Bryan Caplan  

The Social Costs of Getting Out the Vote

Too Virtual to be True... Morning Reading on Political E...

John Stossel interviewed me today. (Here's his review of my book). If everything goes as planned, I'll play the foil to some get-out-the-vote activists on a forthcoming 20/20 segment.

I'll keep you posted on the airdate. But whatever happens, meeting Stossel and his team was great experience. I've long suspected that the best way to make libertarian ideas popular is to create several hundred clones of Mr. "Give Me a Break." Now I'm convinced.

The main focus of the interview: Should we encourage everyone to vote? My answer, of course, is no. The average voter's understanding of politics and policy is disappointing at best. But hard as it is to believe, the average voter is an above-average citizen. Voters are more educated and know more about economics, politics, science, and statistics than non-voters. So if you think that politicians are pandering to the lowest common denominator, think again. With 100% turnout, the denominator could and would get lower still.

One thing I forgot to mention to Stossel: Most of the fear of low turnout probably rests on the empirically discredited Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis. If voters were selfish, then groups with unusually low turnout would become the punching bags of democratic politics. Fortunately, for all their flaws, voters have a strong sense of fair play. They may have crazy beliefs about the consequences of their favorite policies, but they are usually trying to promote the general interest. The main route to better policies isn't equalizing (or maximizing!) turnount; it's raising the average competence of the people who show up.

If you're a normal American, you're likely to conclude that we just need more (or better) education. But if you're an economist, it's hard to ignore a much cheaper alternative: Encourage people who don't understand the issues to stay home. At minimum, we should stop trying to raise turnout, and stop trying to make the politically apathetic feel guilty about non-participation. Apathy may not be a virtue, but it's a lot better than the activism of the irrational.

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The author at All Three Rings in a related article titled What we know that just ain’t so writes:
    In a post on the social costs of getting out of the vote, Bryan Caplan writes: If you’re a normal American, you’re likely to conclude that we just need more (or better) education. But if you’re an economist, it’s hard to ignore ... [Tracked on July 21, 2008 11:45 PM]
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Sean writes:


You state - "So if you think that politicians are pandering to the lowest common denominator, think again. With 100% turnout, the denominator could and would get lower still."

I think with 100 % turnout - the denominator does not tend to get lower. It may actually be higher under a non-compulsory turnout.

I would assume in a non-compulsory turnout – the extremists are more inclined to vote in line with their beliefs, while the moderates (or non-politically inclined) tend not to participate. This leads to a situation where the agenda may be hijacked by the more extreme portion of the population as they are the ones more likely to be emotionally invested in voting and affecting the outcome.

I recently moved to Australia, which has compulsory voting from a country where voting was not compulsory and turnout was limited to around 55-60 %. What I have observed is that the mainstream political agenda tends to conform to the large ‘middle moderate’ portion of the population.

I think if compulsory population was revoked – the political agenda would become more extremist.

Obviously, my disputable underlying assumption is that an extremist political agenda is less optimum than a moderate one.


Glen writes:

While I'll agree that we need to raise the competency of our voters, most people will still vote in their own personal interest. More competent voters, the more voters would realize what policies are in their own personal interests that are not in the general welfare. The executive of many 'green' firms would continue to push for 'green' initiatives. The executive whose business is supporting regulatory compliance efforts would still push to broaden those regulations. The academic still will support those policies that are in his/her interest. The only thing you've done is give more people the ability to figure out how they can partake of the real welfare given out by our government.

Kurbla writes:

Encourage people who don't understand the issues to stay home.

Probable outcome is that those who are already more critical toward their knowledge accept your advice, especially if they are libertarians - and those who are not critical, especially if they incline to fascists position will ridicule this idea, just like any libertarian idea and vote passionately. Net result will be - worse quality of the voters.

Intelligent people do not make history, because they are in doubt.

Matt writes:

Voters without adequate knowledge might be voting less often because they are enlightened about their own ignorance.

I disagree with your cheer libertarian perspective, but you're on the side of the angels on this issue. Glad to see you getting some more deserved mileage out it. Unfortunately it may be a harder case to make with Obama or McCain in office. If every there as a perfect moment to make your case, it has been the past few years, after the 2004 election.

[Comment edited for inappropriate language.--Econlib Ed.]

Nathan Smith writes:

It may be true that people are trying to vote for the general interest. But isn't it also true that voters' appraisal of the general interest is biased by self-interest? Think about the stylized fact that in less-developed countries, governments subsidize manufacturing, where in developed countries, they subsidize farming. It fits with the Mancur Olson "Logic of Collective Action" idea that smaller groups are better able to organize, and "concentrated benefits and diffuse costs." Or again, think about how weirdly generous the government is to seniors, not a very needy group by and large but one with high voter turnout. And also how many indirect subsidies go to the middle class, e.g. housing loan assistance through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Again, doesn't it suggest that the median voter has inordinate power in the system?

It's not rational for someone to vote their self-interest. One vote has zero effect on the election outcome, so voters might as well give themselves brownie points in their own minds by doing what they think is the right thing. But, it's also not in voters' interest to think too critically about how their own life may put them in the wrong-- say, by driving a polluting car, or by living off handouts taken from the taxes of others less needy than themselves.

Les writes:

The hypothesis that voters are better-informed than non-voters seems to be demonstrably false. Just one look at the clowns elected to our Congress is enough to seriously question the competence of voters.

So I shudder to think that our politicians have been elected by the best-informed voters.

Kurbla writes:

But again, people are certainly not quite rational as voters, but they seem to be even less rational as consumers - 60% overweighted Americans seems to be strong suggestion.

So, if rationality is an argument, shouldn't it be actually an argument for regulation and against free market?

aaron writes:

I agree both with Bryan and Kurbla. Many voters are idiots, and it's better that the idiots stay home. But the real idiots don't know that they're idiots. It's actually the more logical and well educated people who will be skeptical of their understanding and stay home.

Scott Wentland writes:

You're right that Stossel-cloning would be a giant step toward popularizing libertarian ideas.

Stossel may be the most effective libertarian communicator to date, with a keen ability to communicate complex (and simple) libertarian ideas to the layman. While it may be straw manish, and even propaganda-like at times, he effectively knocks over straw men that libertarians struggle to knock down in the eyes of laymen. Winning over the masses has seldom been a libertarian strategy for change.

Gary Rogers writes:

I am less worried about those who do not know anything than those who know too much that is not true. (Paraphrased from Mark Twain) However, I think you are on the right track.

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