It's OK, Voters Don't Matter!


Riffing off Bryan Caplan's excellent Cato Unbound piece on voter ignorance, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias both suggest that this is not a terribly big problem, since policy is determined by elites anyway. In other words, political "slack"—one of Caplan's proposed solution—is already ample, a situation which has plenty of its own drawbacks.

There's something to this, of course: Immigration and trade are two issues where agreement among people who do know some economics has kept policy more liberal than would be chosen by voters who, mostly, don't.

On the other hand, the elites who are relevant to politics are political elites, not policy experts. That means a lot of people who do, as you may recall, get chosen by voters. And this time around, they've chosen a bunch of people like Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). (It also means lobbyists, of course, who have their own consensus driven by interests, not expertise.) We don't get a pure exercise of the general will, but if voters are receptive to misguided populist messages, no number of harrumphing editorials in East Coast newspapers will stop misguided populist candidates from getting elected.

Slightly tangentially, Ezra adds:

Bryan singles out religion as a place "where irrationality seems especially pronounced." This gets said occasionally, and it's poppycock. It might be factually wrong to believe in God, but it's certainly not irrational (using rational here in the economic sense, as an action that maximizes your utility). Studies universally find that religious belief and participation offer positive returns for individual health, happiness, finances, personal satisfaction, etc.

First, believing in God doesn't require holding a lot of other ancillary beliefs which might or might not make sense—that the world is 6,000 years old, say. So that stuff is at best neutral in terms of economic rationality and less than compelling in terms of epistemic rationality. But secondly, "rationality" characterizes processes, not outcomes, even when the processes are outcome-oriented. If I believe a stock I own will rise because a psychic told me so, my belief may be true but it will not therefore be justified, even if I know other facts which (had I thought about them) could have more justifiably led me to the same belief. By the same token, you can at least make a case that it's rational to somehow make yourself believe in religion for the health benefits. But if that's not your reason for believing—as I expect it isn't for the vast majority of people—then whether or not belief is otherwise rational, those benefits don't enter into assessing the rationality of the belief. If I stab myself in the abdomen for no good reason, the act does not become more rational if it just happens that I've lanced a swollen appendix that (unbeknownst to me) was on the verge of bursting.

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  1. “If I stab myself in the abdomen for no good reason, the act does not become more rational if it just happens that I’ve lanced a swollen appendix that (unbeknownst to me) was on the verge of bursting.”

    Julian, I don’t think this would really help with the appendix.

  2. “Julian, I don’t think this would really help with the appendix.”

    I guess he means when he gets to an hospital it will be discovered.

  3. Re Ezra’s comment that “Studies universally find that religious belief and participation offer positive returns for individual health, happiness, finances, personal satisfaction, etc.” is pure poppycock. He doesn’t cite any, naturally, because there aren’t any.

    Throughout the world, financial success is negatively correlated with strong religious belief. Folks with money in the U.S. are Episcopalians, Unitarians, Quakers, Jews, and “other.” In Europe, the atheists are the respectable, law-abiding people, and the believers commit all the crimes.

    The larger problem, which Bryan Caplan calls “voter ignorance,” is due to our simian heritage. We’re pack animals, particularly when we’re frightened. Capitalism is not about the law of the pack. Capitalism is “learned” behavior, and when we’re frightened we fall back on instinct–all for one and one for all, and no one better than the rest. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we’ve learned that capitalism doesn’t work as magically as a lot of people claimed. It presupposes middle-class values as much as it supports them. It doesn’t deliver higher living standards for everyone everywhere all the time. The political battleground of the U.S. these days is the industrial Mid-West, which is a loser under global capitalism, and this is going to push American politics in the “tribal” direction. Opposable thumbs really are both a blessing and a curse.

  4. I think that “political elites” is generally synonymous with “economic elites.” The one becomes the other pretty quickly after any revolution. Immigration is more liberal because the economic elites favor cheap labor.

    I’ve said it before, of course, but every country is basically run by its elites. Voting is a blunt instrument that warns the elites when they’ve gone (or are going) too far. The whole government “by the people” shtick is romanticizing the process by a wide margin. It’s cheaper and more stable than a revolution, which essentially replaces the old elites with new ones.

