Russia’s Adoption Ban

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The Russian government has become increasingly hostile, lately, to America. Russia’s Federation Council and Russian President Vladimir Putin, recently, unanimously approved and signed into law (respectively) a bill banning adoptions of Russian children by American citizens.

The bill is obviously wrong. It’s detrimental to the already-strained US-Russia relationship; it’s painful for the American families deprived of adoptive children; most obviously of all, however, it’s piteously disastrous to the 120,000 Russian children who are now eligible for adoption. Historically, the United States has claimed the most of these (though only a relatively small 1,000 per year). (1)

Now, however, we leave aside the obvious demerits of the bill in favor of a purely political question: why did such a bill pass? I offer a few theories.

Ten years ago, the Russians didn’t care much about American adoptions. Why is modern-day Russia so anti-American? President Putin, I suggest, deliberately instills anti-American sentiment into the Russian populace precisely to energize his voter base and to generate constituent loyalty. In an analogous case, Karl Rove, acting as a (politically deft though morally questionable) strategist for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, placed gay marriage – at the time, an utter non-issue – on the ballot in southern states, with the sole intent of generating high emotions and high turnout. Gay marriage, which hadn’t even been a remote part of the public consciousness, suddenly became one, as outraged southern evangelicals turned out in droves. Bush won the election. Putin, analogously, constructs anti-Americanism as a rallying cause around which his base – primarily lower-class industrial workers – may coalesce. It works. Putin’s political engineering comes at the cost of Russian relations and Russian children.

A second explanation has to do with “expressive voting” (2), a theory which argues that people often vote not to enact a policy but to express a (perhaps nonexistent) desire that such a policy be enacted. In another American political analogy, Brennan (2) has argued that many Americans voted for the Iraq War not because they desired to go to war, but because they wished to express a desire to go to war (a desire which, at the time, was perhaps perceived as patriotic). More precisely, a prisoners’ dilemma results: though all would prefer both the desired policy outcome (no war) and the desired expressive outcome (vote for a war), an environment in which all feel this way inevitably leads to the undesired policy outcome (war). Such a phenomenon, I argue, may be evident both in the voting behavior of the members of Russia’s Federation Council (an upper house of parliament), and in the voting behavior of the citizens who elect these particular members. To begin with the latter: it’s plausible that Russians systematically elect representatives who are anti-American not because the voters are particularly anti-American, but because, for societal reasons or otherwise, they enjoy expressing a sentiment of anti-Americanism. (This expression could be directed towards friends and family or even towards the individuals themselves.) Furthermore, the representatives likely cultivate anti-Americanism because they know it’s expressively (even if not actually) popular. Finally, it’s possible that the representatives themselves vote for expressive reasons. Perhaps they too, subject to the same circumstances as their constituent voters, enjoy expressing sentiments which they don’t necessarily feel through their votes within parliament itself. All three of these possibilities might explain the passing of the bill; notably, none entail actual support on the part of the voters. It’s possible that the bill was passed despite being widely despised!

To unite the two theories: Putin has engineered anti-Americanism to galvanize his voters; this anti-American sentiment, in turn, creates an environment in which anti-American policies almost inevitably prosper for expressive reasons – even despite widespread lack of public support.

The problems of reelection-pandering and expressive voting are both subtopics within Public Choice Theory, a branch of Political Science which uses economic methodology in the analysis of political actors. These problems, of course, are countered only by a robustly designed constitution containing checks against political degeneracy. Russia has a long way to go.

  1. The New York Times’ article on the adoption ban
  2. Brennan and Lomasky’s monumental Public Choice text Democracy and Decision
  3. An excellent piece on the man behind the adoption bill and on Russia’s turbulent political past
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3 comments on “Russia’s Adoption Ban

  1. Josh says:

    You forgot about the most obvious reason the bill passed: Americans are truly unfit to raise Russian kids! Just kidding. Nice post.

  2. Richard says:

    Putin and his government may be rather vile, like most governments, but the adoption ban, in response to the US passing of the Magnitsky Act, has a cantankerousness to it which is somewhat understandable, I think. Though perhaps justified as it pertains to the individuals mentioned in the Magnitsky Act, the Magnitsky act itself sets a precedent for punishment of Russian officials deemed to be in violation of Human Rights by the US. This looks like an exercise in US exceptionalism however, as other countries, less powerful, are unable to effectively punish those US officials who are also violators of Human Rights. One can see how, like a game of chicken, expressive voting results in undesirable consequences for various parties. However we should ask why there is the desire to express anti-American sentiment among Russians, and thus why Putin would exploit this in his policy making. Answering that question could make us unsure of who, ultimately, is to blame for all of this.

    • Ben says:

      I agree that it’s difficult to pin down the root cause here.

      Putin has both cultural and political influence. I suspect that he’s using them in tandem. He uses his cultural influence to make anti-Americanism more widespread. He uses his political influence to spearhead political measures which stand to benefit from the expression of this very anti-Americanism. Feeding his political aims with his cultural clout, Putin ensures his own re-election.

      This doesn’t explain why Putin chose anti-Americanism in particular as his vehicle to political ascension. Two ingredients must be present for the general scheme I’ve described above to succeed: (1) The people must be especially liable to accepting some particular sentiment, and (2) Putin must be especially positioned to benefit from the success of political measures which represent the content of this sentiment. I suspect that Putin calculated that anti-Americanism was more likely to satisfy these two conditions than was any other political message available in his arsenal.

      The root cause, then, extends to those factors — whether cultural, or more general altogether — which made anti-Americanism so effective in satisfying these two conditions. This demands a study in Russian culture, in geopolitical trends, and in political theory. It would be an interesting one indeed.

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