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Politicians' Social Welfare Criteria: An Experiment with German Legislators

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Sandro Ambuehl, Sebastian Blesse, Philipp Doerrenberg, Christoph Feldhaus, Axel Ockenfels

Munich: CESifo, 2023,
(CESifo Working Paper No. 10329)


Much economic analysis derives policy recommendations based on social welfare criteria intended to model the preferences of a policy maker. Yet, little is known about policy maker’s normative views in a way amenable to this use. In a behavioral experiment, we elicit German legislators’ social welfare criteria unconfounded by political economy constraints. When resolving preference conflicts across individuals, politicians place substantially more importance on least-favored than on most-favored alternatives, contrasting with both common aggregation mechanisms and the equal weighting inherent in utilitarianism and the Kaldor-Hicks criterion. When resolving preference conflicts within individuals, we find no support for the commonly used “long-run criterion” which insists that choices merit intervention only if the lure of immediacy may bias intertemporal choice. Politicians’ and the public’s social welfare criteria largely coincide.

Keywords: positive welfare economics, politicians, preference aggregation, paternalism
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