The fact that people are often willing to vote to ban items that they willingly buy in the supermarket is something of a paradox. In the case of eggs from caged hens, about 63% of Californians voted to ban eggs from cages, but the market share of caged eggs is only about 5-10%. I talked about this in my co-authored book on animal welfare with Bailey Norwood and I've written about it in published research in other contexts with Kate Brooks.
I've heard Glynn Tonsor at K-State refer to the effects of this sort of situation as an unfunded mandate, and I think that is an apt description. Voters mandate that farmers adopt a practice that they subsequently are unwilling to fund with their shopping behavior.
Yesterday, Modern Farmer ran a story on precisely this quandary. They interviewed Norwood about the issue and here is what he had to say:
“It is a real part of them, just like it’s real when you say you want to lose weight,” hypothesizes Norwood. “But then when you actually have to go to the gym or eat the smaller meals, you’re less likely to do it. We always fall short of our ideal self.”
Also, he says, humans are social animals, and in different settings, people act differently. At the store you’re thinking about getting what you need, saving money, acting as an individual. “In the voting booth, you’ve got your ethical hat on, thinking as a citizen,” says Norwood.
Bailey is describing what many have referred to as the citizen vs. consumer hypothesis. I definitely think that is part of what is going on.
When I present this "paradox" to academic audiences (or when I've heard others present it), it is very common for someone to conjecture that people vote this way to constrain their future selves. The argument is that consumers really want to buy cage free eggs but when they get in the store, they just can't commit to doing so. This sort of answer is conceptually plausible and it is partially (though not fully) consistent with Bailey's explanation. But, I don't find it likely. Here's why. People could constrain themselves in other ways but they don't. For example, they could shop only at grocery stores (like Whole Foods) that only carry cage free eggs. It is simply hard for me to imagine that paying an extra $1 to $2 for a dozen eggs is a result of a lack of willpower.
I seriously doubt that there is a single explanation for the "paradox." My favorite (unproven) hypothesis is simply that price is more salient in the store than the voting booth. People are more likely to vote for a ban because, unlike the grocery store, the costs aren't transparent, immediate, and direct.
Of course, there are many other competing hypotheses and I'm working now with Norwood and Tonsor and Brooks to try to understand the issue more fully. It's problems like this that make research fun!