Introducing Ramone

On Tuesday I wrote:

[Caplan says] humans are less rational as voters than as consumers, causing us to support government policies that pursue illusions instead of giving us what we really want.  Since educated folks seem to be more rational … and yet do not vote on substantially differing values, Caplan suggests we weigh educated votes more, or at least stop trying to get out the vote, and that we reduce the scope of government policy. … While reviewers seem to grant Caplan’s basic claims, they offer only these lame counter-arguments:

Today let me introduce my alter-ego, the dashing but bias-blase Ramone, who rises to meet my challenge:

Before making big decisions, our ancestors would often consult a shaman, sort of a mix of a priest, a tortured artist, and what we now call "mentally ill."  Aided by rhythms and drugs, the shaman, and sometimes a larger community, would enter a trance state.  These sort of people in this sort of state would do poorly on tests of "rationality"; they would be bad at fishing or knitting, for example.  But the point was not to fish or knit, it was to see hidden truths, especially moral truths, not usually accessible to our usual "rational" mind.  These mystic practices became common because the tribes who used them prospered, just as those who practice religion today prosper thereby.

Today, by uniting to support the principle of democracy, we give our lives meaning and identify, and affirm that we value each other.  Caplan is right to call democracy a modern religion, and to say voters enter a different "irrational" state of mind.  The voting state of mind may not be good for cooking or driving, but it is good for helping us to see fundamental truths, especially moral truths, that we need to set good government policy.

Evidence for voters’ moral insight is found in a point Caplan emphasizes: voters mostly set aside their personal interests and look to the interests of their larger group.  More evidence is that democracy has spread and democracies have prospered.  Yes, to get the practical details right, we may want bureaucrats in a "rational" state of mind, but to make the crucial moral choices, we want voters in a trance.   

Once the world has assimilated Caplan’s critique, I’m guessing Ramone’s argument will be the main intellectually-coherent response.  It is self-consistent, to the point, accepts Caplan’s evidence, and makes its stand on a moral claim; such moral claims are very hard to refute.

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  • Keith Elis

    Voter irrationality *doesn’t matter*.

    Voters very rarely decide broad policy questions and pretty much never decide details of policy, except in very local instances. Legislators, bureaucrats, and judges, well-educated, and expected to be more rational than average, decide nearly all of the important issues. To some extent, this means that democracy itself is somewhat illusory when it comes to policy outcomes. But we’ve known that since Pericles, and democracy marches on…

  • Keith, Caplan does address your point; it seems pretty clear that policy is greatly influenced by public opinion.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    I think what we primarily need is diversified experimentation here. We had great natural experiments in non-market based vs. market based economies, and I’d like to see more experimentation with voter competency requirements.

    Also, I’m curious about analysis of the performance and efficiency of juries as finders of facts (in the USA and perhaps other common law countries) vs. experts as finders of facts in most other countries. I’d expect experts to make much more accurate and efficient finders of facts, but it shouldn’t be hard to do this research, as it was done for non-market vs. market based economies.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    It occurs to me that better governance theories could be tested by creating internet communities, giving them the same goal (such as grow to 1,000 active members within 6 months, or raise $500 for charity X within 6 months) but giving them different governance structures (all eligible can vote, vs. threshhold competent voting) and see how it affects their performance. Wouldn’t be perfect, but could be instructive.

  • dearieme

    HA, may I suggest a way to study juries? You could look at the jury majority requirements and how they correlate with outcomes. For example, in Scotland an 8 vs 7 majority is enough (they have 15-man juries there), in England they settle for 10-2 if unanimity isn’t reached, and I assume that in most of the US they still have the archaic English requirement of 12-0. Presumably the rest of the ex-British world has its own rules. You could also look at the qualifications required to be a juror. For instance, a property qualification was required in Britain until about 40 years ago.

  • Plinius

    I copy this comment I left on the Econlog blog. Arnold Kling seems to agree with it, but I didn’t get a response from Caplan:

    “There is something that I don’t understand in Caplan’s argument. So people indulge in irrationality because it is cheap, and it is cheap because votes are very rarely decisive. But that’s not what people believe: people are under the impression that their vote is crucial, in fact they often speak as if their one meager vote has mythical powers, e.g. “I’m going to vote Republican in the Senate, but Democrat in the House so has to have a split congress which ultimately will bring about the right kind of Republicans, etc….”
    So if biased beliefs are what matters, and people are under the impression that irrationality is costly, why aren’t people more careful in their opinions?”

    In fact let me add: if people really thought that their vote didn’t count they wouldn’t vote at all. Maybe, one way to salvage Caplan’s argument is to say that the voice of people who don’t vote is heard anyways through opinion polls and other media.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Plinius, I care less about people indulging in irrationality because it’s cheap, then people not being competent to make rational decisions being allowed to do so. The reason some 16 year old males drive recklessly isn’t because it’s cheap for them to do so, but rather probably because a combination of inexperience and hormone balance puts them below the threshhold competency to drive with effective safety. I think it’s reasonable to expect a basic competency from people who vote.

