Bryan Caplan  

Ten Ideas Worth Thinking About

Popular Opinion... Privatization in India...

A couple years ago, someone asked me to write a list of ten interesting ideas. I just stumbled across it again today, and I still like what I wrote. If you like it too, you'll probably enjoy my book.

1. The myth of selfish voting. Contrary to popular clichés, individual's material interests rarely line up with their political views. There is only a slight tendency for Republicans to be richer than Democrats, and the patterns that we do observe largely reflect racial and gender gaps, not "class."

2. Unselfish voting versus charity. Since one vote is extremely unlikely to change the outcome of a major election, unselfish voting represents a tiny sacrifice. Voting to pay a million dollars in extra taxes - when the odds of deciding the election are one-in-a-million - is on par with giving a dollar to charity.

3. Feeling good versus getting results. To a large extent, unselfish voting is (subconsciously?) motivated by the wish to feel like a wonderful person, not to actually solve problems.

4. Silly beliefs feel good. People feel better about themselves when they relax normal intellectual standards and believe what "sounds good." It is hard to see, for example, how boycotting products made in "sweatshops" helps poor workers in the Third World, but it is more pleasant to embrace this confusion than critique it.

5. Silly beliefs don't balance out. In the realm of ideas, only rarely is an error balanced out by an equal and opposite error. Almost all countries scapegoat foreigners for their troubles; very few over-state their own responsibility for their own problems. People have been blaming unemployment on technological progress for centuries, evidence notwithstanding.

6. Selfish voters with realistic beliefs do little harm. At least the policies they support have to benefit someone.

7. Unselfish voters with silly beliefs do a lot of harm. Trying to "help people" before you understand their problems is usually worse than doing nothing at all.

8. Politicians are not in the business of education. No matter how silly voters' views are, few politicians can get ahead by candidly pointing out their shortcomings. To win, they have to take the electorate as it is, warts and all.

9. Politics is the realm of intellectual pollution. Everyone can be worse off if everyone emits toxic chemicals into the air. Similarly, everyone can be worse off if everyone expresses silly beliefs in the voting booth. In both cases, individuals focus on the private good of convenience or feeling good, ignoring the serious side effects on the public good of clean air or wise policy.

10. The less democracy decides, the smaller the danger of intellectual pollution. Outside of the voting booth, silly beliefs are largely inert. It is too hard to implement them on an individual level; even the staunchest protectionist buys foreign-made products all the time. Once silly beliefs are enshrined in policy, though, they often persist and stay popular in spite of the damage they inflict.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Martin Kelly writes:

Dr. Caplan,

"5. Silly beliefs don't balance out."

I couldn't agree you with you more, and await a post from you justifying global economic imbalances with great interest.

Nathan Smith writes:

Um, would it be appropriate to term this post "anti-democratic?" I don't mean that as a term of abuse in this case.

James writes:

Mr. Kelly,

Seing as you seem to be new here I hope you understand that I mean this only as constructive criticism, but at econlog the convention is that responses to the posts should actually have something to do with the posts themselves.

Curt Doolittle writes:

First, this is a wonderful list of ten things to think about. I am sure your book is exceptional and will certainly get to it this year.

Second, aren't the ten things are really sides of the same decahedron? Aren't all ten of these descriptions of problems with the democratic process only because with widespread voting there is no connection between a person's "silly beliefs" and his material actions in support of those beliefs? And furthermore, isn't such a connection an expression of the validity of his beliefs? Isn't the validity of a person's beliefs measured by his accumulation of property, and his merit in affecting the property of others, measured only by his own ability to do so? In other words, isn't the problem property rights?

It does not appear that voting and free speech are valuable if you protect people's property rights. Voting under Democracy, or "The Market For Silly Ideas" simply creates a form of common knowledge that specifically CIRCUMVENTS the creation of common knowledge that comes from respect for property rights. And, you are correct, in that policy creates mandatory rules that cannot now be corrected by the development of common knowledge based upon property rights. In effect, circumventing the corrective process of the market. This democratic process, in effect, creates a highly friction able economy, and manufactures ignorance in the population.

Voting is, as you illustrate, an opportunity to get an emotional return on silly ideas that would not be achievable through material action. It creates a bureaucracy that is the product of silly ideas, and that institutionalizes those silly ideas. It becomes the religious bureaucracy of the church of silly ideas. It's product is the emotional reward for Silly Ideas. It's fee for this service is, however, quite monetary. The only difference is that this church can compel non-believers to conform to that religion through physical and economic coercion.

