Bryan Caplan  

How Egalitarianism Undermines the Study of Voter Competence

Jane Shrugged... I Wish I Wrote That...

The clever Arthur Lupia is launching a multi-pronged contrarian defense of the competence of the average voter. He's got a whole series of new papers (some co-authored) trying to debunk the broad consensus in political science that voters don't know which way is up:

In the last of these papers, Lupia and co-author Markus Prior report that if you administer tests of political knowledge to the general public, both financial payments for correct answers and extra time substantially increase average test scores. Thus:

Our findings imply that conventional knowledge measures confound respondents’ recall of political information and their motivation to engage the survey question. The measures also provide unreliable assessments of respondents’ abilities to access information that they have stored in places other than their immediately available memories. As a result, existing knowledge measures likely underestimate peoples’ capacities for informed decision making.

While I respect Lupia's intellect and energy, his whole project strikes me as deeply misguided. Yes, if voters were paid for correct answers, they would know more. But in the real world, they aren't paid. Tests without incentives mimic real world conditions; tests with incentives don't. Furthermore, the fact that giving voters extra test time raises scores is not too interesting; after all, voters have already had their whole lives to think about this stuff if they care to. Again, the "pop quiz" is a more credible measure of actual voter competence.

In any case, Lupia seems to ignore the most telling evidence of all: As Scott Althaus and others have shown, demographically similar people with different levels of political knowledge have systematically different policy preferences. (Here's the best survey of the whole literature). While Lupia keeps telling us that uninformed voters can use "proxies" to act as if they were informed, there is plenty of evidence that this is wishful thinking. Systematic disagreement between otherwise identical people with different levels of information is the norm, not the exception.

Lupia doesn't like the way that elitist professors use their own ideas as the benchmark of truth. He's got a point. But the right way to deal with this concern is not to hide behind philosophical relativism - as Lupia sometimes seems to advise. The right way to deal with this concern to raise specific, testable objections to elite opinion, and see if they hold water. For example, since critics accuse economists of being rich, tenured, right-wing hyenas, my analysis of systematically biased beliefs about economics controls for income, job security, ideology, and more.

For the record, these doubts turn out to be unimportant, leaving the elitist position looking better than ever.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:

Much then will depend on whether voting is closer to questions with incentives or questions without them. Rationally we would expect people to invest no time in voting because the individual reward is nil--but that may well not be so (we've already admitted that people, especially as voters, are not rational).

It would be easy enough to test which method is closer to real voting behavior. Ask people who they voted for, look at the positions of those candidates, and compare them to 1. the positions people give with incentives and 2. the positions people give without them.

Robert Speirs writes:

I don't think voting is without reward for the individual. He can legitimately wear the little "I voted!" sticker and feel part of a larger movement and disparage those who didn't vote. Lots of psychic stroking. But what voting doesn't do for the individual is allow him to influence who gets elected.

Steve Sailer writes:

Bryan, I agree with you in general, but you need to lose your main example of immigration. As we've seen here in discussions on your blog, you aren't well informed with facts about immigration at all, you're just armed with a few outdated, warmed-over theories you picked up from the late Julian Simon. So, pick some other issue like rent control or whatever.

Monte writes:
For the record, these doubts turn out to be unimportant, leaving the elitist position looking better than ever.

The elitist position fails to reason from what it sees. Voting may be cheap, but voting smart is costly. Therefore, voters find it entirely rational to remain uninformed on the issues. They understand that single votes do not measurably advance the public interest, and so are apathetic, not irrational.

Lupia/Prior have simply tested (and seemingly proved) the Theory of Compensating Differences in voting.

eric writes:

I get the sense this is like Malcom Gladwell's Blink hypothesis (that snap judgments are optimal, except when they are not). The masses are smart, except when they are not.

Arthur Lupia writes:


Perhaps we agree that a lot of people make decisions without gathering much information. They often look for quick ways to draw a conclusion about something and often process new information in ways that match their preconceptions.

If you read beyond the abstracts in the papers that you've listed, you'll see that what links them is not so much the conclusion that voters know which way is up (many do not). The link is that many people who write about incompetent voters don't know which way is up. For example, the "elitism" article states:

"In the elections upon which voter-competence writers focus most often, the fully informed voter is sheer fantasy. Indeed, for most large-scale elections there are two kinds of people: those who realize that they do not know all the relevant facts, and those who are deluded enough to think that they do."

There are things about poltics and economics that many voters do not know. This is common knowledge (and remains true even after you give people a small incentive to think a little harder when answering survey questions -- as in the paper with Prior). Many citizens realize this fact about themselves. The irony is that many voter-competence writers have very limited factual knowledge about how voters think, but write as if their own lack of information is irrelevant. They then proclaim that everyone should know a set of facts that they have deemed important.

Here is the actual conclusion of the "elitism" paper. The other papers have related themes.

"In everyday life, people base choices not on all of the information they encounter, but on a select subset of it. So even if we could convey “all the facts” to voters, they would have to process the information and, in the end, some of the facts would turn out to be irrelevant to their decisions. If it is costly to acquire information and if it requires effort to
process and remember it, then knowing everything is superfluous, at best.

What you need to know depends on what you have to do. Different citizens have different civic responsibilities. Those citizens who have greater civic ambitions should perhaps know more than those who want merely to vote. Societies do well to invest in their futures, and offering civic information to real and potential leaders is important. However, such business is too important to be the product of a narrow worldview. In a mass democracy, it is too important to be based on elitist assumptions.

It is also worth remembering that the more we demand of people, the less freedom they have, and freedom is among the most valuable products that democratic societies can produce. It is imperative, therefore, to join the emphasis on well-informed citizens with realistic evaluations of whether the sacrifices entailed by being well informed generate tangible benefits....

Unless competent performance requires that the task be performed in a particular way, society does not benefit from attempts to regulate how people approach the task. If one person achieves competence in ways that are foreign or unfamiliar to another, and if the unfamiliar way of performing the task does not hurt anyone else, then the person in question should be free to choose that way. She should not have to alter her practices because they do not fit an elitist worldview. Until critics can offer a transparent, credible, and replicable explanation of why a particular set of facts is necessary for a particular set of socially valuable outcomes, they should remain humble when assessing the competence of others."

FWIW, I have enjoyed the previous posts.

Ray Gardner writes:

William Blackstone made a then prescient remark that if the franchise were given to the average man that he would not necessarily do well by that privilege.

Some of the overall remark wouldn't apply to today's average citizen, but he also said that the plain man would be more susceptible to the skilled demagogue, and thus willing to cast his vote in whatever direction his current emotion demanded.

(I'll look up the actual quote for later)

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