More views on whether voters are idiots

Seems that folks over on this side of the pond are a bit slower than the Brits in perusing Mr. Caplan’s treatise on what idiots voters are.

And they are less charmed.

In today’s editions of both The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, we find somewhat bemused ponderings over what the reviewers seem to regard as Mr. Caplan’s earnest wish that the world be run by economists rather than voters.

Both give Mr. Caplan (The Economist and WSJ keep referring to him as "Mr.," but I wonder whether, in his world, he is known as "Dr."?) his due, as far as it goes. From The New Yorker:

The political knowledge of the average voter has been tested repeatedly, and the scores are impressively low. In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” and explain what the Bill of Rights is. 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. Voters’ notions of government spending are wildly distorted: the public believes that foreign aid consumes twenty-four per cent of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about one per cent.

But they are less kind about his conclusions, and The New Yorker is drily dismissive of his "solutions:"

He offers some suggestions for fixing the evils of universal democratic participation (though he does not spend much time elaborating on them, for reasons that may suggest themselves to you when you read them): require voters to pass a test for economic competence; give extra votes to people with greater economic literacy; reduce or eliminate efforts to increase voter turnout; require more economics courses in school, even if this means eliminating courses in other subjects, such as classics; teach people introductory economics without making the usual qualifications about the limits of market solutions. His general feeling is that if the country were run according to the beliefs of professional economists everyone would be better off. Short of that consummation, he favors whatever means are necessary to get everyone who votes to think like a professional economist. He wants to raise the price of voting.

I’m into civility and all that, but I did rather enjoy that parenthetical. The WSJ was, if less sarcastic, equally critical. It was cruel enough to throw some inconvenient facts at the author:

As an analysis of how far voters are out of step with settled economic thinking, Mr. Caplan’s argument seems irrefutable. Yet as a work of political theory it is pretty dismal. Survey data do indeed show that Americans hold some irrational views. But nowhere in "The Myth of the Rational Voter" does Mr. Caplan demonstrate that dumb voter bias triggers bad public policy.

Take free trade. Mr. Caplan reports that support for free trade hit bottom in 1977, when only 18% of Americans favored eliminating tariffs. Yet three years later, Ronald Reagan campaigned on a platform of free trade and proceeded to sign historic free-trade agreements with Canada and laid the groundwork for free trade with Mexico. Later administrations have fought to grant China most-favored nation trading status. True, there has been a lot of populist noise against free trade, but for decades not a single presidential nominee from either party has run for office while waving the protectionist flag.

Personally, I suspect the thing that keeps the country ticking is that, contrary to public whim, our Founders were bright enough to opt for a republic rather than a democracy. We’ve been pulling hard in the opposite direction for more than two centuries now, but occasionally elected officials still do the right thing. But on the rare occasions when I can’t escape hearing the partisan nonsense over the Controversy Of The Day on 24/7 TV "news," I wonder how much longer the vestiges of that can last.

3 thoughts on “More views on whether voters are idiots

  1. Tom Robinson

    A lot of analysis of how stupid voters supposedly are, and how they supposedly don’t understand economics, depends on various “simplifying” assumptions that economists tend to make, particularly if they’re trying to promote an agenda. One fact that voters understand, and that doctrinaire economists conveniently ignore, is that distribution matters.
    Voters understand what affects them, all right, they just don’t have the same view of it as economists do. To an economist, closing down a technical help desk in Iowa and opening up one in Bangalore is good if it improves net income by $1. To an economist, this economic change:
    200 people laid off in Iowa lose jobs paying $30,000 each, get new jobs paying $20,000 each, at a cost to them of $2 million.
    200 people hired in Bangalore, at $17,500, for a savings of $2.5 million. This increases Michael Dell’s income by $2.5 million.
    is evaluated as a net gain of $500,000, and therefore good for the economy.
    This is the sort of economic analysis you see all the time, only you don’t see it spelled out like this. You just see vague statements about how “free trade is good for everybody, because it increases total economic output.”
    You also don’t see worked into the analysis the fact that Bangalore-based phone support is almost uniformly horrible. You used to be able to get good phone support, now, the only way you get your problem solved is to sit arguing with some guy in Bangalore for half an hour until he admits that he can’t solve your problem and finally routes the call back to the U.S. Basically, a lot of the savings due to basing call centers in Bangalore are achieved by causing people to be so frustrated that they give up.
    Now, voters understand things like this. They understand that it’s not good for them to be laid off, even if it causes Michael Dell’s income to increase by more than the loss to them. They understand that being unable to get assistance with their computer is not good for them, again, even if this situation causes a gain for Michael Dell.
    Now, economists kind of gloss over these issues, choosing to focus instead on amalgamated net losses or net gains. The effect on individual workers of these “gains” in prosperity tends not to be important to doctrinaire economists, no doubt in part because their salaries are paid more by people like Michael Dell and less by individual workers.
    But the fact that voters focus on issues other than those that economists focus on, and see things differently than economists see them, doesn’t mean that the voters are stupid or irrational.

  2. Karen McLeod

    Maybe we should make the president the person who gets the fewest votes? Or how about a presidential lottery? Trial by ordeal–let God protect the one He likes the most? Right now it’s a popularity contest.

  3. killer b

    Brad Warthen– Since 90+% of academics have Ph.Ds, they never actually use the honorific Dr.
    You’d think that people who worked for 6 years at school would take their title seriously!

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