Bryan Caplan  

Medians, Means, and Irrationality

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Commercial speech does not currently enjoy the same protection under the Bill of Rights as other forms of speech. Donald Wittman has an interesting argument in favor of the double standard:

The law of large numbers may explain the puzzle that the Bill of Rights protects free speech but not commercial advertising. False political advertising may fool a minority, yet it will have no harmful effect since votes for the minority will not be translated into political power. In contrast, a business does not have to persuade a majority of consumers, only a few, to have any sales. So the majority may want to protect a minority in the commercial area. (The Myth of Democratic Failure, pp.16-17)

For Wittman to be strictly correct, he needs the median voter to be totally unaffected by false political advertising. Brain-washing 40% of the population is fine as long as the remaining 60% hold firm. But that's a pretty unrealistic scenario. A weaker, but more plausible story that Wittman could tell is that false advertising hurts democracy less than markets because the median voter is harder to fool than the mean voter. He could even generalize, and say that democracy is better than markets because the median voter is more rational than the mean voter.

The main problem with this argument is that the empirics go the other way. Take my research on economic beliefs. There is a small minority of well-educated people with relatively sensible views on economics, and an extremely tiny minority of economists with highly sensible views. Then there's everybody else. The mean belief is more rational than the median belief, not the other way around as Wittman's argument requires.

If democracy chose economic policies based on mean preferences, the experts could at least pull up the average, much like Bill Gates pulls up the average American income. But that's not how it works. To win, a politician needs to please the median voter. It makes little difference if a few thousand economists think you a fool.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Deb McAdams writes:
For Wittman to be strictly correct, he needs the median voter to be totally unaffected by false political advertising. Brain-washing 40% of the population is fine as long as the remaining 60% hold firm. But that's a pretty unrealistic scenario.

Why is that scenario unrealistic?

Anyway what you're disproving is not what Whitman seems to be saying.

What Whitman is saying is that fooling a small number of voters has less impact than fooling a small number of consumers.

There is no reason to make any comparison at all between the mean and the median voter.

The only comparison is between the damage of a false statement that does not fool the median voter compared to the damage of a false statement that does not fool teh median consumer.

If the damage of the false statement to the consumer is greater, then Whitman's point stands.

Xellos writes:

Given the way elections have been trending lately, there's a large potential for harm from a small group being misled. We're seeing an increasing split along party-lines, with people who are just voting for the party regardless of the individual candidates, leaving a much smaller group of "swing voters" to persuade. Misleading or false ads targeting them seem to be a very viable election strategy for major-party candidates.

AK writes:

My view is that commercial speech should be held to a higher level of scrutiny because a) it is easier to discern fraud than to discern harmful speech of other types and b) fraud has no benefits while confused, erroneous or hateful speech can have its benefits.

Compare the difficulty of deciding which politicians' speech and the opinions held within are wrong and unreasonable with the difficulty of discerning whether a company's advertisement for a low price item is a fradulent attempt to draw in customers with items they do not have. I understand that bait-and-switch is illegal in California, and some of the ads I see have "limited quality" notifications for some items.

As for the second point, let's consider Fred Phelps. His behavior and speech are disgusting to me, but I see value in his revealing to the public beliefs that many other people hide away. I fail to see how people benefit from being defrauded in a commercial interaction. I admit this becomes much harder when you consider statements of beliefs or facts that have commercial motives such as Nike's "no sweatshops here!" statement that got them sued, but I'm afraid I don't see certain restrictions on advertisements intended to reduce fraud as that outrageous.

This does assume that the economists do indeed know what they're talking about, doesn't it? And that your evaluation of the situation is to be trusted?

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