How voter participation predicts adherence to social distancing

Sep 14, 2020

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A number of factors may contribute to how closely an individual adheres to social-distancing guidelines put forward by authorities, with local pandemic conditions, risk tolerance, and political partisanship among them. But John Barrios of Washington University, in research conducted with Chicago Booth’s Luigi Zingales, Northwestern’s Efraim Benmelech and Paola Sapienza, and Rice University’s Yael V. Hochberg, finds there’s another relevant factor: civic capital, a measure Barrios describes as having to do with trust in institutions. The research indicates that in US locations where civic capital is higher—as measured by voter participation—people’s response to the loosening of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions was muted, suggesting that some measure of compliance didn’t require the full force of law. Where civic capital is lower, on the other hand, the data show that people began shrugging off social-distancing mandates even before they were lifted.

Video Transcript

Follow-on work that I have on partisanship is thinking about civic capital. That’s not like trust in a politician. It’s not that I trust the politician. It’s that I trust the institutions. So it’s actually more about institutional trust in the system [than partisanship].

And having this trust, you would then think that by trusting the institutions, compliance with voluntary mandates from these institutions would be higher in areas with higher civic trust. We can compare places in Europe. We can compare counties in the US. We have survey data, but in the US, our measure of civic capital is voter participation rates for around five or six years of elections.

In areas where people actually go out and vote at a higher rate, this shows that there is some trust in the system, because we know from economics for the median voter that it only matters . . . that sometimes it seems irrational that people go out and vote.

But if you assume this intrinsic notion that you value this trust in society and you maintain the system by participating in it, civic capital, right? We know that civic capital leads to efficiencies in contracting because if we trust people, there is less likelihood that you default on lending.

So there is work that shows that this civic capital is associated with more efficient business, more compliance, and now we can say, well, we can have compliance in public health, where we have compliance in the sense that if you are in a high civic-capital area, you pay more attention to these voluntary measures, you practice more social distancing, even controlling for the political partisanship in the area, the risk factors, et cetera. We want to control for all of these other fundamental determinants of how much you socially distance.

And the interesting part there is that we can extend the time series and we can actually look all the way up until the end of April and May, almost now into June. As states start opening up, we are relying very much on compliance now. We don’t have any pharmaceutical cures for COVID-19. We don’t have a vaccine yet. So a lot of this opening up of the economy is going to be based on this voluntary compliance with social distancing: wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart. What we observe is that in these areas where you have high civic capital, even after the state mandates that you can now start interacting, we see a muted response.

So there is still a lot of social distancing, whereas areas that have low civic capital, there is no trust. They were already taking off. They were already going out before the state even implemented the opening up, right? That is consistent. If you don’t trust the system, you are like, “I haven’t worked. I need to go out. I can’t spend another month.”

Whereas, if you trust that the system is somewhat fair and is giving you accurate information, you maintain the social distancing even after because the notion is that what we don’t want is another peak. I think the nightmare becomes that we open up, and then all of a sudden in August, we’re back to this huge hump shape, right, another bimodal distribution, where you have another spike in cases and hospitalizations.

This notion of civic capital again has policy ramifications. To the extent that we can foster trust in the system—by the voters, by those . . . by the citizens—then it makes it easier for a government to implement policy because you can think of a policy maker as having two responses. I either rely on compliance. I say, “Hey, we should be doing XYZ.” Or I rely on the military. I need to go out and basically enforce it.

I think a lot of our society is based on this voluntary compliance, right? We don’t speed even though there are no cops around. Some people do, but the vast majority of us still go the speed limit even though there’s no policeman there. There is a threat of a policeman. That’s still there. There’s some enforcement. It’s not a corner, but we still do a lot of behaviors when nobody is looking, right? 

I think a lot of people have this notion that the real test of a society is that if I’m walking around and I think nobody is looking, I’m not going to go mug someone, right? I’m not going to go steal from someone because I have this trust in this society and these institutions and this social contract. We see that, right?

I think a lot of times we view the bleakness of how we’re divided, but we still see areas that have this civic capital, where people have this trust, and to the extent that we harness some of that is where we can get more of this compliance for some of these things that might have longer-term benefits.