Bryan Caplan  

Doubt the Vote

Climate Engineering... Is Elitism the Answer?...

I've written the lead essay for this month's Cato Unbound. I've got a habit of laughing at my own jokes. My favorite from the Cato Unbound essay:

As long as elites persist in unmerited deference to and flattery of the majority, containing the dangers of voter irrationality will be very hard. Someone has to tell the emperor when he is naked. He may not listen, but if no one speaks up, he will almost surely continue embarrassing himself and traumatizing spectators.

Tune in during the week to see replies by David Estlund, Ian Shapiro, and Loren Lomasky...

Comments and Sharing

TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL:
The author at qui tacet consentire videtur in a related article titled Leaning closer to authoritarianism? writes:
    The policy proposals of Bryan Caplan’s (of EconLog fame) new lead Cato Unbound piece to adjust for voter irrationality are practical to the point of being machiavellian, but they seem to be based on principles somewhat contrary to libertarian ide... [Tracked on November 6, 2006 9:46 PM]
COMMENTS (10 to date)
Ragerz writes:

I have no doubt that people are irrational to some degree. Indeed, I have even detected irrationality in Caplan himself. This is illustrated in the comment I made on Assymetrical Information concerning Caplan's irrational criticism of Rothbard (I have copied and pasted that criticism below this comment.)

Guess what, experts are irrational too. Are you going to tell me that everything that Brad DeLong rants about is motivated by rationality? Or that your own libertarian ideology is motivated by pure reason? I don't think so. Libertarian ideology is an irrational prejudice against correcting policy possibilities without examining them specifically. In general, ALL ideologies are irrational, with one exception: pragmatism. And that is only because pragmatism is really a kind of anti-ideology.

Yeah. So voters are irrational. So are consumers. Do you really think conspicious consumption is rational?? Guess who else is irrational. Byran Caplan. Indeed, as is demonstrated below, Caplan has been known to wrap his own preferences up and misidentify them as being "rational" while asserting that those he disagrees with have "irrational" preferences. It is like saying that my preference for vanilla ice cream is rational, but your preference for chocolate is irrational.

I know voters are irrational. But so is Caplan.

I am pro-immigrant, for reasons that have nothing to do with economics. However, I do not believe that one can make an "objectively correct" case for the economics of immigration. Immigration has costs and benefits, and the way one weighs the costs and benefits cannot be said to be rational. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that allowing more immigration benefits some citizens and harms other citizens. How does one "objectively" say that the harm to some citizens is outweighed to the benefits to others? For that matter, who is to say who we should count? Should the benefits to non-citizen immigrants be included in our calculus? I personally think those benefits should be included, which is why I am pro-immigration. However, I am not going to claim that my desire to put a non-zero weight on the benefits to immigrants of immigration is somehow "objective" or "rational."

With economic policies in general, we cannot say that there is a "rational" policy. Say I argue for redistribution, but then you mention deadweight loss. Who is to say what we should weigh more, the costs of the deadweight loss (decrease in conspicious consumption in some circumstances?) or the benefits of redistribution to someone who has access to inadequate resources? Then there is the weight we put on dynamic future effects. Is it wise to spend money on energy research? The bottom line is that we don't know ex ante. Kling's opposition to government subsidies for energy research is not any more "rational" than my support for such subsidies. What is the "right" level of government intervention to correct for "externalities." What preferences should we respect and aggregate in a cost-benefit analysis, and which should we disregard?

Ultimately, the point is two-fold. First, that Caplan is overestimating the number of decisions that can be resolved with reference to "rational" decision-making. All decisions assessing cost-benefits are going to be based on what you think is significant enough to weigh and how one goes about assigning weights to different costs and benefits. You cannot escape value judgments when doing so. Given a particular policy, it is perfectly rational for me to say that I do not think the costs of deadweight loss are as significant as the benefits from redistribution or the effects of the policy that causes the deadweight loss. It is perfectly rational for you to say the opposite. This is a matter of normative values.

Caplan has already proven he himself cannot be trusted to identify when others are making "rational" decisions or not when he criticized Rothbard's perfectly reasonable approach to politics in -->thisDon't just do something! Stand there!

Bryan Caplan diagnoses the logical fallacy in Rothbard's decision to ally himself with the radical left. It sweetly sums up a wide swathe of inadvisable human action:

Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, this must be done.
My Response:
I wonder if this is as much as a fallacy as Jane suggests. With every action in life, one has no choice but to make a choice with consequences. Doing nothing is a choice with consequences.

Should a squirrel, being faced with the prospect of being eaten by a predatory eagle stand perfectly still, or run in one of an infinite number of directions? The answer is not clear. A squirrel standing still may be easily caught when they otherwise would have escaped to safety. On the other hand, a squirrel who runs in one of an infinite number of directions may be caught BECAUSE his motion alerted the eagle to his position. Whatever the squirrel does, the squirrel is making a choice with consequences.

That Jane is a squirrel that would just "stand there" why Rothbard is a squirrel that would "run somewhere" tells us nothing about whose choice is superior. Perhaps the idea of "standing still" seems like a "free lunch" to Jane, like it is a safe choice when presented with uncertainty about correct courses of action. But that is an illusion, because "standing still" has consequences just as "doing something" has consequences. Perhaps the choice made by each is merely a matter of individual persononal inclination and temperment.

I should note that this idea that we MUST make choices with consequences holds even when there is the possibility of research in order to make better decisions. Information gathering is an activity likely to have diminishing marginal returns with respect to the increase in quality of our decisions and could even have a negative effect to the extent that excessive research may create excessive noise and also might overwhelm the weaker-minded among us emotionally. (A very rare exception to the idea of diminishing marginal returns to additional research would be when it results in a sudden revolutionary break-thru.)

