Bryan Caplan  

Who To Blame: Generalizing Brennan

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How Not to Be a Pacifist... The 1960s and Today...

The outstanding Jason Brennan on the Princeton University Press blog:

Now, I freely admit that most bad voters do not recognize they are bad voters. If so, one might object, how can they have a duty not to vote? They do not know they are bad voters, so how can they have a duty to abstain?

I don't find this objection persuasive. Here's an analogy. Suppose Bob beats his children for any minor infractions. He refuses to educate them, holding that education corrupts the soul. He verbally abuses them because he thinks this builds character. Bob does all of this because he thinks it's best for his children, even though it's clearly not. Now, suppose Bob isn't crazy. Rather, he's just in the grip of some false, bad beliefs about child rearing. In this case, most of us would hold Bob responsible for his actions. Sure, he thinks he's doing the right thing, but he should know better. He's a bad parent and should act better.

I have often compared bad voters to drunk drivers--they are like people steering the state while intoxicated. Suppose I am driving drunk and a child is crossing at a crosswalk.  Because I am so drunk, I am unable to see the child, and so I am unable to recognize that I have a duty to stop.  Still, even though I don't know that the child is there, I have a duty to stop. Though I am unable to know I have a duty to stop, I am not relieved of that duty, because I had a responsibility to make sure I only drove the car while competent to do so. Similar remarks apply to voters. Many of them are too biased and irrational to make wise choices. But it's their fault that they're like that in the first place. So, they aren't excused when the vote badly.

My poverty book will make an analogous argument in the first chapter.



COMMENTS (17 to date)
Alex Godofsky writes:

What, exactly, is the purpose of blame? Is it to make you feel morally superior? If so go nuts. Is it to disincentivize certain behaviors? Then blame is pointless if the blameworthy can't tell that they're the ones you're blaming.

RPLong writes:

I hate this kind of "the problem with democracy is that people are stupid" reasoning.

Modern life is complex. At the very minimum, government should be prevented from engaging in any policy that the average voter (stupid, bad, uneducated, irresponsible, whatever) cannot understand.

Think about it. If it requires a specialist to understand, how on Earth could it be part and parcel to democracy? There is no appreciable difference between being subjected to tyranny and being subjected to a "choice" that only a few people can make.

RickC writes:

"I have often compared [politicians] to drunk drivers--they are like people steering the state while intoxicated. Suppose I am driving drunk and a child is crossing at a crosswalk. Because I am so drunk, I am unable to see the child, and so I am unable to recognize that I have a duty to stop. Still, even though I don't know that the child is there, I have a duty to stop. Though I am unable to know I have a duty to stop, I am not relieved of that duty, because I had a responsibility to make sure I only drove the car while competent to do so. Similar remarks apply to [politicians]. [All] of them are too biased and irrational to make wise choices. But it's their fault that they're like that in the first place. So, they aren't excused when the{y] [enact needless or pork laden or vote buying legislation]." FIFY or for Brennan.

If this is what passes for deep thought at Princeton then we're doomed. His argument comes down to the classic "they're not voting the way I think they should so they're irrational and biased, unlike myself who am intelligent and bias-free." Also why concentrate on the lowly individual voter who has limited (almost unmeasurable) impact when it is the politician and his cohorts, wielding real power who are the driving force behind national and international problems?

What would Bastiat's take on this be I wonder?

Mike writes:

How much voter ignorance is due to intellectual weakness and moral failure--what I take to be Caplan's preferred view--and how much to the real irrelevance of much government activity to most people's lives?

Most people are ignorant of how foreign policy gets made, how legislative committees operate, or who the Secretary of X is. Is that primarily because those people are defective, or also because there is such vast social distance between government and the median voter? If you go through a legislator's diary for two years, I'd bet that only a small fraction of his or her time is spent on activities and issues that the median voter could identify with, or even recognize.

It's true that many uninformed voters also manage their own lives incompetently, but many competent people also have no interest in public policy. I prefer Boudreaux's view that informed voting is actually impossible, because a politician is a shopping cart of invisible goods and motives, and there is no feasible to expect specific policy outcomes.

Dan writes:

Large portions of the populace, and especially certain ethnic groups, are prone to vote themselves money and various carve-outs out of the public coffers. These groups vote monolithically as ethnic blocs to do achieve these takings.

What is the surprise? Who is fool? Those voters?

Most democracies in the world work like this, especially across the developing world. America was for the most part less prone to this, but that has changed and will change much more with the importation of large portions of the third world.

We almost certainly have lost the Republic as we know it although most don't realize this yet. Awareness is growing.

Ken B writes:

I blame whoever taught Bryan pronouns, that's whom.

Tony N writes:

+1 RPLong.


What’s the benefit of being a good voter anyway? Is it that being a good voter means you will vote correctly? If one can vote correctly, then why bother with this whole democracy thing? Why not just skip to the last page and let the informed segment of society implement the right decisions?

