Thursday, July 05, 2007


More On "The Myth Of The Rational Voter"

Here, from The New Yorker, is a thoughtful review of Bryan Caplan's elitist excrescence, The Myth of The Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. It cites Caplan's main thesis, which is that most voters are ignorant of politics - and, especially, of economics - and obliviously vote into office candidates who vow to implement their pig-headed and ignorant views. Caplan suggests two possible solutions. One, that better educated citizens - particularly, one suspects, the holders of MBAs and bachelor's degrees in economics - should be given votes that carry more weight than, say, those of high school dropouts or former English majors. Two, that democracy should be disbanded altogether and all government policy should be mandated by an oligarchy of economists.

According to the article, Caplan is aware of, but discounts, the "Miracle of Aggregation" through which "a large number of people with partial information and varying degrees of intelligence and expertise will collectively reach better or more accurate results than a small number of like-minded, highly intelligent experts." Markets work this way, for example, as do - as The New Yorker notes - stock prices. Curiously, and somewhat hypocritically, Caplan believes that the "wisdom of crowds" is fine for the maintenance of "free markets", but will not do for politics - especially if the practice of democracy threatens the operation of those same "free markets". This is an interesting paradox. His explanation is that voters are not like consumers because they rarely vote out of self-interest, but out of a peculiar muddled altruism that inspires them to vote for what they think is right - but which, because it may not serve their interests directly, is not soundly rational. The article cites as an example the phenomenon of "the [conservative] auto worker who supports the elimination of the inheritance tax and the [liberal] Hollywood producer who votes [to keep it]..." Hence, it is not the reflexive selfishness of voters that renders democracy unworkable, but a pretension to high-mindedness that betrays their best instincts.

Caplan triumphantly asserts, with the heedless zeal of the emotionally tone-deaf wonk that he undoubtedly is, that free market competition lowers prices, ramps up productivity and rewards the public with an ever growing cornucopia of affordable products. Downsizing thousands of workers out of jobs they depended on for decades, closing down mom-and-pop shops across the land to make way for mega-stores and their red-smocked serfs, and paying CEOs hundreds of millions of dollars more a year than any human being could possibly need are, like greed, all good - because they support the free market's inexorable march towards the apotheosis of materialism. If material goods were all that mattered, maybe "econocracy" would be fine. But, as The New Yorker points out, democracy serves complex human needs that transcend rationality and materialism. "Negotiating the tension between 'rational' policy choices and 'irrational' preferences and anxieties - between the desirability of more productivity and the desire to preserve a way of life - is what democratic politics is all about. It is a messy negotiation. Having the franchise be universal makes it even messier. If all policy decisions were straightforward economic calculations, it might be simpler and better for everyone if only people who had a grasp of economics participated in the political process. But many policy decisions don't have an optimal answer. They involve values that are deeply contested: when life begins, whether liberty is more important than equality, how racial integration is best achieved..." and much else. Democracy is a human enterprise, not an economic one.

"Fractured Franchise" from The New Yorker

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