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Randomized experiments by government institutions and American political development

Abstract

Are the methods of causal inference and, in particular, randomized controlled trials, compatible with the study of political history? While many important questions regarding political institutions and American political development cannot be answered with randomized controlled trials, scholars can and should be using the many instances of randomized experiments conducted by and within government institutions to further our understanding of institutions and political behavior. We argue that a surprising abundance of opportunities are available for scholars to utilize methods of random audits as natural experiments. Public and administrative officials have engaged in randomized interventions or audits to test for policy effects, to encourage compliance with the law, or to distribute government resources or personal risk to citizens fairly. With rare exceptions, such audits have not been leveraged by scholars interested in American political development or political history. Examples of randomized controlled trials conducted by agencies or institutions throughout US history are offered, and a historical random audit of members of the US Congress by the Federal Election Commission is highlighted. We conclude with limitations and advice on how to analyze the effects of randomized controlled trials conducted by governments. Scholars can use historical randomization to enhance causal inference and test theoretical implications, though deep knowledge of descriptive historical data and events are required to discover historical randomizations within political and legal institutions.

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Notes

  1. Other causal inference methods have been utilized, but we emphasize randomization in our discussion that follows. Examples of other approaches include matching across subjects to estimate the effects of legal changes (e.g., Gordon and Huber 2007; Jensenius 2017; Mattes and Vonnahme 2010); regression discontinuity designs (e.g., Lerman 2014); difference-in-differences with plausibly exogenous institutional changes (O’Brien and Rickne 2016); within-subjects reforms of electoral institutions (e.g., Baskaran and Lopes Da Fonseca 2016; Carson and Sievert 2015; Yoshinaka and Grose 2008); and marginal structural modeling (Torres 2019); and synthetic controls (e.g. Michalski and Wood 2017).

  2. There is evidence that the IRS engages in political targeting (Young, Reksulak, and Shughart 2001), which raises questions as to whether IRS audits are random.

  3. Personal communication with a former FEC Commissioner.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Joel Sievert, Jeff Jenkins, and the participants in the Causal Inference and American Political Development conference for feedback on this manuscript.

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Grose, C.R., Wood, A.K. Randomized experiments by government institutions and American political development. Public Choice 185, 401–413 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-019-00704-5

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Keywords

  • Audits
  • Political institutions
  • Political history
  • Randomized controlled trials
  • Federal Election Commission
  • Congress
  • Natural experiments