Arnold Kling  

Elite Fools

An Elected Dictator?... Name This Book!...

Although I like Bryan Caplan's new book, I disagree with treating government as an elected dictator. Another aspect that troubles me is Caplan's brand of elitism.

It's not that I think that he should give average citizens more credit for wisdom. He correctly points out that people are subject to what he calls pessimistic bias (believing that economic trends are worse than they really are), anti-market bias (believing that markets are meaner than they really are), anti-foreign bias (believing that trade with people of different ethnic or national origin is more dangerous than it really is), and make-work bias (believing that jobs have to be "created" and worrying that they might become "lost.")

However, I think that Caplan gives too much credit to well-educated citizens. While educated Americans might score somewhat better on measures of knowledge of economics, educated Americans are still far from trustworthy as policy formulators. Our most highly educated citizens, ensconced in the academy, are stuck on 1968 in the worst way. This includes many Ph.D economists.

Just as Caplan's treatment of political power is too one-dimensional, his treatment of political wisdom is too one-dimensional as well. He caters to the view that more education implies greater wisdom, thereby catering to the vanity of professors who hold that their left-wing views should be a model for the rest of us.

As an aside, I found it somewhat annoying that the Caplan consistently illustrates irrational political beliefs using protectionism. Protectionism is based in part on anti-foreign bias, which is more pronounced among the uneducated than among the academic elite. However, the other biases--anti-market bias, pessimistic bias, and make-work bias--are nearly as prevalent inside the academy as out. The academy is a hotbed of folk Marxism. But by sticking to the protectionist example, Caplan allows his academic readers to preen and wallow in their illusions of superiority.

However, one of Caplan's elitist ideas intrigues me. At a couple of points, he suggests that "get-out-the-vote" efforts, which expand participation of uneducated voters, might be harmful. This is something to think about. We have expanded the franchise considerably over the past two hundred years. It seems to me that this expansion has been correlated with increases in government power--voting rights for women, who at the time tended to be less educated than men, seem to have clearly had this effect.

It might be the case that the academy has responded to democracy. That is, rather than continue to teach the virtues of markets and limited government, academics have responded to political reality by developing theories that conform more closely to popular prejudices. For example, one might see Keynesian theory as make-work bias dressed up as technical economics.

It could be that if we had kept a restricted franchise, then government would have stayed smaller. If government had stayed smaller, then perhaps academics would have been less focused on supporting government expansion.

As things stand today, I share Caplan's doubts about the wisdom of ordinary people. But in addition I have much bigger doubts about the wisdom of the educated elite.

Comments and Sharing

TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL:
The author at Muck and Mystery in a related article titled Rationally Ignorant writes:
    I read these Arnold Kling posts 1,2,3 about Bryan Caplan's work and forthcoming book. So here's my offer: If I use the title you suggest, I'll take you to lunch at Morton's (Tyson's Corner or Reston, your pick). I meant to develop and apply the ideas ... [Tracked on January 29, 2006 1:02 PM]
COMMENTS (13 to date)
Sam writes:

This study by Dennis Mueller is relevant. The abstract:

Considerable concern has been expressed in recent years about declines in voter participation rates in the United States and in several other major democratic countries. Some feel low participation rates introduce a "class bias" into the political process and thereby worsen the outcomes from it. Little empirical work exists, however, that measures the effects of lower participation on the welfare of a country. This paper begins to fill this void. It presents cross-national evidence that high levels of democratic participation are associated with more equal distributions of income. The paper's results also imply, however, that this reduction in income inequality comes at a cost. High participation rates are related to larger government sectors which in turn lead to slower economic growth. We also present evidence of the "capture" of government by upper income groups in Latin and Central American countries.

David Thomson writes:

I am reminded of the scene in The Remains of the Day where the Nazi sympathizer insults the butler for his modest education. This elitist snob is irritated that such citizens have the right to voter. After all, what does the house servant know about the intricacies of politics? Democracy is indeed awful. It’s simply better, As Winston Churchill pointed out, than all the rest. Bill Buckley famously said that he would rather be governed by the first hundred names in the phone book than the faculty of Harvard University. Is this best that we can do? Yup, I’m afraid so. Did somebody promise you a rose garden? Well, you should punch them in the nose for lying to you.

