Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Another Thing Corbyn Doesn't Get: Opinion Polls Are Deceptive About Our Preferences

Jeremy Corbyn's New Year speech was full of buoyancy about how he's a Prime Minister in waiting because the policies he endorses are popular with voters. The problem is, he misunderstands the most primary error in his evaluation: that opinion polls are deceptive about what people actually do want, as opposed to what they say they want.

Below is a recent poll showing the public appetite for the nationalisation of various services in the UK. As you'll see below, more people want energy, water, railways, post, health and education to be run by the state than not. The corollary is that although many people think Corbyn the man is a bit of a plonker, his policies are apparently more widely popular than they are unpopular. In this post I will show you why popular opinion ought to be meaningless in creating government policy.

Alas, the YouGov poll is fairly meaningless, because it doesn't tell us what people actually desire - it tells us only what people claim to desire when they don't feel the costs of those desires. I want a £4000 top of the range television if you are going to buy it for me; whereas if I'm buying my own television, I'll probably spend about a quarter of that.

Similarly, when a British citizen is asked if she wants more public money spent on health care, railways and the energy sector, and if she wants employers to be forced to lower their staffing levels so others can receive a minimum wage, she will quite happily say 'yes' if she doesn't have to bear any of those costs. She may have to bear a tiny proportion of the costs through increased taxation, but those costs are spread thinly enough that no one individual feels it very acutely.

Moreover, a poll asking you whether you support renationalisation of the railways is not very likely to have the result affected by your vote, so you are less likely to have spent much time analysing the pros and cons of a nationalised railway.

The only poll that genuinely covers your revealed preferences is the poll where you feel the full costs and benefits of your decisions - and that only happens when your decisions are market-based, with the full gamut of consumer surpluses and opportunity costs factored in. I would buy a £1000 television for the consumer surplus, and wouldn't buy a £4000 television because of the opportunity costs associated with that additional £3000 expenditure.

Polls, therefore, are fairly meaningless in telling us what politicians should do with our money, because the poll choices are divorced from the personal ramifications of those choices. To discover what British citizens really want you have to allow them to spend more of their money, and reveal their preferences in a market-based economic landscape. Unlike in state policy, the market will respond, as prices and quantity will adjust accordingly to supply and demand.