Symbolic Politics

Economic analysts tend not to put much stock in symbols. Symbolic victories, almost by definition, cannot have an appreciable impact on the victor’s tangible wealth or chances of survival. Relatively humanistic social scientists, however, have long argued that the pursuit of symbolic gratification is an important feature of human life. Anyone inclined to dismiss this notion should ponder why Jews and others were so upset in 1985 when President Reagan announced plans to visit a cemetery where Nazi SS troopers were buried, why Vietnam War veterans cared a great deal about building a memorial in Washington, D.C., and why blacks expended scarce political capital to make the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a national holiday. The outcomes of these controversies seemed unlikely to affect the distribution or allocation of marketable resources, yet they nevertheless aroused great passion.

Joseph Gusfield, among others, has asserted that people may be interested in certain political outcomes because those outcomes will signal, in a psychologically important way, the relative status of various individuals within a society. A person’s sense of self-respect may turn in part on the respect authoritative institutional voices accord groups to which the person belongs. According to this view, battles over symbols are not simply preliminary skirmishes over more tangible political stakes, but are struggles over status rewards that are valued in and of themselves.

Some economists and public-choice theorists might dispute this last point. They might interpret symbolic struggles as tactical battles, best understood as parts of larger struggles over the material spoils of politics. This interpretation is often at least partially warranted. For example, an interest group might set up a battle over a symbol to obtain information about politicians or other interest groups. Symbolic victories may also change politically relevant perceptions, and thus bear material fruit at a later date. Visitors to a memorial for Vietnam War veterans, for example, might become more favorably disposed toward raising veterans’ pensions. Nevertheless, it appears that symbolic victories can themselves bestow utility. The simplest explanation for the Shasta County cattlemen’s opposition to a closed-range ordinance proposed for a rural area is that they regard a closure as a conspicuous kick in the teeth.

As Chapter 1 described, Shasta County has undergone rapid demographic and economic changes. The county population has increased ninefold over the past half century, and Redding is now big enough to meet the Census Bureau’s definition of a Metropolitan Statistical Area. All cattlemen, both traditionalist and modernist, understandably see this urbanization as a threat to their relative status – economic, political, and social – in the county. A petition to close the range in a rural area of Shasta County, even if the closure would not have any predictable instrumental consequences, thus symbolizes a struggle between a traditional agrarian order and an emerging urban rival. For Shasta County cattlemen, a closure campaign is in significant part a struggle over official recognition of who has what place in the sun.

The Instrumental Masking of a Symbolic Struggle

The cattlemen never refer to, or perhaps even consciously recognize, the symbolic overtones of closed-range battles. They instead invariably invoke instrumental arguments, such as the insurance argument, that are objectively dubious. Interest groups seem to prefer to frame issues in instrumental, as opposed to symbolic, terms. A lobbyist, if unable to invoke the “public interest,” will prefer to warn of threats to his clients’ material well-being rather than to their egos. Thus Larry Brennan’s petition against the Oak Run closure listed only instrumental reasons – that open range was needed to limit ranchers’ liability, control predators, and so on. Brennan’s petition made no mention of another pertinent reason: that rural stockmen opposed the closure because they saw it as belittling them.

Another example from beyond Shasta County will underscore this tendency of interest groups to put an instrumental veil over a symbolic battle. The struggle over the Equal Rights Amendment was largely cast in terms of instrumental consequences. Opponents of the ERA sometimes invoked the specter of co-ed bathrooms, a result no court would read the amendment to require. ERA proponents emphasized the ending of sex discrimination of sorts that the Supreme Court had already thrown into doubt through its interpretations of the equal protection clause. Both sides were reluctant to acknowledge that the battle was mainly over whose rhetoric about women’s roles would get symbolic blessing from governmental authorities.

Individuals seem predisposed to suppress acknowledging that a political battle is about status symbols. To confess that these symbols are important is to admit insecurity about one’s status. As a result, a person or a group of persons may develop and cling to “irrational” beliefs that provide a shield against having to confront their insecurities. Like members of any other social group, cattlemen do not want to see themselves as supplicants who need reassurance about their status from political actors. They understandably prefer to see themselves as rugged frontiersmen who, in the John Wayne tradition, are well beyond insult from politicians.


43. There is no reason for supposing that norms will evolve to serve the powerless. For example, cattle lack the innate power to control people, and legal and social systems confer scant power on cattle. As a result, human norms regarding cattle in Shasta County frequently are oblivious to the well-being of the cattle themselves. It is human welfare that human behavior tends to maximize.

ADDED 06/17/2010:
Whalers might rationally have risked overwhaling for another reason. Even though overwhaling may not have been welfare maximizing from a global perspective, the rapid depletion of whaling stocks may well have been in the interest of the club of whalers centered in southern New England. From their parochial perspective, grabbing as many of the world’s whales as quickly as possible was a plausibly welfare-maximizing strategy. These New Englanders might have feared entry into whaling by mariners based in the southern United States, Japan, or other ports that could prove to be beyond their control. Given this risk of hostile entry, New Englanders might have concluded that a quick kill was more advantageous for them than creating norms to stem the depletion of world whaling stocks. The whaling saga is thus a reminder that norms that enrich one group’s members may impoverish, to a greater extent, those outside the group.


For related reasons, close-knit groups are likely to have constitutive norms that forbid a member from being too explicit in identifying the instrumental value of social exchange within the group. When returning a dinner invitation, a host should leave unsaid any motivation to square accounts. A professor who responds to a colleague’s request for comments on a draft should not say, “Now you owe me one.” Fellow-feeling seems more likely to arise when members are seen to act out of friendship, not out of a need to scratch each other’s backs. Close friends have such a long future ahead of them that they need not worry about minor imbalances in the reciprocated favors between them. Therefore, a person who mentions that accounts have fallen a bit out of balance indicates either a lack of intimacy or some skepticism about future solidarity.