Economics

How Irrational Are Voters?

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Some interesting press about a very interesting new book by Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University: The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.

The New York Times Magazine gives it a once-over, summing up its message thusly:

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, has attracted notice for raising a pointed question: Do voters have any idea what they are doing?….Caplan argues that "voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational — and vote accordingly." Caplan's complaint is not that special-interest groups might subvert the will of the people, or that government might ignore the will of the people. He objects to the will of the people itself.

In defending democracy, theorists of public choice sometimes invoke what they call "the miracle of aggregation." It might seem obvious that few voters fully understand the intricacies of, say, single-payer universal health care. (I certainly don't.) But imagine, Caplan writes, that just 1 percent of voters are fully informed and the other 99 percent are so ignorant that they vote at random. In a campaign between two candidates, one of whom has an excellent health care plan and the other a horrible plan, the candidates evenly split the ignorant voters' ballots. Since all the well-informed voters opt for the candidate with the good health care plan, she wins. Thus, even in a democracy composed almost exclusively of the ignorant, we achieve first-rate health care.

The hitch, as Caplan points out, is that this miracle of aggregation works only if the errors are random. When that's the case, the thousands of ill-informed votes in favor of the bad health plan are canceled out by thousands of equally ignorant votes in favor of the good plan. But Caplan argues that in the real world, voters make systematic mistakes about economic policy — and probably other policy issues too.

The Times' author Gary J. Bass misses one of the book's most interesting ideas: the principle of "rational irrationality." This goes beyond the standard public choice concept of "rational ignorance" (where voters aren't educated on policy because it doesn't pay off personally for them to be so) to point out that, since people get some pleasure out of certain irrational beliefs, and in a voting process in which we have almost zero chance of affecting the outcome it doesn't particularly cost us anything to indulge them, people have economically sound reasons to not bother being rational when they vote. Indeed, they don't bother doing so, he maintains (with scads of evidence) in his book. I first referred to this concept of Caplan's in the pages of reason in this May 2003 review essay about public opinion research and democracy.

A review of Caplan's book in the lefty mag In These Times is in many ways a more thorough explanation of what Caplan has to say (author Christopher Hayes does understand and explain the centrality of "rational irrationality" to Caplan's thesis) and, despite ideological differences, gives some kudos:

It's tempting to dismiss Caplan's thesis out of hand, because it's so self-consciously "provocative" and because he's translating an old discredited anti-democratic argument into the jargon of econocentric elite-speak. But if you support democracy, you must confront the fact that voters can often be stunningly under-informed and that majoritarianism run amok can lead to persecution, hatred and injustice. Reading Caplan's book, then, is both bracing and necessary because it forces the reader to stare into the abyss—an abyss the author seems only too happy to jump into.

Caplan blogs at Econlog. He contributed to a reason interview roundtable on the Federal Reserve in our November 2006 issue.

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  1. Well that would explain Hugo Chavez’s continuing popularity.

  2. Like those articles from a while back about too many choices leading to unhappiness, I cringe at the thought of how this will be used by those who want to legislate away “wrong thinking” (particularly after reading a lot of the fawning pro-Chavez rationalizations currently swirling around the blogosphere).

    Fortunately, this book at least sounds like a good argument in favor of limited government… even if practically no politically active people outside the Libertarian Party are likely to chose to interpret it that way.

  3. The good thing about democracy isn’t that we get to vote for the guy we want, it’s that we get the opportunity to vote out the incumbent…

    …maybe there are other good things about democracy too; maybe I just can’t think of any right now.

  4. Democracy is the worst form of government…

  5. Ken makes a good point.

    The initial purpose of the American democracy was to provide a check on the accumulation of power by those entrusted with the state.

    Direct translation of the popular will was not particularly foreseen or, I would argue, even desired.

    Since that time, the concept of democracy has morphed into a theory that essentially holds that there is no such thing as the Good until the will of the people declares what the Good is. That’s a lot taller order for democracy to fill than merely being a tool available to occasionally “throw the bums out”.

  6. This all reminds me of the “everyone’s opinion matters” bull that we feed our children. That only applies as children when everyone is equally ignorant about everything, and in certain situations as adults. We also never teach our children (nor were taught ourselves) the difference between matters of opinion and matters of fact.

    The democracy defenders always elude to totalitarianism as the only alternative, and seemingly forget that we could always keep democracy, but relieve people of the burden of making so many collective choices if we merely limit the power of government. Then the pressure to choose the right/most-moral/seemingly-best policymaker to make policies for everyone everywhere wouldn’t be nearly as great.

