Arnold Kling  

Who Likes Democracy?

Morning Commentary... Market Failure or Market Succe...

Alex Tabarrok finds a screed by Bill Maher on the ignorance of voters.

People bitch and moan about taxes and spending, but they have no idea what their government spends money on. The average voter thinks foreign aid consumes 24% of our federal budget. It's actually less than 1%

Alex describes Maher as "unleasing his inner Bryan Caplan," but Caplan's point is a bit more subtle. If you listen to this talk by Bryan, you will hear that he thinks of voter ignorance as a form of pollution. It costs an individual nothing to be ill-informed or irrational as a voter, so each voter heedlessly throws his irrationality into the common pool, so to speak.

Anyway, my point is that not many people like democracy. Progressives like to think that they use "the people" to fight special interests, but what progressives really want is government by elite technocrats, like the Fed or the IMAC (a proposed independent commission to set health care policy). Recently on this blog, I have argued that libertarians should favor exit rather than voice as a check on government.

If the P's and the L's don't really want democracy, then who does? At this point, the C's probably are more in favor of democracy than anyone else. We've had democracy for a long time, so keeping democracy is the conservative position.

Again, I am somewhere between an L and a C.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Joe Marier writes:

The trouble with libertarianism is that they flirt with subsidiarity but never quite give in to it. Perhaps because they put a stringent individualism over even voluntary association? Which is actually not irrational, because voluntary association is often not as "voluntary" as you might think.

Paul Zrimsek writes:

C's are also likely to believe that there's a good deal of acquired wisdom encoded in the political conclusions of the majority, despite their often incorrect premises.

David writes:

Bill Maher has contempt for people, and thinks they need enlightened experts to lead them for their own good; Bryan has respect for people and gives them credit for rational ignorance and the ability to discern what knowledge is important to their daily lives. Going back to the exerpt of the post on MR, do you think Bill Maher can explain why everyone's daily empirical experience of watching the sun rise and set is contradicted by physics? Did he even take/pass elementary high school physics?

Max writes:


Of course they are not always "100 % voluntary", especially when the alternative means starvation or other punishments. I always tend to describe this problem as a tribe and minority problem. You have a gated (or relatively gated when we speak about countries) community, where a set of values is more or less prevalent and accepted by the majority. However, a minority of one doesn't share this values. It will be very hard for him to survive in this community, because he has no means to exit the community or rather the voluntary choice would eliminate his participation and probably him trading with the members of the community. So, each "voluntary" deal he strikes is probably forced on him by indirect means.

So, yeah, the libertarian is even critcal of this association to a certain degree, though he often is powerless, because no direct conflict is engaged. Ironically, this is mostly true for so-called anarchists who despise authority, but often seem to substitute it by such communities...

By all means this argument is not exhausted here, it is not even in an equilibrium, because I don't have the time right now to dig deeper.

In the end I don't see so much difference between communities and states, except that state rules are written down, while community rules are by association...

mark writes:

Democratic elections are the only proven way to effect regime change without violence. Absent democratic change, you have either one party stasis and usually corruption, or violent regime change. Although democracy is not value maximizing in itself, it is better than the tested alternatives. Theoretically there are alternate mechanisms but they appear unwieldy at present or require implausible optimism about human conduct when handed the reins of power. Also, the myth of democracy, like religion, whatever the actual truth, tends to inspire more positive conduct by the elite than the other methods.

8 writes:

Have you ever read "Liberty or Equality", by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn?

From the intro:
This catastrophic lack of comprehension of the rather opaque world east of Calais, aggravated by confusion about technical terms, is largely responsible for the grave disappointments America—and Britain also—have suffered after each major war won for their ideals. Each triumph for "democracy" has ended, on the Continent, with a frightening set-back for the cause of liberty. The years 1917, 1918, 1922, 1933, 1938 were a chain of defeats for the cause of freedom. The Second World War resulted in military victory and political

Dan Weber writes:

Lots of people like democracy because lots of people imagine they will be in charge.

Men (as compared to women) tend to be more risk-accepting. Give 4 men $5 each to solve a series of puzzles, all in the presence of each other so they can all gauge each other's skills. Then ask them if they are willing to trade a $5 each for a $20-winner-takes-all, and the majority of men will go for it, even those who know they are outclassed.

It's because they see the prize and imagine what it will be like to have it. Politics, academics, Fortune-500 CEOs, start-up companies, athletes, drug dealing: they are all male-dominated fields in which the expected payout to entrants is low, but get plenty of entrants anyway. A homo econimus would call it irrational, although there are mating signals at work here.

(A good counter-example to my thesis would be music, which isn't as male-dominated, but there are definite demands for female artists.)

So, where was I? Oh yeah, why do so many men like democracy? Because they imagine themselves being at the top of the pile one day. For most other fields, I think this irrationality is beneficial to society (thousands of people pursuing start-ups and academics and music give us our best technology and learning and culture), but for politics not so much so, since it's about doing things to people not playing the game.