The underlying debate among the population is largely over redistribution of wealth, the investment in supposedly "common goods" and the means of accomplishing those two halves of the same coin. Under the current system, that redistribution is vast, but invisible and therefore non-corrective, creates this highly friction able political economy we live in, and manufactures ignorance in the population, while wasting vast resources supporting a bureaucracy that consumes much of the redistribution in exchange for the sole purpose of reinforcing "silly ideas".

Just as an example of an alternative: If we were all required to redistribute 20% of our incomes to charity, or common investment programs, and voting was an auction where we each allocated our money to the accomplishment of such objectives, then perhaps that would be a better position for all of us to be in. This would create a market of sorts. And at least such redistribution of wealth would be governed by material outcomes that were alterable rather than "silly" ideas that are immutable.

However, there are, and always will be, people who want to live in a world of "silly ideas" because it actually requires discipline, hard work, and the delay of gratification, and the accumulation of knowledge of how to accomplish material benefits for others, in order to live in a world of "rational ideas". And given the choice, too many people would choose to avoid discipline, have an easier work life, have more immediate gratification, and think only of themselves.

Such "Silly Ideas" are surely acceptable as long as the force of policy is not used to take resources from someone else who has better judgment, and who would, given that opportunity, support more rational objectives. This is just the satisfaction of an individual preference. Why stop the Mother Theresa’s of the world? It’s just that one should not stop the Warren Buffet’s either by taxing them into submission.

Thirdly, I think the party delineation that you're using is really not helpful because it is distracting. As you state, political affiliation is largely cultural and demographic, and has been at least since Athens. And the democratic process only helps reinforce this cultural rather than material affinity that people feel. In reality, there are people on both sides who support redistribution of wealth or the use of government to coerce behavior. The issue is the degree of property rights protection, and the degree of distribution that each side wishes. The left wants to use government to force material distribution and eliminate social coercion in favor of production, and the right wants to use government to eliminate material distribution and enforce social coercion for in favor of production. This is simply a temporal axis that describes the periodicity of one's satisfaction. And most importantly, that the periodicity of that satisfaction can only be increased by knowledge. And the longer the periodicity, the more one must rely on common knowledge rather than personal experience. And therefore, the more important common knowledge becomes as the population and the complexity of production increases. Unfortunately, also, the larger the population, and the more complex the production they engage in, the longer it takes for “silly ideas” to manifest themselves upon the citizen’s economic competitiveness.

Fourth, as to preferences, it is useful to note that preferences for “silly ideas” are not apparent only in voting methods, but in every choice a person makes. The vast majority of choices that people make are not dictated by prices. They clear a set of preferences with every choice that they employ. Given that as the number of variations of any product or service decreases the variation between them, there are simply MORE SIMILAR choices the people must use “silly ideas” as the means of determining a preference for one thing or another. This means that “silly ideas” are dangerous to common knowledge, and to the means of production, in daily activities, just as much as they are in the voting booth. There are people who would say that as long as we profit from silly ideas then that is enough. Both parties are happy. But the means of production for any society, and therefore the economic status of it’s members, is governed by the common knowledge even more so than any other institution.

So perhaps the next set of items in your list should be how to at least change the tenor of the debate, so that the axis under consideration is one that would allow the evolution of that system through some other means than economic crash, and political revolution. The first of which we probably all see on the distant horizon, and the second of which none of us wants to see on that horizon even if we could.

Although Plato, Mises and Hayek have all said this already, that democracy does not work, because it results in tyranny (Plato) that it creates destructive common knowledge that allows the population to cooperate (Hayek) and it destroys the human mind's ability to calculate opportunity costs (Mises) it's clear that we need it said more often.


Oguz writes:
3. Feeling good versus getting results. To a large extent, unselfish voting is (subconsciously?) motivated by the wish to feel like a wonderful person, not to actually solve problems.

If the Bush camp was to take Puffy's idea and murder any shirker who stays at home on election day, you would probably see a lot more people at the ballot box... not because they were suddenly overcome by feelings of civic duty, or "good feelings", but because they wanted to live.. literally. This may be an extreme case, but people vote when it is in their best interest to do so; when there's something at stake for them.