  7. Fluffy,

    If you read the Federalist Papers and other like commentary from the time the purpose of many of the founders was largely one concerning national security.

    Anyway, I ain’t the first person to comment that the American Constitution was the most radically democratic founding document that the world had likely ever seen. Consider the dramatically expanded franchise associated with the election of the ratification delegates.

  8. Reinmoose,

    Well, there is always aristocracy or an aristocracy masquerading as a democracy.

  9. I would generally agree with each analysis posted above with one caveat: you don’t need “majoritarianism run amok” to have bad policy under a Democratic system.

    All you need is a stubborn, willful and organized minority. That will always beat a disorganized, apathetic majority. That explains the persistence of bad policies that polls often show that majorities oppose. Those same majorities just cannot be bothered.

  10. Grotius! Ix-nay on the asquerading-may!

  11. Study: 38 Percent Of People Not Actually Entitled To Their Opinion

    CHICAGO-In a surprising refutation of the conventional wisdom on opinion entitlement, a study conducted by the University of Chicago’s School for Behavioral Science concluded that more than one-third of the U.S. population is neither entitled nor qualified to have opinions.

    “On topics from evolution to the environment to gay marriage to immigration reform, we found that many of the opinions expressed were so off-base and ill-informed that they actually hurt society by being voiced,” said chief researcher Professor Mark Fultz, who based the findings on hundreds of telephone, office, and dinner-party conversations compiled over a three-year period. “While people have long asserted that it takes all kinds, our research shows that American society currently has a drastic oversupply of the kinds who don’t have any good or worthwhile thoughts whatsoever. We could actually do just fine without them.”

    In 2002, Fultz’s team shook the academic world by conclusively proving the existence of both bad ideas during brainstorming and dumb questions during question-and-answer sessions.

    http://www.theonion.com/content/news_briefs/study_38_percent_of_people

  12. This sounds like a bunch of elitist crap.

    When you vote, you’re making a prediction about the future by selecting the person whom you think will do the best job. Is there really a way to rationally do this? And if there was, why not do away with elections and simply use that rational method to select leaders?

  13. Dan T.,

    Are there natural elites?

  14. Anyway, once you start to question whether people are equal or not it opens a whole can of bees that some elements of the Enlightenment thought that it had solved.

  15. And if there was, why not do away with elections and simply use that rational method to select leaders?

    That’s the point, Dan: There isn’t a more rational way to do this, which is one of the many reasons why government is destined to be run poorly.

    Congratulations, you’re almost a libertarian.

  16. But Caplan argues that in the real world, voters make systematic mistakes about economic policy – and probably other policy issues too.

    Of course,in the real world, voters generally don’t make decisions on policy from the ballot box.

  17. Indeed, if the vast majority of a polity are fundamentally (or simply generally) irrational when it comes to politics, what does that say about their day to day lives? Or about the relationship between them and those who act rationally in the political realm?

  18. Let’s take it back to the days of only property owners (to be modern or post-modern, allow for female property owners)being able to vote.

  19. That’s the point, Dan: There isn’t a more rational way to do this, which is one of the many reasons why government is destined to be run poorly.

    But I’d say that some governments are run poorly, some are run well.

  20. But I’d say that some governments are run poorly, some are run well.

    Only relative to each other.

    Compare how governments run with how very large corporations run, and I think you’ll find that, by and large, even GM, Microsoft, and Walmart are paragons of organizational virtue.

  21. But I’d say that some governments are run poorly, some are run well.

    Name one well-run government.

  22. voters generally don’t make decisions on policy from the ballot box.

    Voters make plenty of decisions on policy at the ballot box. There are 5-10 state constitutional amendments on the ballot every 2 years here in Florida. Thanks to this tyranny of the masses we now have an amendment on the proper treatment of pregnant pigs. That is nowhere near as silly as the 2000 amendment requiring light rail that was removed a scant 4 years later by the same process.

  23. This is why markets are better than democracy. The incentives to act rationally are stronger and people that make irrational decisions become less influential over time. The invisible hand has it all over vox populi

  24. > The democracy defenders always elude to totalitarianism as the only alternative, and seemingly forget that we could always keep democracy, but relieve people of the burden of making so many collective choices if we merely limit the power of government. Then the pressure to choose the right/most-moral/seemingly-best policymaker to make policies for everyone everywhere wouldn’t be nearly as great.

