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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Why voting is bad for you

I'll never get round to reading "The Myth of the Rational Voter" by Bryan Caplan but if Louis Menand's review in The New Yorker is anything to by, I'd like the cut of its jib. Caplan reckons society would be better off if voting were left to the small proportion of the population who are capable of making rational choices about the kind of policies likely to make life better rather than just doing what most of us do: placing our crosses against the candidate who seems most consistent with our received opinions and hoping that life can somehow get back to being the way we believe it once was:
Caplan rejects the assumption that voters pay no attention to politics and have no real views. He thinks that voters do have views, and that they are, basically, prejudices. He calls these views “irrational,” because, once they are translated into policy, they make everyone worse off. People not only hold irrational views, he thinks; they
like their irrational views. In the language of economics, they have “demand for irrationality” curves: they will give up y amount of wealth in order to consume x amount of irrationality. Since voting carries no cost, people are free to be as irrational as they like. They can ignore the consequences, just as the herdsman can ignore the consequences of putting one more cow on the public pasture. “Voting is not a slight variation on shopping,” as Caplan puts it. “Shoppers have incentives to be rational. Voters do not.”


  1. I'm not sure it all smacks of Ayn Rand-lite. Who chooses this panel? Aren't some of the good things that democracy has produced irrational ie the BBC, the freedom of the press, the national health service, pop music. I'm with Winston on this
    “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried"

  2. The Kitchen Cynic11:43 am

    I really must get round to trying the New Yorker. Items from it appear on quite regularly and are always worth reading.

    Can you get it in the shops over here or would I have to take a punt on a subscription?

  3. the economist and you

    You gotta love economists (almost as much as you gotta love lawyers, politicians and caasino 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?

  4. Caplan actually quotes Ayn Rand on page 15. And it's not "lite".. it's quite heavy. Too bad the book is full of illogical and contradictory arguments, mangled terms, cultural prejudice, and a whole lot of other weaknesses. It’s also pretty scary when you really think about what he is arguing for. Like a lot of cloistered academics, he’s hermetically sealed inside his own thinking and theories, and totally unhinged from the real world... past and present. I won’t recap the whole list of objections here... but it’s on my site. (