    All that having been said, a more alert electorate would throw up red flags more often, but the elites long ago learned how to quiet the masses with targeted payoffs. For all we bitch about bloated government, they really do buy quite a bit of peace at a price that’s relatively low, especially when you consider that only part of it comes out of their pockets…we’re paying for our own bribery, after all.

  5. If rational behavior is behavior thats chosen because you think it will benefit you, then the decision to be religious is totally rational.
    This only really applies to people that have really thought about it and decided they preferred to be religious than not. If you never question your religion and follow it blindly it gets a lot harder to argue that its rational.

  6. here we go again.

    is it possible Ezra is just having a semantic debate about what ‘reason’ really means?

    human reason isnt a purely independent of all other forms of consciousness (like emotion or ritual social impulses). and it would not necessarily have more utility if it did.

    also, defining ‘belief’ in limited terms of scripture (i.e. jumping from a person’s adherence to a faith to assuming they are therefore in denial of the earth’s age) is kind of hamhanded. thoughts about faith isnt a utilitarian choice based on assumptions about personal benefits. its mainly driven by the same reason we go to football games. people like to root en masse at symbols in a ritualistic way. its a form of connection and an expansion of identity. its same as the instinct to fuck. people need totems, secular or metaphysical. that this behavior (forming clubs to do communal rituals – psychic gangbangs, in a sense) has social benefits should be obvious – not an arational curiosity that can only be explained by cost-benefit choice analysis.

    anyhoos… this seems too big a point to make in the limted context of some pundits carping about voters picks in a 2 party system and rationality about public policy. ark. my head hurts now. i want to stop thinking about politicians for like a year.

  7. Elites oppose immigration and trade where it does not benefit them-hence Ag subsidies and tariffs,State enforced monopoly and professional licensure,quotas on immigration of skilled or professional labor.Why shouldn’t the masses emulate this with opposition to free trade and immigration of unskilled and semi-skilled labor.
    It is all economically inefficent but Hey it does pay in the short term.

  8. …policy is determined by elites anyway. That’s very often true, and it’s another good reason for small government.

  9. Given the necessarily hierarchical nature of any viable decision making structure it seems to me that anyone who gets to the top will, by default, be a member of the elite. I can see that a closed elite structure with little or no cycling in and out of the great, the good the down and the out would be a bad omen but I’ve never understood the concern about elites in general any more than I understand the wailing over disparities in wealth (for which the same applies).

    The stereotyping of elites is futile for the same reason. They’re not a static group with homogenous views. To give an obvious example, George Soros and George HW Bush are both powerful members of the US elite with obviously divergent views on a range of subjects.

  10. What voters know is that the increase in their incomes are not keeping up with the growth of the economy, and in some cases are falling in real terms. They may be wrong about the reasons, but either the elites don’t know why wages are stagnating, or they know and are unwilling to do anything about it. Neither of these are reasons for voters to trust them.

  11. The problem is that the ‘elite’s’ we get to choose from are lawyers, not economists. At least on the local level they tend to be business owners or people who have succeeded in some entrepreneurial fashion. However I agree with Joan, people see the inequality or lack of health care and retirement savings then blame it on things like globalization, TABOR, immigration, or an inadequate minimum wage because they are fed populist causality messages from both the left and the right. Solution? I duna kno?

  12. I agree with James’s analysis.

    I would add David Friedman’s observation that in the U.S. we’re lucky in that most people here (1) have a basically consequentialist worldview (i.e., anything that has good material consequences can’t be all bad), and (2) are touchy about intererence in their daily lives. (Admittedly, no. 2 has been swamped lately by fear of the “terrorist” boogeyman.)

  13. The larger problem, which Bryan Caplan calls “voter ignorance,” is due to our simian heritage.

    Actually, in my half-century of experience, “voter ignorance” translates into “Those yahoos don’t vote the way we elites think they should. We know what’s best for them, and they should bow to our superior wisdom.”

    Bryan singles out religion as a place “where irrationality seems especially pronounced.”

    Actually, belief in a supreme being is more rational than belief in the benefits of socialistic government. At least you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. The long history of failed socialist experiments ought to drive a stake through the heart of the idea that big government efficiently solves problems. But elites regularly place more faith in government than they do in the Almighty.

    That’s irrational.

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