El Presidente writes:

Dan Weber,

I don't think we're playing with the same dictionary. Democracy is not pure individual competition. It is the process of subjecting one's own will to the will of a majority, whether or not they agree. The distinctive feature of democracy is not the subjugation of individual will, but rather the standard of majority. I take your point very well with respect to competition. I don't see how it clearly correlates with democracy. Can you help me out here?

hacs writes:

Dr. Kling,

Could you explain better your standpoint about democracy?


Tony writes:

Are the slides for Prof. Caplan's talk available anywhere? Thanks!

Tom Dougherty writes:

The founders did not establish a direct democracy but a republic. I think one could argue that the founders did not like democracy either. We had a republic for a long time but have moved more toward a direct democracy without any constitutional limitations. All congressional limitations (as expressed in section 8 article one) has been swept away. Madisons auxiliary precautions have been swept away. The 17th Amendment did away with one of the checks and balances. With in 50 years I predict that the Electoral College be abolished and there will be direct elections of the president. Even the Bill of Rights is being eroded with only the first amendment surviving guarded preciously by the media. Conservative and Libertarians should appose this, while Liberals (P's) should welcome removing all restraints to absolute government power.

Dan Weber writes:

I don't see how it clearly correlates with democracy. Can you help me out here?

My point about competition was that men are overly risk-accepting. Democracy is, on average, a negative-sum game for most participants. But the prospect of being the one in charge (or being able to bend the ear of the guy in charge) is appealing. People think they will be able to influence policy, but policy is being influenced by forces way beyond their control.

Democracy's advantages:

  • Peaceful transition of power

El Presidente writes:

Dan Weber,

Interesting point. Thanks.

Dr. T writes:

The larger and more diverse the population, the greater the likelihood that government (any kind) will fail to meet the needs of most of its citizens.

To me, a libertarian government would be ideal. But, libertarianism fails in a diverse population because too many people lack the requisite characteristics of self-reliance, morality, and respect for others.

Democracy and republicanism fail in a diverse population because almost everyone puts his own wants ahead of the nation's. Tyrannies of the majorities also occur.

Fascism, socialism, and communism fail in a diverse population because government cannot meet the desires of everyone, and those who feel left out generate unrest.

To get the governments we want, we need thousands of small nations and open borders. In the meantime, if anyone can fund the onset of a libertarian undersea colony beneath international waters, please post below.

NPH writes:

Dr. Kling,

I wonder if C's are in favor of democracy as much as they are in favor of republicanism.

Niccolo writes:

I really don't think the issue is about democracy, per se. I think it's more directly about government and whether people want a nation-state or not.

Democratic or autocratic, you're not going to change that many situations, I don't think, if you're still in the arena of nation-state governments.

Zac Gochenour writes:

For the commenter asking for Caplan slides, check out his website ( for all his class lecture notes, which should give you the general overview you're looking for. For more detail, his papers are also there, or you could buy his book, Myth of the Rational Voter, on Amazon.

As for "Who Likes Democracy," well, whoever is in power likes it just fine for the time being..

Vern writes:

The problem is the "exit or voice" formulation is with it's total mischaracterization of voting or engaging in politics is a form of Voice.

The concept of voting in Democracy or Republic stems from having a war without the mess. In a war (particularly the Greek phalanx style of war, where Democracy first took hold) the side with the most soldiers will more often win anyway, so the idea is to just cut out the bloodshed and destruction phase and just assume victory for whichever side had the most troops - the most votes.

Voting is a huge improvement on war, but is hardly an act of persuasion or communication of grievance that could be called "voice." It is closer to the "mental exit" scenario in that there is a profound break with the other side, no information is conveyed except the yes or no vote, and the result is to exit the current government and reform into a new government. Political campaigns too are neither deliberative or educational. The fundamental goal of a well run campaign is to purely identify voters who are on your side and get them to show up - to rally the troops. The content of politics is "I'm closest to your views" NOT "you should adopt these views."

As further proof, consider the natural extensions of voting -- gerrymandering, federalism (states rights, etc.), and related extremes such as the libertarian effort of having a bunch of libertarians move into a state or locality like NH. All show voting as the means to effect an exit of sorts - a different grouping where some voters exit from others.

Voice, conversely, happens outside the election cycle, like reading this blog and responding, and all the other things that form our opinions for when the next exit (election) is foisted upon us.

David writes:

Ok, let's assume that Bill Maher is perfectly right: voters are stupid and ignorant.

That's why we need the smallest government possible. If the voters are really stupid, how they can choose the right politician to implement the right interventionist policy?

By having a small government, we protect the voters from their own stupidity. The smaller the government is, the smaller the mistake will be.

Niccolo writes:


Bill Maher isn't intelligent enough to even begin to comprehend that. He believes that voters are the peasants and that technocrats are philosopher kings that know all.

He would gladly trade this current situation for one where Trotsky could determine everything, I'm certain.

barghest writes:

Is not the progressive view, that the public should defer in their opinions to a technocratic elite, exactly the way Singaporeans view their participation in their single party democracy. And indeed does not the Singaporean technocratic elite do an excellent job administering their country?

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