    Deariene, sounds like good ideas. Although I’m particularly interested in comparing the effectiveness of jury system vs. expert systems. There must be a large body of literature on this already, as they are the two major forms of determining facts and liability in legal disputes in the developed world. I would think that expert systems are at the least equally effective to jury systems plus significantly more efficient (because to be equally effective, I’d think jury systems would be constantly correcting incompetent jury decision by presiding and appellate judges, which would be less efficient). I’m curious where the studies are, because I think they’d be damning to the jury system.

    Also, existing jury competency requirements could be a model for voter competency requirements.

  • michael vassar

    I thought of Kurzweils alter-ego before Tylers.
    Is Ramone by any chance related to Ramona?

    Plinus: I am going to suggest “your vote is important” as a bias instilled by C (from my comment on the previous post). It’s factual non-sense, but it still influences people with a higher IQ more than people with a lower IQ. The sort of people who instill their vote with mythical powers are pretty much a selection from the IQ 120 crowd. As intelligence falls the effects of crude propaganda tend to do so as well, so you get party-line voting in complete ignorance at IQ 100 and non-voting at IQ 80. What we would like to do is to keep your deeply deluded friend as deluded and informed as he is today while lowering the strength of the propaganda on the less “intelligent” (by which, in this case we mean the less gullible, sort-of) to the point where they act on their natural inclinations, which also coincide with their rational interests. So far as both groups are being hit by the same propaganda this will be difficult, but surely we could start by emphasizing a civic responsibility not to vote but rather to be an informed voter.

  • michael vassar

    Don’t you mean “if the world assimilates Caplan’s evidence Robin? Any guess as to how long that will take?

    I would also see brute preference as a plausible response.

  • TGGP

    It’s really too bad that despite rejecting Objectivism Caplan still believes in objective moral truth. He asserts that people are likely to be irrational about morality as well as economics when they vote (as Huemer, his ethical inspiration, sort of does here). Caplan can give lots of evidence that voters are ignorant/irrational about objective economic/political facts (size of the budget, growth of the economy as a whole or in various sectors). As Hume’s is-ought distinction showed, it is impossible to show any normative proposition to be correct or incorrect in such a manner. This leads me to believe in emotivism, but I would hope that the majority of those who do not (itself a very large majority) would still find Ramone’s emulation of the drugged up crazy shaman to be laughable.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Caplan believes in objective moral truth? That’s news to me although I know about him mostly from recent posts to overcomingbias. Links, as well as a brief rundown of what he believes are objective moral truths would be greatly appreciated.

  • TGGP

    Caplan’s writings on philosophy can be found here. A pertinent piece, as you might guess from my previous post, is “The Is-Ought Problem”.

  • Jim Outen

    A few quick ideas concerning Ramone’s argument that we need democracy to fulfill religious-like functions, yet at the same time we as a society (presumably) wish to avoid wealth-destroying policies:

    1. Marketize more aspects of life and make democracy more “expressive” via increased symbolic voting. I think of recent symbolic votes by Democrats as an example of behavior (non-binding resolutions against the war).

    2. Create less meaningful legislation; pass actual legislation which does essentially nothing. The public recognizes that the Congress has “done something” by voting and deliberating.

    3. Pass legislation that satisfies public concerns, but simply fail to enforce the potentially wealth-reducing legislation.

    I can’t think through all the game-theoretic implications of these proposals (does the public value the process of democracy or the results? will “learning” occur and greater feats of governmental theater be required to provide the religious benefits of democracy?) and therefore I suspect my proposals may be shortsighted. However, these could be methods by which the mystical benefits of democracy could be separated from the wealth reducing realities often associated with democracy.

  • Jim, Ramone was claiming we need the voting trance to gain the moral insight that helps us make good choices, not just on symbolic choices, but also on choices that have big effects.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Jim Outen,
    Potentially great ideas and good brainstorming, even if they don’t address Ramone’s claims directly. I think thinking about “methods by which the mystical benefits of democracy could be separated from the wealth reducing realities often associated with democracy” is important, particularly if perpetuating the “mystical benefits of democracy” in some way creates material benefits which haven’t yet been rigorously empirically demonstrated.

  • Jim Outen


    Very true, my proposals deal with the trance itself and not the moral truths. I don’t know how it is possible to deal with the truths in another modern institution besides the voting theater, but feel it is easy to replicate a harmless version of the theater.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    It may also be important to explore the possibility that there are no moral truths to be gotten from the voting trance (or that can’t be gotten more efficiently through other means). I suspect this is a view Robin is partial to, and frankly I am as well. But it’s a question that possibly can be answered empirically.

  • TGGP

    Hopefully Anonymous, how do we discover moral truths empirically? Have you solved the is-ought problem?

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    TGGP, I did write “possibly” 😉

    But my solution to the is-ought problem is that universe ought to be optimized to maximize my personal odds of persistence (MMPOOP) as a subjective, conscious entity. From my solipstic perspective, anything else would be absurd. Apparently empiricism and other contributing elements of the scientific method are the best currently available way to figure out how to optimize the universe to MMPOOP.

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