Is There a Tradeoff Between Policy Responsiveness and Government Effectiveness? Evidence From the American States

AuthorPatrick Flavin
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/1532673X221112632
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Article
American Politics Research
2023, Vol. 51(2) 174181
© The Author(s) 2022
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DOI: 10.1177/1532673X221112632
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Is There a Tradeoff Between Policy
Responsiveness and Government
Effectiveness? Evidence From the American
States
Patrick Flavin
1
Abstract
Citizens in a democracy expect elected ofcials will be responsive to their political opinions and govern in an effective way that
improves their quality of life. However, a government that is too responsive to public sentiments may, in practice, be unable to
govern effectively and promote societal well-being. This study is the rst attempt to date to empirically evaluate this important
potential tradeoff. Using newly developed measures of public opinion and public policy liberalism in the American states over
time and a diverse battery of societal outcomes as well as multiple estimation strategies and timeframes, I nd a weak and
directionally inconsistent statistical relationship between policy responsiveness and government effectiveness. These ndings
have signicant normative and theoretical implications because they suggest there is not a tradeoff between a government
responding to its citizensopinions and it governing effectively by promoting citizenswell-being.
Keywords
political representation, government performance, public opinion, public policy
Two fundamental expectations citizens have about demo-
cratic government is that elected ofcials will be responsive
to their political opinions and that they will govern in a way
that improves their quality of life. Accordingly, there are
large literatures in political science that investigate whether
(and under what conditions) public policy reects citizens
opinions (Page & Shapiro, 1983;Erikson et al., 1993;
Erikson et al., 2002;Lax & Phillips, 2012;Gilens & Page,
2014) and what institutional and cultural factors promote
good and effective governance (La Porta et al., 1999;Knack,
2002;Helliwell & Huang, 2008;Rothstein, 2011;
Fukuyama, 2013). Similarly, there are large literatures that
evaluate the practice of democratic accountability by ex-
amining whether citizens punish policymakers at election
time who support policies that are out of step with public
opinion (Canes-Wrone et al., 2002;Hutchings, 2003;
Ansolabehere & Jones, 2010;Rogers, 2017) or govern
ineffectively and preside over poor outcomes (Fiorina,
1981;Huber et al., 2012;Healy & Malhotra, 2013;
Achen & Bartels, 2016).
However, at least dating back to debates at the time of the
American Founding and subsequent Constitutional Con-
vention, there have been serious questions raised about
whether there is an inherent tradeoff between policy re-
sponsiveness and government effectiveness.
Indeed, one of the primary arguments posited by the
Federalists in support of indirect elections and longer terms in
ofce is that a government that is too close to the people and
too responsive to public sentiments may be unable to govern
effectively and avoid chaos. Put another way, a government
that is too responsive to public opinion may not be able to
effectively promote societal well-being and the common
good. Instead, as James Madison writes in Federalist 10,it
may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the
representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the
public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.
This question of a potential tradeoff remains relevant from
both a theoretical and empirical standpoint still today, as
elected ofcials who seek to cater to public opinion may
advocate for overspending or be unable to make difcult
political choices that could ultimately promote a more ef-
fective government and better outcomes. Moreover, this
potential tradeoff is of particular importance for new and
1
Political Science, Baylor University, Waco, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Patrick Flavin, Political Science, Baylor University, One Bear Place #97276,
Waco, TX 76798, USA.
Email: Patrick_J_Flavin@baylor.edu

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