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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? 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.

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. Caplan thinks that the best cure is less democracy. The political knowledge of the average voter has been tested repeatedly, and the scores are impressively low. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade and what the Food and Drug Administration does.

Nearly half do not know that states have two senators and three-quarters do not know the length of a Senate term. More than fifty per cent of Americans cannot name their congressman; forty per cent cannot name either of their senators. Even apart from ignorance of the basic facts, most people simply do not think politically. They cannot see, for example, that the opinion that taxes should be lower is incompatible with the opinion that there should be more government programs.

And, over time, individuals give different answers to the same questions about their political opinions. People simply do not spend much time learning about political issues or thinking through their own positions. They may have opinions—if asked whether they are in favor of capital punishment or free-trade agreements, most people will give an answer—but the opinions are not based on information or derived from a coherent political philosophy. They are largely attitudinal and ad hoc. For fifty years, it has been standard to explain voter ignorance in economic terms.

Caplan on the Myth of the Rational Voter - Econlib

I would not buy a car or a house without doing due diligence, because I pay a price if I make the wrong choice. But if I had voted for the candidate I did not prefer in every Presidential election since I began voting, it would have made no difference to me or to anyone else. It would have made no difference if I had not voted at all. It only means that I have no incentive to learn more about the candidates or the issues, because the price of my ignorance is essentially zero.

So I find more productive ways to spend my time. Political scientists have proposed various theories aimed at salvaging some dignity for the democratic process. One is that elections are decided by the ten per cent or so of the electorate who are informed and have coherent political views. In this theory, the votes of the uninformed cancel each other out, since their choices are effectively random: they are flipping a coin. So candidates pitch their appeals to the informed voters, who decide on the merits, and this makes the outcome of an election politically meaningful.

Shortcuts can take other forms as well: the comments of a co-worker or a relative with a reputation for political wisdom, or a news item or photograph John Kerry windsurfing that can be used to make a quick-and-dirty calculation about whether the candidate is someone you should support. People argue about how valid these shortcuts are as substitutes for fuller information, of course.


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There is also the theory of what Caplan calls the Miracle of Aggregation. Stock prices work this way, but so can many other things, such as determining the odds in sports gambling, guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar, and analyzing intelligence. 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.

Why democracies choose bad policies

It is in the interest of each herdsman to graze as many of his own cattle as he can, since the resource is free, but too many cattle will result in overgrazing and the destruction of the pasture. So the pursuit of individual self-interest leads to a loss for everyone. The subject Hardin was addressing was population growth: someone may be concerned about overpopulation but still decide to have another child, since the cost to the individual of adding one more person to the planet is much less than the benefit of having the child.

Caplan rejects the assumption that voters pay no attention to politics and have no real views. Economists are unusually favorable toward markets not because of their extreme right-wing perspective, but despite their mildly left-wing perspective.

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But it significantly increases the probability. Think of it this way: common sense advises us to trust the experts.

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

The sensible response is to reaffirm the common sense position. Indeed, after the strongest challengers fail, we should become more confident that economists are right and the public is wrong. There is no reason, then, to deny economists a normal level of deference in their field of expertise. But the profession also deserves an affirmative defense. Frankly, the strongest reason to accept its reliability is to flip through a basic economics text, then read the SAEE questions for yourself. I, too, doubt it on occasion. Time and again, it gravitates toward answers that are positively silly.

If that is too subjective for you, an impressive empirical regularity points in the same direction: education makes people think like economists. It is not merely members of one inbred discipline who diverge from mainstream opinion.

Myth of the Rational Voter

So do educated Americans in general, with the degree of divergence rising with the level of education. And the magnitude is substantial. Moving from the bottom of the educational ladder to the top has more than half of the enormous effect of an econ PhD. This pattern is all the more compelling because it has parallels in other fields.

Take political knowledge. Education substantially improves performance on objective tests about government structure, leaders, and current events. But it is more likely that educated people think more clearly and know more. With the most fundamental doubts about the economics profession out of the way, we are now ready to proceed.

What seems to be the problem? I first learned about farm price supports in the produce section of the grocery store. I was in kindergarten. My mother explained that price supports seemed to make fruits and vegetables more expensive, but assured me that this conclusion was simplistic. If the supports went away, so many farms would go out of business that prices would soon be higher than ever. If I had been more precocious, I would have asked a few questions.

Were there price support programs for the other groceries? Why not? As it happened, though, I accepted what she told me, and felt a lingering sense that price competition is bad for buyer and seller alike. This was one of my first memorable encounters with anti-market bias , a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of the market mechanism. The public has severe doubts about how much it can count on profit-seeking business to produce socially beneficial outcomes.

It focuses on the motives of business, and neglects the discipline imposed by competition. While economists admit that profit maximization plus market imperfections can yield bad results, non-economists tend to view successful greed as socially harmful per se. They are going to pass it, whatever the defense they may hear; the only success victorious defense can possibly produce is a change in the indictment. Anti-market bias is not a temporary, culturally specific aberration. It is a deeply rooted pattern of human thinking which has frustrated economists for generations.

There are too many variations on anti-market bias to list them all. Probably the most common is to equate market payments with transfers , ignoring their incentive properties. To take the classic case: People tend to see profits as a gift to rich. So unless you perversely pity the rich more than the poor, limiting profits seems like common sense.