Saturday, August 27, 2011

Irrational Voters

Here's an entertaining talk (part 1 of 6) from Bryan Caplan on "The Myth of the Rational Voter":

The overall point is troubling, but not unexpected: yes, it does actually make a difference how uninformed the public is about political matters. For instance, Caplan cites research showing that anti-market bias is markedly more prevalent among voters who are less informed about the facts. Those who count as "informed" here are of course not universally libertarian free market ideologues, but there are things on which people educated in certain areas can actually agree, regardless of ideology. (One comment I found interesting, but again not surprising, was that most economists are moderate Democrats, who believe in many free market policies in spite of their left-wing views.) As a result of the gap between informed and uninformed, many people support irrational policies (for instance on tariffs or what have you) even when they hurt us.

If you get to the end, you'll hear him start to talk about prescriptions. One idea is to have voters tested on basic knowledge before they vote. I understand why this is controversial, although I think people are a little too biased against this. Another idea is to "work on our communication skills"--for Caplan, this means that economists in particular should work on making basic economics presentable to the public. I grow weary of this idea. It's something we in the academy talk about endlessly, but we have very few concrete ideas about how to do it. Just as there are very few incentives for the average person to learn what experts know, so there are also very few incentives for academics to go out of their way to make key ideas popular.

In the long run, we absolutely do need ways to limit democracy. There is no question that if popular ideas are always allowed to become policy, democracy will ruin itself. In my opinion, this strengthens the argument for limited government. The argument goes like this:
  1. If people are to have government ruling over them, it ought to be by the people's consent. That is, it ought to be democratically chosen.
  2. If a society is going to be healthy, it must be protected at times from imposing its own irrational beliefs on itself.
  3. Therefore, a healthy society ought to have a democratically elected government which is limited in its powers.
If we reject point (1), we end up with authoritarianism. If we reject point (2), we end up with chaos. The average American believes very strongly in point (1), but many people are eager to reject point (2), which ironically leads to more and more coercive actions by government.

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