Steve Sailer writes:

In the last two Presidential elections, voters largely expressed identity politics. Among whites, the most important source of identity is over "family values" questions -- do you identify with the family values team (the GOP) or with the sophisticates team (the Democrats). Bush's share of the vote was easily predictable in the last two elections by how affordable family formation was in each state.

Mark Horn writes:

I really like this list. And I agree that these aren't really 10 seperate ideas. They're more like lines in a syllogism, and line #10 is the conclusion.

So then what should I do about it? What *can* I do about it? If there's a market for silly ideas and a provider, it seems very unlikely that my protestations will have much effect. And I really don't like the idea of standing up and saying: "Everybody, you're missing it. This might feel good but it leads to destruction." Anyone can say that. The defenders of communism make their stands on similar grounds.

So, what to do?

Matt writes:

What if voters have no clue to what it is they're voting for? That would rule out anyone being selfish or unselfish. Then it wouldn't matter either which button they hit either, even if it does make them happier (down with happiness research!). Monkeys throwing darts... and this is worthy of analysis? Is GMU hiring?

Tom West writes:

I suspect that voters often have a very good idea of what they are voting for. It's simply that the elites on either side can't stand the non-optimal consequences.

I don't know how many times I've tried to persuade someone to be more efficient by changing certain behaviour until it finally became clear that it wasn't an inability to understand how to be more efficient, it was the fact that being more efficient made them less happy.

Likewise, Libertarians can slowly go nuts by observing people opting for a variety of policies that slow growth (even as the same people, if asked, will claim that growth is what they want). The (possibly sad) truth is that people are often happier with these inefficiencies.

We see this in the fact that many, if not most people on some level realize that they would be *unhappier* if they were twice as rich if a large class became five times as rich. Most people might try to disguise this preference, but it shows up time and time again in revealed preferences.

So, when people vote for policies that throw a monkey wrench in our economic growth engines, that's not necessarily a "silly idea". It might well be what they really want, even if we (and they themselves) don't want to admit it.

Curt Doolittle writes:

Tom --

a) People vote based upon their ignorance or knowledge. It may be a preference to be ignorant. It may be a preference to assume that one's position is best for others. But it is still just ignorance.

b) A preference for a position justified by ignorance is NOT damaging to the party that casts a vote, but because it becomes policy, it IS damaging to the person who wishes to otherwise.

Your argument simply justifies empowering the common man to steal from, interfere with, and otherwise use the force of government to deprive others of achieving their preferences.

The counter is not what you assume, which is that the other party's platform should win. It is that democracy does not work, deprives those with means and knowledge of satisfying their preferences, and that the marketplace would solve the problem of satisfaction better.

To cast this as "beliefs in optimums" is simply an error. It is not belief in optimums. It is simply the theft of money, potential, happiness and satisfaction.

So, yes, it is a silly idea. What your saying is that the ignorant can prevent the knowledgeable from achieving their prefernces in return for the satisfaction of justifying their ignorance. This only confirms Caplan's position.


Tom West writes:

Your argument simply justifies empowering the common man to steal from, interfere with, and otherwise use the force of government to deprive others of achieving their preferences.

Well, a believer in democracy might venture to claim that the inhabitants of a country might have the right to "steal from, interfere with, and otherwise use the force of government to deprive others of achieving their preferences."

After all, any government devoid of such powers is essentially unable to execute any policy whatsoever (including safe-guarding citizens as that tends to require taxes) and thus cannot be classified as a government in any real sense of the word.

In that sense, democracy, or indeed any form of government, is incompatible with market absolutism.

Of course, in reality, debates about market absolutism are about as useful as debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Market absolutism isn't going to happen any more than we'll see a real communist government.

So, given that a democracy essentially implies the right for common man to steal from, interfere with, and otherwise use the force of government to deprive others of achieving their preferences,
what we vote for is how *much* stealing, etc. the government should do.

My thesis here is that while many are defining "silly ideas" as ones where what people truly want is different from what they are voting for, I suggest that they may understand what they're getting, and want it despite our guesses as to what they should want.

James writes:


A position on the desirability of "market absolutism" is not about the same subject matter as, and can therefore never be inconsistent with any position regarding its likelihood.

Kent writes:

I suspect that voters often have a very good idea of what they are voting for.

Tom, there is seven decades of polling research contradicting your suspicion. Public choice economists have even coined the term "rational ignorance" to describe the tendency of voters not to bother to inform themselves, since the effort isn't commensurate with the very small influence they have on the outcome of the election.

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