Economics

50 Percent of Voters Are Below Average

|

Go read today's bang-up essay from Bryan Caplan on voter irrationality at Cato Unbound. Voters don't, on average (present company excepted, of course) know much about what the government actually does:

The National Survey of Public Knowledge of Welfare Reform and the Federal Budget finds, for example, that 41% of Americans believe that foreign aid is one of the two biggest areas in the federal budget — versus 14% for Social Security.

Caplan's commentary in the essay strikes the perfect tone for the oddly inflammatory topic of what to do about an electorate riddled with false beliefs: Sober professor of economics with a dash of "mmmm hmmm, you tell it like it is, sister" sass:

The prevailing view even among the well-educated is that it is unseemly to question the competence of the average voter. Many elites go further by praising the insight of the average voter, no matter how silly his views seem.

As long as elites persist in unmerited deference to and flattery of the majority, containing the dangers of voter irrationality will be very hard. Someone has to tell the emperor when he is naked. He may not listen, but if no one speaks up, he will almost surely continue embarrassing himself and traumatizing spectators.

Caplan has a new book coming out in 2007, The Myth of the Rational Voter, in which he discusses these issues at length. In the meantime, content yourself with reading the whole essay here.

Advertisement

NEXT: The Green Felt Revolution?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Hell, I’m going to guess that a full 2/3 are below average. 50% remain below median, though.

  2. These days, average is below average.

  3. “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

    Or lost an election either.

  4. I wonder how many epople who CHOOSE not to vote understand the system to realize in many ways their vote means f-all so they don’t bother making the effort to register and hit the polls. I personally vascilate between boting and not voting because while it’s nice to do, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. And for those who preach responsiblity there are many other ways to be involved and active in your community, most all of which do much more to make a difference than showing up to vote every other year.

  5. I wonder if they did a poll on knowledge of the issues of nonvoters, how would the average change? Sadly, I think the average knowledge of nonvoters would probably be higher.

  6. Caplan’s essay is pretty good, but some of his remedies for the problem of ignorance among the electorate (having experts work harder to reveal the truth to the people, taking power out of the hands of politicians and putting it in the hands of experts) seem laughably weak. He tells us that most economists believe in supply and demand, flexible labor markets, comparative advantage, etc., but there are enough economists, and more than enough academics in other fields, who will argue just the opposite of what these “mainstream economists” will try to convince the people of. People will not see a consensus among experts, but a debate, and their incorrect beliefs will remain unchanged, because they can find an expert who agrees with them, no matter how crazed their ideas are. As for putting more power in the hands of small elite bodies, like the Supreme Court, this seems incredibly risky. We have little reason to trust such experts to not make mistakes or not be swayed by interest, ideology, etc. Besides, since these experts will have to be chosen by elected officials, they are not immune from voter ignorance after all.

    Finally, I have to say, “I’m right, the people outside this classroom are wrong, and you don’t want to be like them, do you?” sounds, to me, like the arguement of an asshole, and it is sad to see someone advocating it.

  7. Gosh, it is the election of 1800 all over again! 😉

  8. Voters don’t, on average (present company excepted, of course) know much about what the government actually does:

    What’s this ‘government’ thing of which you speak?

  9. I know, I know, I’m repeating myself:

    The more I know of my fellow man, the less I trust him to vote.

  10. How come those supporting higher minimum wage can cite the one study that says it doesn’t increase employment but be ignorant of the thousands that do (and are endorsed by Nobel Prize winners?) This reminds me, too, of the
    fresh-faced college student guide at Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont this summer who told us that
    70% of the U.S. government spending was for the military and pointed to a pie chart on the wall (and on an ice cream flavor’s carton) that
    “proved” it.

  11. The fact that 2/3 of bond initiatives get passed is testimony to voter ignorance. It would be like solving your kid’s credit card debt problems by giving them another credit card, yet the majority of voters are willing to do solve public accounting problems with this method.

  12. This is why the Founders didn’t trust the public (well free white males anyway) to vote directly for anything other than members of the House. Everything went to hell when Andrew Jackson was elected and the mob took over. Just ask John Quincy Adams.

  13. REgardless of who is saying it “voter ignorance” is ussually just pig latin for “they don’t agree with me”. This kind of stuff makes me want to vomit. The real cure for voter ignorance is just to disenfranchise them and let the “experts” and intellectuals make all of the decisions. There is certainly no danger in letting the enlightened elite who in the past have heartily embraced things like Communism, Fascism, Eugenics, and race theory, decide everything.

