Arnold Kling  

Bryan Gets Some Pushback

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Christopher Hayes writes,

the book eats its own tail. Caplan wants to grant a presumptive authority to the consensus view of economists, but the consensus view of economists is that voters are rational, which is, of course, precisely the position he wants to convince us is wrong.

I do think that the biggest weakness of Myth of the Rational Voter is that it overstates the case for looking at the consensus of academic economists. In my view, any "scientific consensus" is a scoundrel's refuge. If you want to argue that a particular point of view is correct, do so on the basis of the logic and evidence for that viewpoint, not on the basis of how many people with a particular credential hold that view.

Thanks to Mark Thoma for the pointer. Further on, Hayes says,

Caplan’s willingness to embrace the darkness, however, is what makes this book so important: It articulates in lurid detail the obscene id of Chicago-school, Grover-Norquist-style, free market fundamentalism (a term Caplan spends a chapter rebutting). Given a choice between democracy without free markets or free markets without democracy, many conservatives would gladly choose the latter. Hence Milton Friedman advising Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the Bush administration’s support of a coup in Venezuela.

This is a bit over the top. Would Hayes have preferred that Friedman advise Pinochet not to pursue market-oriented economic policies? I think that one could argue that not only did market-oriented economics help Chile's standard of living, it ultimately resulted in a transition to a more open political system.

Which gets me to a more general point. Democracy is not the same thing as a political system with individual rights and liberty. Democracy can mean populist authoritarian leadership. As Amy Chua points out in World on Fire, democracy can even support genocide.

Democracy is attractive not so much as an end in itself but as a means to check the power of rulers. All the democracy I want is the power of the people to vote rulers out of office.

Instead, some people want popular democracy, meaning that people get to vote on everything. But the implications of unlimited popular democracy are disturbing. It means that if people vote to abolish free speech, so be it. If they vote to criminalize minority religions, that is the majority will. If they vote for genocide, then that becomes state policy.

Supporters of popular democracy might respond by saying, "Come on, the people aren't that bad. Their instincts are basically good. You've gotta trust the people." That's the argument that Myth of the Rational Voter shoots down.

Where I think Bryan goes astray is in making it seem as though the solution is to increase the power of elites. But Government by elites is little better than popular democracy. Instead, the best idea is to limit the power of government.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (9 to date)
FC writes:
Would Hayes have preferred that Friedman advise Pinochet not to pursue market-oriented economic policies?

Since Hayes writes for In These Times, he probably would have.

John writes:

Bryan, I think you're selling yourself short on conceding a weakness. Economics says that people are consumers. But politics is all together different. I believe it was you who said that incorrect economic beliefs are easy to have since knowing better is of no real gain to the voter since his vote doesn't impact his as much as his personal economic decisions and purchases.

I think the paradox claim you concede is unnecessary. Think about it and tell me if I'm wrong.

Me writes:

[Comment deleted for providing false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment.--Econlib Ed.]

eric writes:

In the long run, won't states that create constitutions guaranteeing key liberties and property rights, whatever their provenance, dominate? Think of democracy as a "self interest", and liberty as a "growth maximization". Ultimately, motives are irrelevant. Liberty works because it is as if people are acting in their democratic self interest.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

BC seems to equate 'democracy' with majority rule, while I agree with AK that it is about changing governments by voting (instead of revolutions).

Elections can be single issue affairs, but usually they are about a choice of priorities and systems of government - not a collection of specific issues.

Indeed, I would take the angle that we already know that democracy works (on average over time), and try to undersand better _why_ it works; rather than trying to answer the already-answered question of whether democracy works.

Max writes:

The last time I checked, Democracy without free markets was an almost correct description of the DDR. So, the question is whether the DDR was worse or better than, f.e., the United Emirates and honestly, I'd rather live in Abu Dabi than in East-Berlin during the Honecker times...

Bruce G Charlton writes:

Talking of markets, rule of law and democracy as separately achievable is a red herring.

Sure, almost any system can survive for a few decades, but modernization can only continue in the long term if functional systems are autonomous, evolving, growing.

If just the economy is free, but there are no elections - then the political system will almost surely erode the markets in order to remain in power. What is to stop this? This is what will have to happen in China if its economic growth is not to run into the sand.

Sure, you can rely upon revolutions instead of elections to change the government when it becomes damagingly dysfunctional (as all governments invariably do) - but revolutions themselves inflict huge damage. Its hard to see how they are preferable to elections.

Modernization is multi-faceted. There is room for disagreement about which aspect should came first, but it is hard for things to go very far in any single domain (like the economy) without chnage and evolution in other domains (like politics, education, the military).

One neglected area is the mass media. All advanced modernizing societies have a thriving and autonomous mass media - and I suspect this serves a vital function in promoting social cohesion - especially among young men who can otherwise be so disruptive.

I wonder whether promoting a non political mass media might be helpful in kick-starting modernization in societies such as Iraq? If more young men there were spending more of their time being entertained and amused on the internet, this might have considerable benefits.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Max?, (not max of maxspeak I presume?)

You claim that the DDR was a democracy? Huh? This was about as democratic a regime as the current one in North Korea.

claudio writes:

You know what? The bad thing of living in Brazil is that you can buy the book in, but the transportation is so expensive that you guys will finish the interesting discussion before I can read one single page of the book.

Claudio Shikida

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