Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fenno's Phenomenon

As November congressional elections approach and analysts fill the airways, I am reminded of a phenomenon called Fenno's Paradox. It goes like this: why is it that voters are usually dissatisfied with congress but keep re-electing their representatives at high rates?

I first heard of Fenno's Paradox as an undergraduate taking an elective course on congressional power. The professor tried to tackle the paradox by looking at the advantages of incumbency, the role of money in elections, the irrationality of voters, etc. But I never understood why this is a paradox at all.

Consider the following situation. Say each voter wants all federal spending to go to his or her own state and votes for representatives who feel the same. Each representative fights to bring all spending to his or her state, and this results in a compromise that the money is split among the states. The voters in every state are furious at the end result, and they blame congress for wasting their money. But all appreciate their respective representatives' valiant efforts.

This may even be not so far from what really happens. I haven't studied this carefully, but most people seem to be against protectionism and special deals, except when these deals favor their own states. Representatives (without national ambitions) are only answerable to their own constituents, so they have incentive to keep pushing for these deals, and in the end everyone is disgusted with congress.

The problem is that whenever I mention this to political scientists, they aren't convinced but don't really tell me why. And clearly I'm not the first person who thought of this "resolution." Perhaps in the social sciences coming up with a non-paradoxical interpretation doesn't resolve a paradox, or a paradox may just mean a seemingly contradictory statement.

Admittedly, I haven't read the literature on this phenomenon, so am I missing something? Perhaps the real resolution to this paradox is that in the future I should stick to posting only on things I know anything about.


  1. Certainly, the last resolution to the paradox you propose, which is sticking to posting only on topics you know about, is not right. That defeats *the whole point* of blogging :)

  2. Damned if I do, damned if I don't -- I'm going to get myself into trouble sooner or later, won't I?