All this is to say that there is an optimal amount of information gathering. We should not do too much (or too little) information gathering before making a decision concerning whether to "do something" or "stand there."

All I know for sure is that I am glad there are the Jane's in the world who freeze in the face of danger and the Rothbard's who act. Diversity in behavior helps ensure the survival of squirrels vis a vis birds of prey. One should remember that such diversity in behavior is beneficial when those with particular inclinations criticize another. Caplan has not demonstrated a logical fallacy, but rather merely a difference in personality and inclination.

Which is not to say that there is no theoretical optimal behavior for every situation, given a set goal. Only that since that optimal behavior is unknowable and thus we must resort to decision-making in a world of fog and uncertainty. In this situation, we are governed by instinct and inclination rather than principle or logic. Caplan would like to think that he is more than a frozen squirrel, that he lives his life in a fully "rational" manner. But, alas, neither he, nor Jane, nor anyone else has all the information that would allow them to fully live by logic rather than inclination.

But in matters of mere inclination, it hardly makes sense to criticize others. I may prefer vanilla and think those who prefer chocolate mad. But it doesn't make sense to say that my preference for vanilla is "rational" while someone else's preference for chocolate is a "logical fallacy" to be "diagnosed."

Carter writes:

Lee and Miller state, "it is clear that the consequences of immigration can be assessed only over very long horizons." Since even economists who favor immigration estimate its economic benefits to be small, it's entirely rational to reduce immigration now given the possibility of long term consequences which are greatly negative and which also may very well be irrevocable.

Observing the education achievement and voting habits of immigrants and their children, it's undeniable mass immigration serves to increase the general level of voter irrationality.

Besides an inability to think long term or look at anything other than economic models, elites who are insulated from its consequences are motivated to advocate for open borders because it feels better to do so, and it allows them to feel more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than the average person.

Alcibiades writes:

The pen is a mighty instrument indeed, especially in your hands, Bryan! Bravo on a nuanced take on this strange political sphere and it's seeming ignorant inhabitants! Looking forward to the book.

Ragerz writes:

Bah. The incoherence of my previous comment is due to its length. The blog software cut out the MIDDLE of the comment. Fascinating. Most programs cut out the end if you go over whatever the word limit is, but apparently not whatever software is used to run this blog.

Anyway, I apologize for the incoherence of my previous comment. It was purely due to technical difficulties.

[Note to Ragerz: Please email us at from your legitimate email address. Your ability to post future EconLog comments has been placed on hold. This is a courtesy warning.--Econlib Editor, 11/7/2006]

Ragerz writes:

Request to the administrator of this blog:

Please delete my first comment. It is incoherent due to the missing middle. I think it is a waste of your readers time, as noted by Alcibiades.

[Note to Ragerz: Please email us at from your legitimate email address. We cannot delete comments based on posted requests, lest people other than the original author ask for specific comments to be deleted. Your ability to post further EconLog comments is on temporary hold because we have been unable to contact you via email.--Econlib Editor, 11/7/2006
Addendum We await hearing from you via a functioning email address. Your comment privileges have been revoked. A functional email address is a requirement on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

asg writes:

Bryan -- the links in the footnotes didn't survive.

Enigma writes:

So let me get this straight: IQ and education matter a lot, for both individual productivity and the selection of good policy. Therefore, the appropriate immigration policy is an amnesty granting citizenship to millions of low-IQ uneducated immigrants who poll even worse on anti-market bias and all of the other pathologies Bryan condemns?

Why not 'brain drain' the world's best so that they can realize their potential under a good institutional framework that they will understand and support? The US could allow H1-B's to apply for residency and naturalization if they pay a large fee and excel on psychometric testing performed in English and eliminate the cap on their numbers, all while refusing to grant citizenship to illegals.

Will the average quality of policy improve if a larger visible racial underclass sees gringos, Jews, and Asians disproportionately occupying positions of wealth and power, or will you get a Brazilian/Venezuelana/etc situation where anticapitalists appeal to racial animus?

Bruce G Charlton writes:

Policy versus Democracy

BC seems to be discussing the public irrationality concerning policy. But that is not about democracy - it is about referendums.

Political democracy is about the popular vote as a mechanism for replacing one set of leaders with another. It might be about policy, but at the extreme, two parties competeing for power might have exactly the same policies, yet there may be a preference among voters for one set of people rather than another.

The proper question is whether the public make the right choice between what is on offer in elections - especially in elections where a lot is at stake.

I'm not sure of the answer, but my impression in the UK is that the elections usually get the right answer - much more often than chance. Much more often than experts, too.

I guess this could be tested empirically, at least is retrospective wisdom is allowed to be the arbiter of right/ wrong election decisions.

Phil writes:

One thing that might help is mandatory high-school courses in economics. My high school pretty much forced me to study Shakespeare four different times, but didn't bother to teach me anything about politics or economics. Obviously there's something wrong there. Like computer programming, economics has its own internal rise-from-first-principles logic, and would certainly appeal to the computer-nerd-dungeons-and-dragons set.

A curriculum that includes economics, statistics, and critical thinking would go far in advancing economic literacy among voters. And, of course, it's a lot more politically palatable than double votes for college graduates.

Monte writes:

In spite of the threat posed by an apathetic and uninformed electorate, representative government, like the free market, is self-correcting. Based on this premise, I subscribe to the notion that the collective intelligence of the people will always outperform a small group of experts, particularly where political economy is concerned. I’m therefore surprised that, as a free market theorist, Bryan would seek to interfere with this mechanism by confining our freedom to choose to those who, in his estimation, are better equipped to make decisions for us by virtue of a PhD.

“What more is necessary to make us a happy and prosperous people? A wise and frugal government…"shall leave [men]…free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement...” - T. Jefferson

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top