Bryan Caplan  

Is Voter Irrationality a Catch-22?

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If voters are as irrational as I say, isn't political reform a hopeless cause? Will Wilkinson and I discuss this (and many other issues) over at Bloggingheads. Think about it this way: To mitigate the damage of irrational majority rule, wouldn't you have to get the majority to admit that it's irrational in the first place? We seem to have a catch-22 - a majority irrational enough to favor protectionism will be too irrational to admit that majority rule leads to bad trade policy.

On reflection, though, the catch-22 argument overlooks some crucial facts. First, even I admit that there is some slack in the political system. Politicians and bureaucrats have to pay close attention to public opinion, but they can deviate a bit without instantly losing their jobs. Second, irrationality does not imply that persuasion is impossible. What irrationality implies is that facts and logic matter less than they should - and other stuff - like rhetoric - might make a difference. If emotion affects people's beliefs, then persuasion can work by changing how people feel.

Thus, voter irrationality does not imply that political reform is hopeless. It does suggest, however, that political reform is usually difficult. To sharply change policy, you have to change what people think. And that's notoriously hard to do.

Still, it's hard to see why my theory is particularly pessimistic about the prospects for political reform. After all, what semi-plausible theory of politics implies that changing the world is easy?


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Eric Falkenstein writes:

Thus you have the obligation to tell people their representatives should, in general, vote contrary to them on matter that address employment, regulation, or foreigners, because on those issues the masses are systematically biased. I don't see why experts should be able to contravene democratic preferences on these particular issues alone, that is, given these things we think are 'obvious', what other exceptions to public opinion should have this quality?

TGGP writes:

Mencius Moldbug expounds at length at his blog Unqualified Reservations on why your effort is doomed, doomed, DOOMED! It's a lot more entertaining than it sounds. I agree with him that the major transmitters of ideas are neither in any sense libertarian now or going to be in the within my lifetime (barring singularity radically extending my life) and the politicians are unlikely to use their slack in the ways you advise. Appealing to emotions won't work because their emotions are counter to the policies you advocate and it was reacting emotionally that made them (extra) stupid in the first place, so you are more likely to just encourage more stupidity rather than shift them toward where you want them to go.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

In the long term, it seems very obvious to me that the economy is improving in liberal democracies - productivity is improving, trade is increasing etc.

I agree with Ernest Gellner and Niklas Luhmann that a hallmark of modernization is that the economy is less and less controlled by politics (and religion).

I think this almost certainly implies that liberal democracy is good for the economy - so that overall and in the long term, voter irrationality is not an important constraint.

But this process is poorly understood. I would like Bryan to apply his analytic intelligence to understanding how democracy actually has supported improving aggregate economic policies over the long term (rather than him focusing on the flaws of voters when it to come to short-term expressed opinions on specific policies).

Mensarefugee writes:

The idea of giving every citizen the vote itself is irrational.

Gary Rogers writes:

Because people can be persuaded either logically or emotionally, emotional positions will not necessarily be logical. This leads to what any logical thinking person considers irrational but any emotionally convinced person considers unarguable. Each side is using a different criteria for determining their position. The problem is that irrational decisions are still irrational regardless of how appealing they may be emotionally.

Take global warming for example. It is being sold by pictures of glaciers melting into the sea, regression models based on past variables and questionable future predictability, and generic diagrams with arrows depicting heat reflecting off the CO2 in the atmosphere and back toward earth. The intended conclusion is that we have to do something now and it may already be too late. Yet, the same people that are warning us of the dangers of global warming are fighting the use of geothermal and wind generated electricity in California because it will result in unsightly power lines that would mar the scenic beauty of the desert. The same people have set our nuclear industry back 20 years, the only viable non-carbon producing solution available today. All this is done with emotional appeal on single issues without a real analysis of what it will take to accomplish the proposed goals. (Sorry about the rant. I am concerned about global warming but find the whole presentation totally illogical.)

I don't need to go on with other examples because this is what Brian covered in his book. The point is that the irrational concepts are sold on fear (global warming, terrorism, losing jobs to immigrants, etc.) humor (Leno, Letterrman, Michael Moore, etc.) or passion (just watch any television news broadcast). These emotional arguments lead to an immediate need to do something, which today translates into the government must do something.

The danger is institutionalizing the emotional over the logical as described by Douglass North. Few of our k-12 schools are teaching logical thinking and our universities have been teaching anticapitalism since the 1960s and it is showing. When was the last time you saw a business owner presented in movies or television as an upstanding citizen. More likely they were depicted as greedy, heartless and trying to exploit anyone they can. When was the last time you saw a news show that fairly presented the facts rather than a hit piece that asks "Why were we not told?" or "Why didn't somebody do something?" This way of thinking will take years to turn around and we risk making irrational decisions that could prevent it from ever changing.

The solution, of course, always comes back to education. We need education that teaches people to think. We need people taking responsibility for their own decisions so they learn the consequences of actions and the dangers of dealing on an emotional basis without thinking. Unfortunately, we may have started something that cannot be turned around.

Daublin writes:

The direction you lean scares me, Bryan, compared to a simpler one which I think you will also like. You suggest that economists should try and convince the masses that they are ignorant, and thus should simply trust the academics even when they say things that violate deep-held beliefs. However true this might be, and however beneficial it is to spread better economic understanding, I am terrified of a society that works like this.

A simpler and better answer is to convince people that great plans do not always work out. The history of communism provides endless examples of the joys of universal health care, universal food, worker protection, etc. etc. Instead of arguing for specific economic reforms, it seems more effective to argue against top-down rules in general.

The message: leave people alone, and we'll do just fine.

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