  14. There is certainly no danger in letting the enlightened elite who in the past have heartily embraced things like Communism, Fascism, Eugenics, and race theory, decide everything.

    Not to mention Cormac McCarthy.

  15. I’ve always suspected that these “get-out-the-vote” drives are misguided. Not many people vote and that’s just the way I like it! Now, if we can figure out a way to reduce the voting percentage of the senior citizens…

  16. I’m just a mechanic on refrigerated trucks. Mexican trucks are backed up all over the parking lot condemned and waiting for conversion to R-22 guidelines, and nobody gives a crap about e-coli or salmonella poisoning. What do I care about voter smarts?

    I want my paycheck, my wife’s disability pay and my kid’s child support checks, and I’d like my ex-wife’s boyfriend to help support the wench.

    What the hell else is there?

  17. It would be like solving your kid’s credit card debt problems by giving them another credit card

    Isn’t this how the average American deals with credit card debt?

    “voter ignorance” is ussually just pig latin for “they don’t agree with me”

    Its a little more than simple disagreement when the ignorance is about facts.

  18. Even among “educated” people, I find few who can accurately depict the federal budget. Of the few who can, most are libertarians, and most of the remainder consider themselves Republicans. I am genuinely surprised that few of my educated liberal friends have any clue about how much is spent on what.

  19. What the hell else is there?

    Mmm, maybe a Chevy truck?

  20. Even among “educated” people, I find few who can accurately depict the federal budget.

    I once did an interpretive dance depicting the federal budget.

  21. I once did an interpretive dance depicting the federal budget.

    How’d you manage to bloat ever larger on stage?

  22. It furthers the thesis that most people aren’t comprehensive political animals. They care about One Big Thing. They know which guy gets them abortion access and they know which guy gets them guns.

    The rest of the speech, ALL the rest of the speech, is post hoc justification for why these five or six single issues should be on the same ticket. The truth is, it doesn’t matter.

  23. The reality of voter ignorance is, to my mind at least, one of the biggest arguments for rule by the market, and one that libertarian types would be good to pick up on, to give practical support to our (overused) abstract rights-based arguments. In order for democracy to work, voters (theoretically AND practically) must: understand the arguments of politicians regarding economic regulations (not likely considering that it is almost certain that (probably much) less than 10 percent of voters actually understand what, say, the federal reserve does), evaluate the effects of those regulations (something that PHDs in econ often have trouble doing) and correctly identify how they (the voter) would personally be affected by them. By contrast, in the market all one has to do is identify whether or not a product or service works for them in the way they want, and thusly only the most effective products and services (translated: policies or programs) will gain a foothold.

    Imagine if people had to vote on how, for example, day cares are to be run. Does any signficant part of the population actually know what makes a good daycare, much less a stimualting environment for a developing human brain? Since the issue is far too complex for virtually anyone to form a coherent opinion on, they would most likely listen to politicians as guides on how to vote, even though politicians don’t have any more expertise on child cognition than the average voter.

    The fact about modern life is that society and exchange have grown to be systems far too complex for any one person to understand completely. Only by encouraging an environment in which technologies, products, services and policies are judged naturally by their end-state effectiveness (or desirability etc) can we hope to develop the most capable and effective social organizations and relationships. The solutions to problems found in societies as complex as ours must be grown by trial and error, to think that we can deliberately solve them through careful group think is, I think, the most dangerous assumption that democracy maintains.

  24. “The solutions to problems found in societies as complex as ours must be grown by trial and error,”

    OK. As long as I don’t have to pay your bills and you don’t have to pay mine.

  25. REgardless of who is saying it “voter ignorance” is ussually just pig latin for “they don’t agree with me”

    That’s because you’re always ong-wray, uster-bay.

  26. “You propose to establish a social order based on the following tenets: that you’re incompetent to run your own life, but competent to run the lives of others–that you’re unfit to exist in freedom, but fit to become an omnipotent ruler–that you’re unable to earn your living by the use of your own intelligence, but able to judge politicians and to vote them into jobs of total power over arts you have never seen, over sciences you have never studied, over achievements of which you have no knowledge, over the gigantic industries where you, by your own definition of your capacity, would be unable successfully to fill the job of assistant greaser.” – John Galt

  27. What should be remembered, though, is that the same forces impact elite opinion, although in different ways. Mr Caplan’s essay is (in a way) an excellent example of this, as it takes up the cause of immigration boosterism, a decidedly “popular with the elites” vs. “impopular with the people”* issue.

