Reviewing Caplan’s Reviewers

Economist Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter argues that 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 (because they tend to agree more with experts), 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. 

Caplan’s book has attracted some high profile reviews, such as in the New Yorker, New York Times, and Economist.  Yet while reviewers seem to grant Caplan’s basic claims, they offer only these lame counter-arguments:

  1. There is no right answer on many big questions, so voters can’t be wrong.
  2. Things would be better if political elites gave voters more guidance.
  3. Experts and the educated sometimes make mistakes or disagree.
  4. Democracy as we have it now achieves important "non-economic" values.
  5. Caplan is wrong: the more educated do often vote on different values. 
  6. Caplan is wrong: the more educated are not in fact right more often.
  7. A narrower franchise would be less legitimate and hence less stable. 

(Lest you think I oversimplify, extensive review quotes are below the fold.) 
The first four arguments are beside the point.  If there are no wrong answers then Caplan’s changes would also not give wrong answers, and the possibility of other improvements doesn’t suggest Caplan’s proposals wouldn’t help.  The possibility of mistakes is also irrelevant; the question is who makes more mistakes.  Also, Caplan’s analysis has nothing to do with "economic" versus "non-economic" values.  He only talks about economics because he knows that best; Caplan claims that democracy is not well-structured to achieve any voter values that differ from voter illusions. 

The last three arguments at least address Caplan’s claims, but reviewers use amazingly weak standards of evidence.  While Caplan offers and cites extensive evidence that the more educated are more accurate but use similar values, reviewers seem content to mention particular cases of errors or divergent values, or to suggest that such cases may appear someday.   

Finally, reviewers offer no evidence suggesting Caplan’s proposals would bring rioting in the streets.  We already tolerate a lot of inequality in political power.  Convicts, children, dogs, foreigners, and those who don’t register cannot vote now, half of those who can vote do not vote, in part due to inconvenient voting times and locations, those with more political knowledge can use their votes more effectively, tricks like gerrymandering and the electoral college give us varying voting powers, and yet we see not a hint of related rebellion.  So why should Caplan’s moderate changes suddenly produce armed rebellion?

I can imagine counter-arguments with more teeth (and will suggest one Thursday), but it is noteworthy that reviewers are not offering them.

P.S.  DC area folks can see Caplan speak on July 17.

(Here are all those quotes I promised.)

New York Times Magazine:

Caplan argues that "voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational – and vote accordingly." …
Caplan has some radical medicine in mind. To encourage greater economic literacy, he suggests tests of voter competence, or "giving extra votes to individuals or groups with greater economic literacy." … Caplan dislikes efforts to increase voter turnout. … If the Supreme Court can strike down laws as unconstitutional, why shouldn’t the Council of Economic Advisers be able to strike down laws as "uneconomical"?

The liberal blogger Ezra Klein wrote: "Obviously I, like most coastal-bred elitists, don’t think voters make terribly good decisions. But I also don’t think economic actors are particularly rational." He might have added that many policy issues cannot be decided on the basis of avowedly rational expert judgment alone. Take immigration, where governments weigh not just economic costs and benefits but also demands of national identity and cosmopolitanism. Or war: it’s very complicated, so should we abandon military planning to the professional generals? …

Caplan’s view of democracy is all about efficiency, not legitimacy. But … A democratic public may not always like – or understand – the government’s policy, but the consent of the governed gives the citizens a reason not to reject the whole system.  Caplan … may underplay the role of political elites in shaping that judgment. Would the public choose badly if it had better guidance? … Maybe the public doesn’t measure up because the politicians are not doing their job properly, not the other way around.

New Yorker:

Caplan is the sort of economist … who engages with the views of non-economists in the way a bulldozer would engage with a picket fence if a bulldozer could express glee. …  Caplan … offers some suggestions for fixing the evils of universal democratic participation (though he does not spend much time elaborating on them, for reasons that may suggest themselves to you when you read them): require voters to pass a test for economic competence; give extra votes to people with greater economic literacy; reduce or eliminate efforts to increase voter turnout; require more economics courses in school. ….

The problem [is] … not a matter of information, or the lack of it; it’s a matter of psychology. Most people do not think politically, and they do not think like economists, either. People exaggerate the risk of loss; they like the status quo and tend to regard it as a norm; they overreact to sensational but unrepresentative information (the shark-attack phenomenon); they will pay extravagantly to punish cheaters, even when there is no benefit to themselves; and they often rank fairness and reciprocity ahead of self-interest. …

Most people, even if you explained to them what the economically rational choice was, would be reluctant to make it, because they value other things – in particular, they want to protect themselves from the downside of change. They would rather feel good about themselves than maximize (even legitimately) their profit, and they would rather not have more of something than run the risk, even if the risk is small by actuarial standards, of having significantly less. …

If all policy decisions were straightforward economic calculations, it might be simpler and better for everyone if only people who had a grasp of economics participated in the political process. But many policy decisions don’t have an optimal answer. They involve values that are deeply contested: when life begins, whether liberty is more important than equality, how racial integration is best achieved (and what would count as genuine integration).