Daveg writes:

People don't understand what democracy is.

It's not whether the mob should rule, but how.

All it does is replace a violent mob rule with an orderly one. Is many cases, however, this is pretty good.

That said, we don't really live in a democracy here in america, as least for the important decisions.

If we did we would still have segregation, we would still have prayer is public schools, abortion (and maybe birth control) would be illegal in most states, and children here illegally would not be allowed to attend public schools.

When you think about it, we would look at lot more like the arab countries we currently look down on.

daveg writes:

Along that line, what do you econ types think of segragation and the banning therof?

For the most part, these were private companies that were simply electing to serve who they wanted to - freedom of association.

The heavy handed federal "government" came down and said such activity affected "interstate commerce" and banned it. This stretching of the interstate commerce clause was a fallout of the new deal rulings saying the feds could regulate all sorts of activity that was previously found outside the scope of interstate commerce.

Not a very libertarian action, no?

Matt McIntosh writes:

Personally I like this idea of making voting contingent on a simple math question:

If one million people are taxed $1 each, and the money is given to one of them, how much wealth has been created?

A. One million dollars;
B. Zero;
C. Are we counting transfer costs and malinvestment?

B or C, you get to pull the lever. If you answer A — well, thanks for playing.

eric writes:

The essence of Western Liberalism is the impartial judge and property rights, not referedums and plebiscites.

Randy writes:


Good game, but I think you've got to eliminate b as well. There is always a loss in a redistributive transaction if only the small amount of time value lost in moving the money from one person's wallet to another's. And of course if government is involved, then the redistributer will get a fat percentage.

george writes:


You actually have it backwards. Jim Crow laws were imposed by the southern state governments in the face of anti-Jim Crow lobying by southern corporations.

Rich southeners did not need Jim Crow laws to limit their interaction with blacks. They were against segregation because it would cost them money.

It was poor southeners who seized control of the state governments in the 1890s through various populist programmes who passed laws restricting the freedom of association, i.e. segregation.

Similarly in the northern states unions used collective bargaining to restrict northern businesses from exercising freedom of association and to restrict jobs to whites.

daveg writes:

You actually have it backwards. Jim Crow laws were imposed by the southern state governments in the face of anti-Jim Crow lobying by southern corporations.

These two points are not exclusive.

Establishments throughout the united states including restaurants and hotels volutarily forbid black from using their facilities. One can only assume they felt such restrictions were good for business, although they may have done this against their economic interest.

Now, the state certainly committed other acts, but that is a different topic.

CC writes:

It wasn't a scholarly work, but does any of the "Wisdom of Crowds" come into play here?

I'm one of the few people in my family to have a college degree, but most of my relatives are very smart. Collectively they have a lot of wisdom on just about every topic.

...of course no one of them is right about everything. But I think that goes for very smart people too. I think part of being human is being blind to our deepest flaws in mind and habit.

The idea of democracy is that the crowd balances our bad habits out.

daveg writes:

We should also add the obvious but often overlooked fact that we do not have a democracy, but rather a republic, and a highly structured republic, with designed in checks and balances, at that.

Robert writes:

When the U.S. had a restricted franchise, it also had far fewer people per representative. The Western States that first gave women the vote are hardly known as big-government bastions. But then, they haven't experienced population growth in the same degree as other parts of the country.

I submit that decreasing the degree of representation would do far more for improving the quality of democracy than restricting the franchise to some class. As things presently stand, the average citizen may hold bad ideas about policy, but has almost no incentive to acquire good ideas: there is no point in changing one's opinion when your opinion is irrelevant in the face of popular opinion. But if the opinions of individuals mattered, then they might have some incentive to hold good opinions.

Chris Bolts writes:

While I am a libertarian, daveg, I believe that the government was correct in enacting the Civil Rights Act. After the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education we saw a tendency for Whites to use local and state laws to circumvent the ruling and delay the speed at which they were supposed to integrate schools (no thanks to Earl Warren's "with all deliberate speed" vague wording). The Civil Rights simply made it illegal to discriminate and made it easier for discriminated individuals to sue. I think that if it weren't for the federal government getting involved the US wouldn't be as far along in race relations as it is today.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top