Are voters idiots?

No, seriously. Hold off with the glib, partisan comebacks and think about it. It’s kind of important.

Cleaning up my desk, I glanced through a copy of The Economist and saw a "Lexington" column from June 14 headlined,  "Vote for me, dimwit."

It was about a book called The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University. An excerpt from the column:

The world is a complex place. Most people are inevitably ignorant about most things, which is why shows like “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” are funny. Politics is no exception. Only 15% of Americans know who Harry Reid (the Senate majority leader) is, for example. True, more than 90% can identify Arnold Schwarzenegger. But that has a lot to do with the governor of California’s previous job pretending to be a killer robot.

Many political scientists think this does not matter because of a phenomenon called the “miracle of aggregation” or, more poetically, the “wisdom of crowds”. If ignorant voters vote randomly, the candidate who wins a majority of well-informed voters will win. The principle yields good results in other fields. On “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, another quiz show, the answer most popular with the studio audience is correct 91% of the time. Financial markets, too, show how a huge number of guesses, aggregated, can value a stock or bond more accurately than any individual expert could. But Mr Caplan says that politics is different because ignorant voters do not vote randomly.

It turns out that Mr. Caplan is of a libertarian mindset — he thinks the answer to the problem that voters want stupid governmental policies is to leave less up to the government. This, of course, is ironic, since most libertarians believe individuals always act rationally, so their voting should be rational, but as you see above, Mr. Caplan says politics is different. (Now if more "the market is God" types would realize people don’t act as rational consumers with regard to health care, either, we might get somewhere as a nation with THAT problem.)

But as "Lexington" says about Mr. Caplan, he’s "better at diagnosis than prescription." So back to his diagnosis — do voters vote rationally? Judging by how many politicians who seem like smart people choose to act like dumb people to get elected, one might doubt it.

Or, to refute the Ibsen reference Karen McLeod brought up on another thread, is the majority always right? I give up. What does the audience think?

2 thoughts on “Are voters idiots?

  1. Doug Ross

    I can offer my experience when I ran for school board as a data point. My vote totals were highest in those precincts where I actually stood outside and greeted people as they went in to vote. I lost track of the number of people who came out from voting and told me they had voted for me even though they had no idea what my positions were related to the school board.
    I wouldn’t call the voters idiots. They are largely uninformed, easily swayed by simplistic political ads and signs, and have a tendency to vote either for incumbents because of name recognition or along strict party lines just because they assume an “R” or “D” next to a person’s name means something.
    We have a government that is infested with patronage, nepotism, pork, and waste because politicians and political parties know how to take advantage of the uninformed electorate. My solution?
    – Term limits: if it’s good enough for
    the President and Governor, why not for
    Senators and others?
    – Remove party affiliations from ballots
    – Unless it is related to national security, every single government meeting should be open to the public. This includes school boards that make all sorts of arrangements outside of the phony public board meetings that are held to give the appearance that public input is welcome.
    And, Brad, you continue to miss the key component of libertarianism: personal responsibility. You can be as stupid as you want to be right up to the point where your stupidity infringes on the health, safety, and well-being of another person.
    That includes stupid, excessive, wasteful government bureacracies that steal money out of my pocket.

  2. Karen McLeod

    As long as we tolerate a system in which marketing takes precedence over ideas, and mudslinging, much of which borders on slander, is more prevalent than gunslinging is in an old western movie, we’re going to have poor government. I would like to see negative campaigning strictly limited to objectively provable statements that are germaine to position the person is running for. I would like to see news articles that discuss each candidates stances and outlooks and clearly outline the candidates past activities. If there are areas where there are 2 or more sides that are viable, how about op ed pieces that detail each point of view, without engaging in ‘talk radio’ buffoonery. Maybe others can suggest other things to try. In years gone by (like before FDR) politicians for anything greater than local office had to make their views known in person, by speeches. The one best known who also presented the most popular positions got elected. And ‘best known’ involved good reputation built over years. It wasn’t perfect, but at least the voters were less likely to be attracted to a glittery ‘package’. We desperately need statesmen; we keep electing politicians.


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