    So, while we have established that Joe Shmoe has relatively little reason to put much effort into forming political opinions, what are the personal incentives like for the academic elite ?

    On immigration, that’s pretty clear cut – there is a significant private bonus to standing for a pro-immigration stance, while an anti-immigration stance will put you at risk of getting branded with the scarlet “R” for “Racism”.

    This incentive structure has little to do with the empirics of immigration (let’s leave the poverty of mind of those who are either “for immigration” or “against immigration” – as usual, the key issue is “which immigration”).

    Rather, it has much to do with the fact that academic institutions such as Universities are generally dominated by a flavor of liberal and / or socialist thinking that considers Racism to be the worst sin imaginable. Would you really like to be the Econ prof with the rap of “Racist” around campus? Didn’t think so.

    * It’s refreshing to see an admission of the fact that immigration is heavily impopular with the American people.

  28. it “voter ignorance” is ussually just pig latin for “they don’t agree with me”

    Well…shyeah. Aks your average voter about the “enumerated powers” and you’ll get that kind of thousand yard stare followed by a “huh?”.

    I don’t agree with people who vote yes on every measly and petty expansion of government because it seems like a problem where government can ‘help’. So yes, they “don’t agree” with me.

    However, unlike your suggestion, I don’t believe we should allow some group of elites run everything, because they too tend to believe in every petty expansion of government because there seems to be no end to the problems where government can ‘help’. So I’ll stick with the monkies on typewriters for the time being.

  29. I said it already but I guess it needs saying with some more explanation on it.

    I’m just a mechanic on refrigerated trucks. Mexican trucks are backed up all over the parking lot condemned and waiting for conversion to R-22 guidelines, and nobody gives a crap about e-coli or salmonella poisoning. What do I care about voter smarts?

    I want my paycheck, my wife’s disability pay and my kid’s child support checks, and I’d like my ex-wife’s boyfriend to help support the wench.

    What the hell else is there?

    Well, there’s beer after work and on the weekend, and I already have a good pick-up. Bought it used from my buddy after he was run over by a uninsured drunk driver and couldn’t make the payments. I’m not only not interessted in all the 12 dollar words everybody running for dog catcher uses because they never mean me in their promises anyway. I just want my bills paid and my vacations.

    And in case any of you have not heard it yet, you can multiply me by a couple hundred million and just guess what you’re going to get out of the elections.

  30. I once did an interpretive dance depicting the federal budget.

    And you called it “The Aristocrats”.

  31. Also, here is my major point: There is excactly nothing about Caplan’s point that makes it more applicable to the general public than to elites. The issue of expertise, which he confuses with the incentive issue, is a largely separate one, and even the data he cites regarding this is not very relevant. (Most economists, for instance, know very very little about immigration – it’s a niche field of study)

    Rather, Elites might very well be even *more* insulated from any public costs induced by bad public policy than the average Joe, and hence more likely to advocate social-cost-inducing policy for private gain. (Who can more easily afford a house in a gated community when the local town goes Barrio? Who reaps the rewards of cheap labor?)

  32. exactly – gah!

  33. So what remedies for voter irrationality would I propose? Above all, relying less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets.

    I thought this bit was pretty funny. “The majority of people make stupid decisions at the ballot box” – fair enough. So why on earth should their decisions in the market be any less stupid? For every GWB elected, I could find you a tech bubble…

  34. Ajay,

    But markets are self-correcting and noncoercive. Politicians are the farthest thing from either of those.

  35. Anyone who thinks markets are non-coercive and self-correcting are reading too much Ayn Rand. They’re only such in some Adam Smith fantasyland where players jump into and out of the market with equal ease and have absolutely no influence on the world at large outside the confines of their little privately-owned shoe shop.

    Voters in a democracy are not generally dumb, they are generally BUSY. They lack the time and inclination to research candidates’ past histories of voting and patronage and therefore rely on the few issues that they do figure they have figured out. If you want a well-functioning democracy, you need a large and educated middle class with enough interest and leisure time to pursue democratic matters.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.