstrated that Brodsky & Thompson's classification was a good measure.

Question 3: "What characteristics distinguish private-regarding citizens from public-regarding citizens?"

Answer 3: Ethos theory predicts that socioeconomic characteristics are good predictors of public-regarding (or private-regarding) ethos. If someone is public-regarding, they will support proposals that may hurt them as individuals. Brodsky & Thompson disagree and find that education level is the only statistically significant predictor.