Bryan Caplan  

A Confession: What I Was Thinking the Morning of November 3, 2004

Thermostats or Muscles?... Adaptive Efficiency...

November 3, 2004 - that's the day the world learned that Bush had been re-elected. I'd like to confess my first reaction to the results. Are you ready for some ugly narcissism?

I hope so, because when I saw the headlines, I immediately thought: "This is going to be really good for my book." Why? Because I knew that the average citizen had just tremendously disappointed the intellectuals who would ordinarily be unsympathetic to complaints about the rationality of the average citizen.

In my view, the 2004 election is awfully weak evidence for voter irrationality. It's just one election, after all, and hindsight is 20/20. But I suspect that many of my readers see things differently.

So what do you think? Did Bush's re-election really have a big effect on the way that thoughtful Democrats view democracy? Comments by Democrats count extra!

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (26 to date)
Dain writes:

I would imagine a leftist might say that the people were duped by powerful monied interests. The power of the rich muddled the proper thinking of the masses.

talboito writes:

Amazing to see someone go to such a great effort to construct a strawman and then sit around waiting for it to talk back.

I guess, unlike yourself, I respect the humanity of my fellow citizens too much to claim I have some magical "rational plus" property that allows me special insight into how the Democratic Party best serves the interests of myself and my country.

Obviously I'm not going to be happy about losing an election, especially 2004, but the possibility of losing is the whole point. Otherwise, I guess we'll just have our council of genius-warrior-economist-poets decide if we are allowed to gay marry.

Also, you claim that 2004 wasn't a good example of voter irrationality. Do you, in your book, rate the rationality of each Presidential election? If so, in what environment did you calibrate your rationalometer? The mathlympics maybe?

Kimmitt writes:

The 2004 election really made clear to me how completely in the tank the US traditional media were -- that voters were responding reasonably rationally to tremendously sophisticated misinformation.

dearieme writes:

The Democrats are indeed the peole to ask. Their absurd choice of Kerry got W re-elected. Please don't misunderstand; I think W an utter dud, and Clinton before him too. But Kerry - words fail me.

Tom West writes:

I've finally figured out what creeps me out about Bryan's book and the push that it is being given.

There is, of course, only the slightest chance that the book ever has any serious influence over future events anywhere.

But if, by cosmic coincidence, it turns out to be truly influential, is there a single person here who thinks that it will be used for anything but a justification for the seizure of power by those that Bryan would find utterly reprehensible?

I am almost certain that, should this book shape future events, it will be because it gives economic and academic approval to a single fact: "People are not fit to rule themselves".

Of course, that's not what the book says at all. But then the relation between "Das Kapital" and Soviet communism is pretty minimal as well. (Indeed, no doubt Bryan would be removed first - you don't want the author around to contradict your interpretation...)

I don't mean anything bad for the Bryan, but I have to say: I hope this book fades into obscurity. It is one of those books that I cannot see having anything but a pernicious influence (if any at all) on future events, not for what it says, but for how it would be used. Anyone who could actually put the book's ideas to use positively would never touch consider them (tending to be members of the church of Democracy and all). For the less worthy, the one-line summary of the book is an economic and intellectual blessing for their lust for power that could only be dreamed of.

Luckily, the chance that the book has a real impact are small. But they are not zero.

Anon writes:

[comment deleted for supplying banned email address.--Econlib Ed.]

Arnold Kling writes:

My sense is that the way the Democrats resolve their cognitive dissonance is to declare the 2000 election illegitimate. I just heard Maxine Waters do that last night.

In the alternate history, Gore is the real President in 2004, so that Bush-Kerry never takes place.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

What I think was odd was how the Democrats chose Kerry over Dean, who in retrospect seems to have a more coherent and in-democratic line views on two big issues: Iraq and healthcare (most democrats favor a single payer approach). So why did they leave Dean so fast?

Scott Wentland writes:

People, read his book before you comment on it. It will serve you well in not looking the fool.

As for the election, I don't think it's good for the book. If you think about it in terms of a two horse race, then Americans chose the relatively more rational candidate (i.e. the one whose policies pander less to anti-market bias, pessimistic bias, make-work bias, and anti-foreign bias). It's an easy case to make that W's domestic policies "thought more like an economist" than Kerry in terms of those biases.

In an absolute sense, however, it seems that neither candidate “thought like an economist.” The book is only vindicated in the sense that the two candidates on an absolute scale pandered to the aforementioned biases. One candidate just did it to a lesser extent. Rational irrationality will help predict the candidates who are chosen in the primaries (i.e. it would predict the losses of the Ron Pauls), but not necessarily the general election.

Prof. Caplan, you should have felt that way at the time of the nominating conventions, not November 3.

