Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Are Voters Really Imbeciles?

Here is an essentially critical review of a book called The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, by conservative economist Bryan Caplan. Caplan contends that the majority of voters are economic ignoramuses who invariably vote for candidates who support foolish policies. Are we sometimes guided by something other than reason when it comes to economic policy? Maybe. A recent psychological experiment showed that the majority of subjects would pay a price to reduce the income of the rich even if their excess wealth was not redistributed elsewhere. The review interprets these results as evidence of an innate sense of fairness - but Caplan deplores any attack on wealth as "irrational". In fact, he sees any policy that taxes corporations, raises the minimum wage, or does anything to restrict globalization as similarly "irrational". Nonetheless, even among voters there are relative levels of irrationality. Better educated voters and those with higher incomes tend to be more rational, so we should welcome their participation at the polls. He all but suggests that the votes of business people and college graduates should be weighted more heavily than those of the masses, who think like children and have no idea what's good for them. If democracies obstruct, say, the dominance of free markets, then we would do well to suppress democracy and let the "invisible hand" guide us. To quote the review, "Given a choice between democracy without free markets or free markets without democracy, many conservatives would gladly choose the latter."

Caplan's position is hobbled by paradoxes. For one thing, if the masses are inherently irrational, how can we allow economists to dictate policy from above if the science of economics itself is founded on the notion that most people behave "rationally" within the marketplace? Are we really supposed to believe that the majority is consistently rational in venue, but not in another? The review also points out that Caplan's objection to having economic policy decided by the electorate "wouldn’t have made much sense 40 years ago." As the reviewer says, "The kinds of social democratic market interventions that Caplan holds in such low regard were prominent features of the post-war economies of the United States, Canada and Western Europe, which were some of the most productive and equitable in human history. Not only were the policies relatively effective, they were also largely popular with both the public and economists."

The most ridiculous paradox of all is that, for most of the last decade, voters have repeatedly elected candidates who actually have supported free markets, globalization, corporate tax breaks and the unbridled enrichment of business executives. None of this has benefited the masses who brought them into power - so perhaps Caplan is right. Voters are imbeciles - not because they don't know what's good for them, but because they have been hoodwinked into voting against their own interests by the very elite that Caplan applauds.

"Who’s Afraid of Democracy?" from In These Times

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