    This is the key point. Making decisions by consensus is a bad way to make decisions, so we should limit the number of decisions that are made by consensus. As an example, imagine if ISPs were suddenly nationalized in the US, and every four years the American public had to choose which bundle of technology to embrace for the next four years…the Internet would fall apart almost instantly!

  25. Rationality is often in the mind of the beholder. A “rational” health care policy is rather different for a person who is young and healthy as opposed to a chronically ill senior. By the same token, the ability to shed long term workers easily from their jobs may be beneficial to the corporate bottom line but is usually advocated by tenured academics or CEOs with fat severance provisions in their own contracts.

  26. But I’d say that some governments are run poorly, some are run well.

    They do make the trains run on time!

    Drink!

  27. Democracy has one tremendous flaw… there is no proportionality between voting power, taxation, and benefits.

    On one side, 25% of taxpayers with limited voting power contribute 85% total income taxes (Source). However, being the highest earners, they receive very little in government benefits.

    On the other side, the majority of the population pays less in taxes than it receives in benefits. As a result, they have every reason to support even greater government tax-and-spend welfare, knowing that they’ll get the benefits, but won’t have to pay for it. It’s amazing how generous voters can be with someone else’s money.

    My proposal is to deal with it would be to redesign the voting franchise.

    Yes… every citizen of the age of majority would still get to vote… (I’d even do away with the whole “citizenship” requirement and allow all taxpayers to vote) the only difference would be that each vote would be multiplied by the total amount of taxes paid by the voter since the last election.

    This could most easily be accomplished at the municipal level, where typically the only taxes are on property, but it could just as easily be applied to federal and state income taxes. Sales taxes would be trickier, unless you’re really good at keeping receipts.

    The benefit of all this would hopefully be an end to ever-expanding welfare statism.

    Your thoughts?

  28. Grotius | May 29, 2007, 4:54pm | #

    Indeed, if the vast majority of a polity are fundamentally (or simply generally) irrational when it comes to politics, what does that say about their day to day lives? Or about the relationship between them and those who act rationally in the political realm?

    Good point. Something i’ve tried to say a number of times on this board in different contexts. Reason is always a tainted process that doesnt exist entirely independently from emotion or identity or tribalism or myth or conformity or lifestage or social status, etc. For some it does more than others, but it is never unmixed.

  29. Aren’t elections in a free nation just like markets (built on voluntary choice, albeit influenced by advertising), and isn’t this market failure? I’ve been in, terested in how libertarians view this.

  30. as an afterthought, I’d add that if people *were* actually capable of ‘pure, untainted rationality’, it wouldnt necessarily ge a good thing, either.

    I think neitzche wrote something along these lines but I am too dumb to remember

  31. As far as Caplan goes, he’s onto something. But it’s irreleveant. We’re not a democracy. We’re a republic. The duty of the voter in a republic is to select competent public servants, and then hold them responsible for the results of their policies. Unlike democratic government, in a republic, a complete understanding of policy is neither practical nor necessary. Everyone (especially in the media) seems to think that these two forms of government are synonymous.

  32. Well, I doubt that aristocrats would make policies that are any better. They would make worse policies out of self interest than the public could make out of ignorance. A constitution is the best way to prevent the worse policies. Of course, in a state where the constitution gets ammended every few years, it isn’t that effective.

  33. Ken:

    “Aren’t elections in a free nation just like markets (built on voluntary choice, albeit influenced by advertising), and isn’t this market failure? I’ve been in, terested in how libertarians view this.”

    Modern democracy is one huge negative externality… you can vote for whatever benefits you want (pre-kindergarten care, single-payer universal health, prescription drug benefits, etc…), but someone else has to bear the costs.

  34. A majority of the time I hear the “people are voting irrationally” argument it translates as “they voted against something I favor.”

    Last month I had a long discussion with someone that went, “Yes, I do understand about public financing of elections, and that checking the little boxes won’t raise the amount on my current 1040, but I’m still not checking them because I really truly don’t like public financing of elections and by the way it does eventually raise taxes.”

    Never did convince her I was “rational.”

  35. Russ R,

    I wouldn’t mind living in a tricameral system. One house with representation proportional to taxation, one house with representation proportional to population, and one house (Senate) with equal representation to each state and elected by that state’s legislature. Each house would have to pass the same bill before it became law. Funding bills would start in the tax house. Bills regarding the courts, crime, and war would start in the population house. Bills regarding interstate relations or new federal powers would start in the Senate.

  36. Aren’t elections in a free nation just like markets (built on voluntary choice, albeit influenced by advertising), and isn’t this market failure? I’ve been in, terested in how libertarians view this.