SheetWise writes:

I knew that the average citizen had just tremendously disappointed the intellectuals who would ordinarily be unsympathetic to complaints about the rationality of the average citizen.

The irrationality of the voters was amazingly evident in the primary process. I would guess it's because most of the primaries are closed elections. Both candidates were irrational.

By the time we got to the Presidential election, the non-partisan and late primary electorate had a choice between two irrational choices.

How could you lose?

David Thomson writes:

I perceived George W. Bush as the lesser of evils. This is especially true regarding the defense of our nation. The Bill Clinton Democrats are long gone. Only the crazies remain. Voting for a Democratic Party candidate presidential candidate in 2008 will the same thing as voting for a socialist.

Matt writes:

The place to look is in the primaries. I honestly do not understand what goes through the minds of primary voters. Is it rational to think that just because New Hampshire picks someone as their choice for the nomination, that South Carolina, who picks a month later, should suffer? It seems that voters put the most emphasis on who other people pick, not on who they think is the best, and states are responding to that by moving their primaries up.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I guess 2004 did not change my view much. I am not sure how much of the problem is "irrationality" as opposed to ignorance, which are not so clearly distinguished in your book, Bryan. After all, it is rational not to be fully informed as we all know that information costs exist. The problem of how to optimize one's own bounding of one's own "rationality," that is ignorance, is itself ulitmately an unresolvable problem due to infinite regress (how much time should I spend contemplating how much time I should contemplate contemplating how much time I should gather information, etc.?).

But, I was not surprised that over 60% of those voting for Bush believed that Saddam was involved in 9/11. I would say that for those who believed this, it was not at all irrational to vote for Bush. The problem was their ignorance.

Likewise, we see massive ignorance regarding such matters as the composition of the federal budget. I think this percentage has fallen recently somewhat, but a few years ago, 45% of the population thought that the largest item in the federal budget was either "welfare" (for unmarried mothers) or "foreign aid." As those who are well informed know, both of these are essentially miniscule in the federal budget.

A real issue arises: where does all this ignorance come from? Certainly part of it comes from fears: (terrorists! unmarried black mothers! foreigners!), but certainly much of it is pushed by political interests.

So, regarding the Big Lie of the 2004 election, while the Bush administration did eventually officially admit one Friday afternoon (to be covered on about p. 23 of the next day's WaPo and nowhere in the Wash Times) that Saddam was not involved in 9/11, at the Republican Convention, Rudy Giuliani went right from glorifying the heroics of New York fireman on 9/11 to an all out defense of the Iraq war. Nobody there caveated that particular segue. No wonder the ignorant remained ignorant. What else is new?

TGGP writes:

Dain, I think in the 2004 election Kerry actually spent more than any candidate had done previously. George Soros played a big part. Personally, I find Levitt's section in Freakonomics on the effect of campaign financing convincing. People only give money to those likely to win. Ross Perot can spend as much as he wants, it's not going to help him.

Eric Crampton writes:

Barkley: I'd thought that Bryan did a pretty thorough job of distinguishing between rational ignorance (zero mean bias, high variance, but unbiased) and rational irrationality (preference over beliefs induces bias in mean estimate). How do you get biased average or median beliefs out of a model of rational ignorance? Careful to answer Wittman's critiques while you're at it...

SheetWise writes:

Barkley -

But, I was not surprised that over 60% of those voting for Bush believed that Saddam was involved in 9/11. I would say that for those who believed this, it was not at all irrational to vote for Bush. The problem was their ignorance.


Sounds like you've got some issues here. Why was the problem the ignorance of the side that won?

There's plenty of ignorance to go around. For example, 83.7% of the side that lost still believe in the tooth fairy.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Kerry may have spent more than any previous candidate, but he did not spend more than the candidate who defeated him.


Points well taken. Clearly the problem is more the irrational rationality, but there is no necessary reason why means coming out of rational ignorance will equal real means (I do not believe in rational expectations). I tend to agree with Mancur Olson about Wittman, just too many problems there in his "efficiency" arguments, big ones.


I produced a real stat. You come up with "tooth fairy." Is it possible you might be a bit less childish? Or maybe you still think Saddam had something to do with 9/11...

Barkley Rosser writes:


And while we are at it, is there some reason we are supposed to get especially concerned about funding by George Soros rather than funding by, say, Exxon Mobil or some private health insurance company?

TGGP writes:

Barkley, I guess I was wrong about Kerry outspending Bush. I thought I remembered reading that he had. I don't think we should be concerned at all about George Soros or anybody funding any political candidate. As I noted, like Levitt I don't think funding is that big a factor, I agree with Caplan that it is voters rather than "special interests" that are mostly responsible for the policies we have. I am also opposed to any and all campaign financing laws that try to discern whether the "wrong people" are having "improper" influence on the government.

