Friday, July 6, 2007

The Myth of the Rational Voter

Why should anyone bother to vote? The chance that one vote will change the outcome of an election is virtually nil, and going to the polls involves a significant cost in time and opportunity. Presidential elections, in which more than a hundred million people vote, never turn on a single ballot. The lesson of the 2000 Presidential election was not “Your vote can make the difference”; it was more like “If you’re taking the trouble to vote, at least fill in the ballot correctly.” Yet many people do bother to vote. We praise these people, and we encourage non-voting citizens to follow their example. We tend to feel that political participation is an unmixed good, a symptom of civic health and virtue.
Bryan Caplan, an economist who teaches at George Mason University, thinks that increasing voter participation is a bad thing. He thinks, in fact, that the present level of voter participation—about fifty per cent of the electorate votes in Presidential elections, a much lower percentage than in most democracies, as Americans are frequently reminded—is a bad thing. Caplan is the sort of economist (are there other sorts? there must be) who engages with the views of non-economists in the way a bulldozer would engage with a picket fence if a bulldozer could express glee. The cover illustration of his new book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics” (Princeton; $29.95), shows a flock of sheep. This is meant to symbolize the voting public. It looks like a flock of cloned sheep, too.
The average voter is not held in much esteem by economists and political scientists, and Caplan rehearses some of the reasons for this. The argument of his book, though, is that economists and political scientists have misunderstood the problem. They think that most voters are ignorant about political issues; Caplan thinks that most voters are wrong about the issues, which is a different matter, and that their wrong ideas lead to policies that make society as a whole worse off. We tend to assume that if the government enacts bad policies, it’s because the system isn’t working properly—and it isn’t working properly because voters are poorly informed, or they’re subject to demagoguery, or special interests thwart the public’s interest. Caplan thinks that these conditions are endemic to democracy. They are not distortions of the process; they are what you would expect to find in a system designed to serve the wishes of the people. “Democracy fails,” he says, “because it does what voters want.” It is sometimes said that the best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. Caplan thinks that the best cure is less democracy. He doesn’t quite say that the world ought to be run by economists, but he comes pretty close.(more by Louis Menand from The New Yorker

1 comment:

  1. You gotta love economists (almost as much as you gotta love lawyers, politicians and casino owners). They have full and complete faith in the ability of the individual human being to engage in his most responsible, self-benefiting behavior when he engages in the market (despite the few measley trillions of dollars spent in psychological/marketing studies designed to fool people into spending money in ways that do not serve their best self-interests) yet they have zero trust in the same small human unit when it comes to his knowing how to vote his self-interests.

    Wonderful human beings, these economists. Let’s put them in charge. (I’m joking of course, they already are in charge.)

    Update: Wow. I wrote the above when only about a third of the way through the linked-to article. Having a fascination with the science of economics though I continued reading the piece in the assumption that – though I might disagree with and dislike the beliefs and goals of the economists of the piece (the economist written about and the economic-minded fellow doing the writing) – I would probably learn something interesting nonetheless.

    Well, I’ve read further and the learning has yet to have taken place. What I have come across however are patronizingly disgusting biases disguised as honest reporting.

    Here for example, the article’s author offers a few theories he considers to be silly and naive as to why allowing everyone to vote might be something less than a tragedy. Among these naive theories that silly people might grasp at so as to rationalize the allowance of universal voting, the author offers...

    "Then, there is the theory that people vote the same way that they act in the marketplace: they pursue their self-interest. In the market, selfish behavior conduces to the general good, and the same should be true for elections."

    But of course that isn’t the case. In the market, you see, every guy who buys a fifty thousand dollar car because well-designed ads have convinced his subconscious that he needs this cars lest he be emasculated – is of course benefiting and serving his truest “self-interest” with this debt-inducing purchase. With regards to voting, by contrast, people might stupidly support policies that well respected Objectivists know to be contrary to Randian philosophy.

    And here’s the article’s offering of the “four main areas” where people have terribly “irrational” misunderstandings regarding economic policies that “differ from [those of] the economic expert”.

    "The average person, he says, has four biases about economics—four main areas in which he or she differs from the economic expert. The typical noneconomist does not understand or appreciate the way markets work (and thus favors regulation and is suspicious of the profit motive), dislikes foreigners (and thus tends to be protectionist), equates prosperity with employment rather than with production (and thus overvalues the preservation of existing jobs), and usually thinks that economic conditions are getting worse (and thus favors government intervention in the economy)."

    So in short, being suspicious of the profit motive is silly, being employed is less important than ensuring that good “productivity” is taking place and strawmen (xenophobia and alarmist fears as having anything to do with people’s interest in some protectionism and governmental intervention) are always fun.

    Then there’s some more mockery of people’s silly interest in survival (“people really believe that the country would be better off if profits were regulated, if foreign goods were taxed, and if companies were prevented from downsizing”), some school-mistressly scare-mongering of the silly little boys (“politicians who pander to these beliefs are more likely to be elected, and the special interests that lobby for protectionism and anticompetitive legislation are the beneficiaries—not the public. The result, over time, is a decline in the standard of living”) and the inevitable coup de grace of suggesting as reasonable that none but Economics Orthodoxists be allowed to vote in elections.

    But really now, why concern ourselves with matters such as these when somewhere in Wyoming there may be a crazy on the loose?