Dan writes:

Recent democracies (Iraq, Libya, Egypt) are little more than majoritarian tyrannies. Christians in Egypt have instantly become prisoners in the land they have shared for two millenia. Al Assad fights as hard as he does in Syria because he senses that his tribe faces a black future under democracy. Christians in Syria are similarly fearful.

Does it seem wise to invite large numbers of immigrants who see themselves as separate from you at ballot-time and who vote against you out of their own ethnocentrism?

Disclaimer: I am in an interracial marriage and I was surprised to discover the deep seated and somewhat irrational prejudice against whites generally by my educated Asian wife. She's made some headway through my efforts, but most European Americans have no idea of the extent to which immigrant groups vote thoughtlessly leftist in America simply in ethnic solidarity.

Since the redistributionist party has most immigrants sewn up for reasons of ethnocentrism, the long run hope may be that the increasingly dominant redistributionist party is forced to face its error in the face of catastrophic failure of outcomes. Not a happy trajectory, methinks, but one that could eventually lead to reform.

One would hope that ethnocentric voting would diminish with assimilation, but voting trends provide no evidence for this. Immigration policy of the parties is not a main issue. US blacks whose ancestors have been in America for centuries vote uniformly against the party of Lincoln.


Hugh writes:

At the bottom of his post, Brennan has this quite extraordinary asterisk comment:

*However, people reading the Princeton University Press blog are much more likely to be good voters than randomly selected US citizens. I’m not saying that to suck up to readers, but because it’s true. The demographic factors that positively correlate with reading this post are also positively correlated with being a good voter, as I define the term.

This guy's a comedian!

Emily writes:

"Low-quality electorates tend to make worse choices at the polls: they are worse at selecting good leaders, and tend to choose worse policies during referenda."

If you define low-quality as making worse choices, sure. But is there a non-tautological way to conclude this? What's the metric for a good policy or a good leader? (Is it what economists say is a good policy or a good leader?)

Richard writes:

"Who to Blame" (sic)

Does anyone else feel a stab of pain in the eyes upon reading such a clear example of pronoun misuse? Am I the only one? If so, I'll keep it to myself next time, I promise.

Tony N writes:

Possibly short for Who is to blame?

Lee Waaks writes:

Brennan writes: "Bob does all of this because he thinks it's best for his children, even though it's clearly not." Why characterize this as "irrational" behavior? Clearly it's not if "Bob" thinks it's best for his children. Caplan/Brennan are conflating "irrational" with "ignorance". We are all ignorant, some more than others, but we are not irrational. We simply do the best we can. I think Caplan's voter irrationality thesis fails because of this mistaken conflation. Jeffrey Freidman won this debate: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2006/11/14/jeffrey-friedman/irrationality-or-just-plain-ignorance/

Democracy should be rejected because it leads to oligarchy (as Robert Michels showed in his Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy), not because voters are allegedly irrational. Democracy is impossible and undesirable: see this video by Jan Lester, where he reads selections from his forthcoming book The Dictionary of Anti-Politics: http://libertarianhome.co.uk/2012/08/video-democracies-republics-and-other-unnecessary-evils/#comment-3492

I love Bryan Caplan and wish he could clone himself many times over, but I think he is as obsessed with his "irrational" voter meme as Hayek was with his "contructivist rationalism" meme.

Mike W writes:

In his book Brenna provides "some practical advice about becoming a good voter".

Becoming a good voter takes significant knowledge of the social sciences and of some current events, but that’s not the first step. Getting information is not only useless, but downright harmful, unless you have disciplined your mind to process information in a dispassionate, scientific, unbiased way.

If creating such "good voters" is the only solution to bad government I don't hold out much hope. Less government would seem to be a more reasonable and attainable solution.

Philo writes:

Though both may be guilty of morally wrong behavior, there is a difference between a perpetrator who knows that what he is doing is harmful to others and one who does not know this because earlier he failed to acquire certain information. The knowing harmer’s action is wrong unless he reasonably believes that the action will produce, besides the harm, compensating goods or harm-avoidances. In contrast, the ignorant harmer’s action should, strictly speaking, be considered morally blameless: after all, he intended no harm. But his earlier *inaction*, in failing to acquire available information, may have been morally wrong, provided it was then likely, from his point of view, that this information would be important at a later time.

In practice we often skip over this subtlety concerning the ignorant harmer, and just blame him for the harmful action itself. That is simpler, but not strictly proper.

Old Man writes:

I'm a bad voter. I vote for bad guys. Here's how it is: I've been voting in presidential elections since Eisenhower. Most of the time I've had to choose between the bad guy and the worse guy. I've voted for the bad guy.

John David Galt writes:

David Friedman has explained quite well why it is rational for voters not to bother informing themselves.

For me, this makes the problem of the "bad voter" nothing more nor less than poor system design. Any effort to prevent people with "bad views" from existing, or from voting, will self-evidently be counterproductive because there is no reason to expect the people doing the prevention are any better than their targets.

The way to prevent "bad voting" from doing harm is to design the system so that voters have as little ability as possible to take things away from other people. In other words, spending decisions should be made individually by the owner of the money or rights to be expended.

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