For the record I didn't vote for Bush or Kerry because I don't vote, and didn't that case didn't particularly care who won, though I am glad that Congress and the Presidency are controlled by different parties now.

SheetWise writes:

Barkley -

I produced a real stat. You come up with "tooth fairy." Is it possible you might be a bit less childish?

You're challenging my stat? I will admit to rounding the nearest tenth.

Here's one for you --

Rasmussen Reports says that 35% of Democrats believe Bush knew about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in advance, and 26% are not sure.

That's 61% of the party that either believes or won't rule out that Bush was involved in 9/11.

And you think the problem is that over 60% of Republicans believe Saddam was involved? Saddam may have been involved -- I haven't heard the final story on Salmon Pak -- and I really don't expect to during a war.

I have my opinion of which position is more rational -- but my point is ... just what I said, there's enough ignorance to go around. If you only recognize ignorance in the people you disagree with -- your high estimation of your own intellect may get in the way of your ability to learn anything.

Barkley Rosser writes:


I agree that these views by Dems about Bush
9/11 are also drivel.

Regarding Salmon Pak, the final story on him
came in a long time ago. Go check it out.
The US military says it is a crock. He was
another put up job by the Chalabi-neocon crowd.

SheetWise writes:

Barkley Rosser --

I will consider your acknowledgment that 'drivel' is non-partisan brings our previous posts to a draw.

Now on to better things.

I hope you're aware that Salmon Pak is a place, not a person.

From your post -- one might think you've confused the name with Salman Rushdie or some other human form.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Yes, it was about two years ago that I looked
at all that Salmon Pak stuff. Forgot that it
was the location and not the officer who was
making claims about the location (forget his
name and not wasting my time to go check) who
was put forward by Chalabi with lots of bells
and whistles as part of the runup to the
invasion of Iraq.

So, for those not on top of this, the claim
by this defecting officer was that at Salmon
Pak in particular, and also a couple of other
locations, Saddam was training various terrorist
groups, some supposedly including al Qaeda
members. This claim was widely trumpeted
through various media and blogs, and periodically
gets cited by someone on a blog somewhere.
When I had this thrown at me about two years
ago by someone who was just brimming with
certainty and self-righteousness, I checked
it out.

Bottom line is that the US military checked
the whole thing out. There was training going
on at Salmon Pak, but it was by Saddam of his
own anti-terrorist squad. In case you did
not know, Sheetwise, Saddam viewed al-Zuwairi
as an enemy and had an APB out on him, contrary
to the continued mumblings issuing out of
the transexecutive-legislative office of the
Vice President. The officer making the claims
was just another part of the con job pulled
by Chalabi for the neocons.

SheetWise writes:

Barkley -

"So, for those not on top of this ..."
"Bottom line is that ..."
"... just another part of the con job ..."

As I said earlier, I don't believe I've heard the final story on WMD, Salmon Pak, or terrorist ties -- apparently you believe you know the whole truth.

What I find amusing is that you believe your position is the rational one. I think you honestly believe that you are unbiased.

If only the ignorant masses were able to see things as clearly as you can.

"In time of war, when truth is so precious, it must be attended by a bodyguard of lies."
-- Winston Churchill

Barkley Rosser writes:


This will be my last comment on this. If you
really believe that the Salman Pak case is not
resolved, then there are only two possible
explanations: either you have not checked the
matter out fully, or you are a hopeless case.

Look, one can argue that the case about WMD
is still not "finally resolved." Hey, after
all, they were shipped to Syria!!! Rather
than using them against the invading force,
Saddam shipped them there so he would not be
caught with them. After all, if he had been
caught with them, he might have gotten in
serious trouble!!! As it is, well, he got
in no trouble at all, since we did not find
them on him...

The case on Salman Pak is as much of a slam
dunk as the case on WMD. The US military
really checked this out very very thoroughly,
and keep in mind there were plenty of people
in the US military who really wanted to find
that Salman Pak was what you still think it
might have been. They were very definitive
in the end, after a long and detailed study.
It was not. Case closed. More Chalabi and
Cheney and Wolfowitz lies.

If in fact you have not really checked the
reports out, do so. I have. This one is over,
and if you want to push it further after
reading the reports, sorry, you will have no

SheetWise writes:

Barkley -

The first thing I want to say, is that I have not yet read Bryans book. There are seven or eight ahead of it -- but I will get there. OTOH -- I have read quite a bit about rational ignorance. I'm not sure how the two topics fit, but I have a sense that the cost of knowledge is a common thread.

If nothing else, I think our exchange has shown that "cost" can mean many things. As I ponder cost, it occurs to me that confirmation bias prompted by any number of reasons could introduce a high cost to ignorance. I have to think more about irrational ignorance.

Perhaps I need to move the book up my list.

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