Bryan Caplan  

Watch the Platforms, Not the Winner

More on the Height of Bravery... MRV update...

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The well-educated have relatively reasonably beliefs about policy.

Puzzle: If you look at voting behavior, education does little to make people more Democratic or more Republican. So what difference does it make if people acquire more sensible views about policy, if it doesn't change their vote?

Rick Moran of the Wide Awakes raises a similar question. He maintains that the majority has made the right choice in virtually every post-war election:

And so far, the American electorate has done pretty well. In the nuclear age, when the choice of President could literally have meant life and death, the people have chosen like, well…college professors with advanced degrees out of the wazoo. A Truman as opposed to an isolationist Dewey. An Eisenhower twice as opposed to a cerebral and statist Stevenson. A Kennedy as opposed to a Nixon. (Picture Nixon during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Would a young Nixon have backed down so expertly?) Perhaps the Johnson-Goldwater race was more about a martyred President so chalk that one up to irrationality. But Nixon - putting aside his dark proclivities - in ‘68 was the answer to lawlessness in the streets and the Viet Nam quagmire while Humphrey promised more of the same - disaster.

Carter/Ford was a toss up - the people lost. Carter/Reagan was a no brainer. Ditto Reagan/Mondale. Ditto Dukakis/Bush. I would even say that Clinton circa 1992 was a better choice than a fatally damaged Bush who broke his promise not to raise taxes. And were the American people really going to elect Bob Dole President?

Though I'm less sanguine, perhaps Moran is right that the U.S. public almost always chooses the lesser of two evils. What I question is that we should be very interested in the differences between presidential candidates in the first place. In our competitive democracy, the candidates wind up being pretty similar in any case. The real problem of democracy is bipartisan agreement on foolish policies.

So how can more reasonable beliefs about policy sway political outcomes? The answer is surprisingly simple. When public opinion gets more reasonable, both parties adjust their positions to avoid giving the competition an edge. For example, the U.S. public is markedly less protectionist than it was in the '70's, leading both parties to become markedly less protectionist than they used to be. The identity of the winning party might make a marginal difference; but this difference is muted by the fact that politicians want to get behind whatever happens to be popular.

In short, if there were a major shock to economic literacy, it would have little effect on the name of the ruling party. The effect, instead, would be that incumbent and challenger alike would suddenly see the light.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
SheetWise writes:

In short, if there were a major shock to economic literacy, it would have little effect on the name of the ruling party. The effect, instead, would be that incumbent and challenger alike would suddenly see the light.

The best sentence I've read this month.

SheetWise writes:

Well -- it should have been one sentence ;)

RWP writes:

Can you say narrative fallacy and confirmation bias all over the place!!! Jeez. Just because those missiles didn't fly to Washington doesn't mean the actual personalities involved were the deciding factor. Unfortunately we cannot rerun history to find out if Nixon would have created Cuba Lagoon.

talboito writes:

What gloss do you suppose that person would have wrangled from the Stevenson, Dewey et al. presidencies if history had proven otherwise?

A completely useless historical analysis if I have ever seen one.

dearieme writes:

Quite, RWP. Would a sharp fellow like Nixon have induced the situation brought about by the cloth-headed, drugged-up Kennedy?

Daniel Lurker writes:

Maybe there is some aggregation going on in hard power IR issues, but not economic issues like trade or domestic policy that Bryan addresses in his book?

Alternatively, there might be systematic errors that yield good foreign policy in presidents. Humans are adapted to the evolutionary environment, and so the untrained public can intuitively gague how to pick someone good at conflict resolution with warring factions. Money and associated institutions are new. Admittedly, ICBM are very different from primitive weapons, but I'm arguing that it's plausable that the traits in presidents with effective foreign policy may have changed little.

Matt writes:

Eisenhower told Kennedy about Laos and the Ho Chi Minh trail. Kennedy didn't do anything. If Nixon takes office, maybe the North can't get into the South, and there'd be no Vietnam War.

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