    No, because in a market, it isn’t “Winner Takes All”.

    If I want to buy Organic Vegan Soy-Free Mayonaise Substitute (and I am not making this up, such a thing exists) from my local supermarket (yes, the local big chain supermarket actually carries the product in its “health food” section), I can do so.

    Where as, government would be more like if every 4 years everyone voted on the one type of Mayo that everyone should be forced to eat (which would be Miracle Whip, because it is Mayo + Corn Syrup, and 2 out of 3 people prefer Miracle Whip). And even then, it would be a choice of only two brands of Mayo, the Soy-Free Vegan Mayo wouldn’t even be on the ballot.

  37. We’re not a democracy. We’re a republic. The duty of the voter in a republic is to select competent public servants, and then hold them responsible for the results of their policies. Unlike democratic government, in a republic, a complete understanding of policy is neither practical nor necessary.

    Point taken. However, voters will judge the competence of a public servant and the results of his policies based on whether or not the voter likes the policies or thinks that the policies are good according to whatever the voter’s policy preferences might be.

    Which gets us right back to what Caplan is talking about.

    The distinctions you draw are important conceptually, but only to the extent that people recognize those distinctions and apply the resulting insights when making decisions.

  38. “People get the governments they deserve.”

  39. Aren’t elections in a free nation just like markets (built on voluntary choice, albeit influenced by advertising), and isn’t this market failure?

    Elections in a democracy are not even fucking close to the way markets work EXCEPT for the aggregation of irrational actions. A free market STILL provides some kind of “representation” for those with esoteric tastes. Elections in the US democracy are winner-take-all, which is the complete antithesis of markets.

    If you buy something you don’t like, you can change your mind right away. With democracy you are fucking stuck with your bad decision for years. The only opt out capability you have is assassination, which is rather drastic.

    Markets work more like a parliamentary system – the top vote getter gets the top seat, but the “losers” aren’t completely shut out. For example, if the LP got, say, 5% of the vote in a gubernatorial election, the more market-like approach would be the LP getting 5% of the seats in a house of representatives. In a market-like democracy, there is no fucking way in hell a president with approval ratings below 33% should retain office for another minute.

  40. No form of government can guarantee “good leadership” {whatever that is).

    The principal virtue of a democracy is that it allows you to change the rulers without a war. Ken @ 4:26 comes close to this in his comment about “voting out”, but doesn’t quite touch on the point of avoiding killing one another over who will be on top.

    Further, democracies and republics are far more resilient in crisis than authoritarian states.

  41. Tacos mmm | May 29, 2007, 5:37pm | #
    As far as Caplan goes, he’s onto something. But it’s irreleveant. We’re not a democracy. We’re a republic. The duty of the voter in a republic is to select competent public servants, and then hold them responsible for the results of their policies. Unlike democratic government, in a republic, a complete understanding of policy is neither practical nor necessary.

    Well put.

    the founders understood that voters are capricious and self destructive. Caplan thinks its a shock.

    some good stuff regarding Founders disdain for ‘democracy’

    http://users.law.capital.edu/dmayer/blog/blogIndex.asp?entry=20050606.asp

    e.g.

    Virginia’s Edmund Randolph, a member of the 1787 Convention, reminded his fellow delegates that their mission was “to provide a cure for the evils under which the United States labored,” namely “the turbulence and trials of democracy.” Samuel Adams championed the new federal Constitution in his own state, Massachusetts, because it was not democratic: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself,” he noted, echoing the classical model’s theory, “There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Alexander Hamilton, in a June 1788 speech urging his fellow New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, declared: “It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.” And James Madison, writing in perhaps his most famous Federalist essay, No. 10, noted that “democracies have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths.

  42. Gilmore,

    The founders generally differentiated between “democracy” and popular government. As I noted above, an expanded franchise was part of the ratification process (at least in many states).

  43. We’re not a democracy….

    thoreau | May 29, 2007, 5:54pm | #

    Point taken. However, voters will judge the competence of a public servant and the results of his policies based on whether or not the voter likes the policies or thinks that the policies are good according to whatever the voter’s policy preferences might be.

    yes, but you’re talking about voters judging the competency of a public servant as an incumbant, because the only way people develop opinions about right or wrong policy is in their effect. When it comes to new unproven candidates, they vote with their emoticon-tribalism computer that has little to do with rational thinking.

    thousands will vote for fred thompson because he looks the most like a president they once saw on TV.