In the end, the group that loses these contests must abide by the outcome, must regard the wishes of the majority as legitimate. The only way it can be expected to do so is if it has been made to feel that it had a voice in the process, even if that voice is, in practical terms, symbolic. A great virtue of democratic polities is stability. The toleration of silly opinions is (to speak like an economist) a small price to pay for it.

In These Times:

The first and most obvious problem with Caplan’s argument is that it quickly leads to some very dark places. … You could instead give more votes to businessmen and university graduates, as Caplan comes close to proposing, or simply require people to "pass a test of economic literacy to vote."

Which brings us to the second problem: what constitutes economic consensus. Caplan spends considerable time attempting to persuade the reader that if experts and the general public disagree, the experts are right and the public wrong. That may often be the case, but it’s not a static proposition: What experts believe evolves over time, and the same is true of the public. In 1996, the public thought taxes were too high, but recent polling suggests that’s no longer the case. … Caplan’s book wouldn’t have made much sense 40 years ago, which prompts the question: Will it make much sense in the future? Caplan thinks he’s describing the fundamentals about human nature, but he might just be elaborating on the contingencies of an era.

What’s more, sometimes the public is right and the experts are wrong. Economic experts used to believe in price controls. …  Finally, Caplan over-interprets the degree of economic consensus. … when it comes to policies the disagreement [among economists] is tremendous. Caplan thinks the minimum wage borders on quackery, but last year more than 500 economists, including a half-dozen Nobel laureates, signed a petition in favor of raising it.

Caplan wants to grant a presumptive authority to the consensus view of economists, but the consensus view of economists is that voters are rational, which is, of course, precisely the position he wants to convince us is wrong.

CATO Unbound:

Average citizens are not sober-minded assessors of evidence bearing on policy determinations. As Caplan observes, they vent their prejudices. … Citizen passions are, then, incentives to pandering. But they also are a gateway to accountability. Voters have precious little control over any particular political platform. What they can do, though, is "throw the rascals out." … This is far from an ideal way to exercise governance: rule by philosopher-kings it’s not. For Caplan, as for Plato, that is a damning indictment of democracy. I’m not so sure. Give me an airtight guarantee that those advertised as the Best and the Brightest are the genuine article and that, in addition, they are indelibly committed to serving the public good, and I’ll sign up with the Plato/Caplan antidemocrats. … Caplan is partial to the policy judgments of economists. Because he himself is one, he should know better.  [Loren Lomasky]

If we know which survey questions measure voter competence, then we could presumably devise an exam to determine how many votes each person will be allowed. … On the factual and technical parts of the test economists and others with university degrees would do better than many others. But would they do better on the whole test? … How to slow inflation, or to mobilize people for war, or to raise taxes for social programs is one sort of thing; when these should be done is another. … Consider the demographics of the economics profession, and of college education in America in, say, the decades just before 1949 … the need for racial justice was urgent, and the idea that an even smaller, whiter, more male, more Protestant electorate would have performed better on the morally most important matters is far from obvious. … the demographics of expertise do not necessarily mirror the population in all other respects while simply adding on the benefits of factual and technical expertise. … there is no entitlement to rule others based simply on the fact that you know what is best. Democracy, on the other hand, can effectively bring intelligence to bear on public problems in a way that avoids these controversial invidious comparisons. That, I think, is its claim to authority. … Voters and market actors are the same people, so we should expect the charges of ignorance and irrationality to be leveled against people in both guises. [David Estlund]

Caplan is right to think that what the public lacks is expertise in economics. He is wrong to think that expertise should be conflated with educational credentials, even for heuristic purposes; or, as a corollary, that public wisdom should be equated to public agreement with credentialed "experts." If Caplan were in a discipline (such as any of the other social sciences) in which he did not happen to agree with his colleagues, or if he found himself writing about the views of economists trained in the Soviet Union or the Islamic Republic of Iran, he would not so readily overlook the fact that when an educational institution credentials an "expert," it is merely certifying that this person has been indoctrinated with whatever is thought by the faculty of the institution to be the truth – which has no necessary correlation with what is actually the truth. … there is a perverse tradeoff between ignorance and ideology: less of the first leads to more of the second. So if I had to choose, I’d pick rule by the masses over rule by elites. That’s not because I entertain illusions about "the wisdom of crowds." It’s because I’d rather be ruled by open-minded ignoramuses than by doctrinaire ideologues. [Jeffrey Friedman]

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