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Bryan Caplan Asks Why Anyone Should Bother to Vote

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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He goes a bit further, in fact, and wonders why you bother to vote, and hopes you won’t actually. Caplan is an economist at George Mason University and co-author of Marginal Revolution, by far my favorite economics blog. In his new book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (amazon), he makes himself a hamburger of our sacred cow, democracy. You are, dear reader, not smart enough to vote, and by “rocking” said vote, you harm not only yourself but your country. Please stop. Leave voting to the professionals; economists that is. As Louis Menand notes in a review in the New Yorker:

The average person, he says, has four biases about economics—four main areas in which he or she differs from the economic expert. The typical noneconomist does not understand or appreciate the way markets work (and thus favors regulation and is suspicious of the profit motive), dislikes foreigners (and thus tends to be protectionist), equates prosperity with employment rather than with production (and thus overvalues the preservation of existing jobs), and usually thinks that economic conditions are getting worse (and thus favors government intervention in the economy).

Louis Menand, New Yorker: Fractured Franchise. (Go buy Menand’s Metaphysical Club (amazon) while you’re at it)

The argument of his book, though, is that economists and political scientists have misunderstood the problem. They think that most voters are ignorant about political issues; Caplan thinks that most voters are wrong about the issues, which is a different matter, and that their wrong ideas lead to policies that make society as a whole worse off. We tend to assume that if the government enacts bad policies, it’s because the system isn’t working properly—and it isn’t working properly because voters are poorly informed, or they’re subject to demagoguery, or special interests thwart the public’s interest. Caplan thinks that these conditions are endemic to democracy. They are not distortions of the process; they are what you would expect to find in a system designed to serve the wishes of the people. “Democracy fails,” he says, “because it does what voters want.”

If you’re a bit shocked and appalled right now, well, that’s partly the point. Economics is the enfant terrible of academic thought and provocation is part of what a good economist does well. What goes mostly unanswered in Caplan’s analysis is what an irrational society is to do about this irrationality. In economics it’s customary to assume the rationality of our fellow man (despite ample evidence to the contrary) because the alternative is, well, not very useful. While I recognize that democracy’s flaws are nearly exactly what Caplan says they are, I’m not ready to write off democracy. I don’t think Caplan is either. Economic thought has made amazing leaps in permeating the public consciousness. I remain optimistic about the potential of society and the public debate to grow beyond the four economic biases Caplan points out. Economists have and will continue to have greater influence than we think. As Keynes noted, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

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Category: baby kissing (politics), freakin' economics

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One Response

  1. Martin says:

    Sorry to say. Caplan’s book is full of illogical and contradictory arguments, mangled terms, cultural prejudice, and a whole lot of other weaknesses. It’s also pretty scary when you really think about what he is arguing for. He is hermetically sealed inside his own thinking and theories, and totally unhinged from the real world… past and present. I won’t recap the whole list of objections here… but it’s on my site. (literalmayhem.com)

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