Bryan Caplan  

Samuelson: Blame the People

Channeling de Soto in Iraq... More on Fundamentalist Divorce...

Robert Samuelson launches a pointed attack against the good sense of the American people:

The Catch-22 of American democracy is this: A government that mirrors public opinion offends public opinion by failing to do what it promises. People then conclude that the system has "failed."

Is it too much to hope that next April he'll be reviewing The Myth of the Rational Voter?

Hat tip to Robin Hanson.

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COMMENTS (1 to date)
Ragerz writes:

Contrary to Samuelson, I think it is likely that a Democratic Congress will result in at least one large change, and that is with respect to immigration.

The Senate's more open immigration bill, favored by the President, was blocked by a more conservative House. When Democrats take over the House, regardless of the outcome concerning the Senate, a more open immigration policy, as favored by the President, will become possible.

Overall, I think the article is interesting and well-written. However, it does have some problems. For one, it underestimates the power of special interests. Money does rule in Washington. Does anyone think that "public opinion" was clamoring for a bankruptcy bill that makes life harder for failed entrepreneurs that Congress passed on behalf of credit card companies? Was "public opinion" in favor of stifling new technology, and making legal fair use more technically difficult, as Congress did when it passed the DMCA? Does anyone think that it was public opinion that catalyzed Congress to consider ending net neutrality? Would you feel safer having public opinion on your side, or the deep pockets of Google, if you were a net neutrality advocate? Then think about what Congress does not do despite public opinion. If you poll or ask individuals, they are in favor of stopping special interests from providing lavish perks to members of Congress. For example, "educational" trips to exotic locations paid for by Jack Abramoff. But even after that scandal, the Republican Congress did not pass ethics reform. If public opinion had more influence, ethics reform would be a reality.

This is not to say that public opinion does not matter at all. Only that it matters less than is assumed by the Washington Post article. Special interests and big money do have enormous influence vis a vis public opinion, and I could pull many more examples of that sort of thing out of my hat. Four examples will do for now.

The bums really are those in Washington. Which does not mean that Samuelson doesn't have a point. The average voter wants it all. Low taxes (on him, its okay to tax the other guy), but not cuts in specific programs, like education. There is this general idea that government is mostly inefficient and wastes money, but few understand exactly how it is inefficient, nor do they understand the strategies that can be used to improve government.

These sorts of problems are why we live in a representative democracy. People understand their interests much better than they understand the details of particular policies. The public knows that the current Congress is corrupt. They know it has failed to pass ethics reform. The public knows that the current Congress is too heavily influences by special interests and lobbyists, who lead Congress to defy public opinion. The public knows that under this Congress, deficits have risen from a balanced budget situation. Overall, the public recognizes that this Congress is not serving its interests. Which is why the current House leadership (maybe the current Senate leadership) is going to be voted out in this next election. So much for perpetuating incumbancy power through GOTV efforts and redistricting, what the People think be damned. Democracy still works, sort of.

Which is not to say that the next Congress will be perfect. But one hopes that it will be better.

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