    I think caplan may have a point, but if any, it’s something common sense and obvious being translated into smarmy science-ese

  44. Russ, jtuf-

    Interesting ideas. I’ve pondered the idea of some sort of vote-weighting matrix system, i.e., where one’s vote is weighted based on say both income and education level.

  45. Interesting responses. I too think a great thing about markets is that they protect little minority niches. A fella can get rich selling classical music cds, even if they are only 3% of the music buying market.
    On the other hand, I can think of some markets where you only have two or three choices. Where I live you have only two cinema chains (Regal, Carmike). I like pro wrestling and it’s a virtual monopoly (there is simply the WWE, but I catch TNA on Spike). I can think of a few others…
    Another way that markets strike me as different was kind of mentioned (or I only kind of understood them) by those who mentioned the externalities and such. In elections the winning choice can then force things on others. This is not typical of markets, except that when a product gets a “vote” it does induce producers to make more of it and less of what you may want. This can get to the point where the “market has spoken” and no producer is willing to make what you want.
    I’ve still yet to hear much about what this means for the “advertising is harmless” riff I hear about in Reason all the time. It’s clearly the advertising that causes (or beter to say ‘channels’) a great deal of the irrationality in voters. If it does the same things to markets it could be disrupting the overall utility of markets (of course, that is not the only reason to favor markets, the protection of minority niches such as above are in my opinion a great effect of markets)

  46. I wanted to add that Taco’s mmm statement was very interesting. I remember Woodrow Wilson had this vision of government, that accountability should be at arms length, little micromanaging and more holding the ultimate ‘decider’ responsible at spaced out intervals.

  47. Grotius | May 29, 2007, 6:22pm | #
    Gilmore,

    The founders generally differentiated between “democracy” and popular government. As I noted above, an expanded franchise was part of the ratification process (at least in many states

    Sure, and I saw your comment. But their awareness of the suicidal, bone-headed stupidity of voters is still noteworthy. Yes, the US constitution may have been the *most* democratic, revolutionary document of its time, but it’s kind of an easy win in context. I think 90% of the world had kings at the time. But they had no inherent love of athenian pure democracy, and understood the dangers of too much popular control.

  48. Thoreu:
    Point taken. However, voters will judge the competence of a public servant and the results of his policies based on whether or not the voter likes the policies or thinks that the policies are good according to whatever the voter’s policy preferences might be.

    It wasn’t either of these things that got Bush elected in 2000. Policy-wise, the man was a blank slate. He just had a presidential name. And it has been the results of his policies that caused the electorial massacre of his party last year. Politicians rarely outline more than their political priorities during campaign – “I will help the poor, fight global warming” or “I will fight the terrorists, secure our oil supply,” etc. Few people in the voting public are equipped to understand the particulars of how any of these things will be done, and almost no one (Hit and Run included) knows simultaneously how to deal with such complicated issues as Iraq, healthcare, immigration, the US policy towards China… these things are so complex that in themselves, they need panels of experts. What the voter expects of a candidate is to 1) have the “right” priorities 2) deliver results based on those priorities.

  49. It may well be that voters aren’t rational, or, at the very least, include both irrational and rational motives when deciding who to vote for, but that may only be true on a prospective basis. Throw the bums out is a perfectly rational rule, assuming that those in office are, indeed, bums. Political scientists even have jargon for this. It’s called retrospective voting. Of course, the divil ye know may be better than the one that ye don’t, but I’m sure we can all leaf through our history books and find examples of pols who either screwed up royally or happened to be in office when the country went through bad times, and got tossed out on their ears.

    Consider some examples:

    Truman couldn’t bring the Korean War to a successful conclusion. His party let him know that it wasn’t going to renominate him, and the electorate chose someone who played a huge part in winning the last war, Eisenhower.

    Johnson had a similarly tough time over Viet Nam, and also chose not to run in 1968. Humphrey came within an eyelash of catching Nixon, but add in the Wallace vote and the “agins” beat the incumbent party handily.

    Jimmy Carter lived and died by this voter tendency. Gerald Ford was punished for what Nixon did, and for the general state of the country in the stagflation 70s. Carter was in turn slapped down in 1980 for failing to solve the problems of inflation and unemployment. Reagan just topped 50%, but Carter only got 41%.

    The Republicans, getting credit for an improved economy, won two Presidencies as the incumbent party. But when things turned a bit sour in the early 90s, George H.W. Bush couldn’t hold their coalition together, and did even worse than Carter (37.4%.)

    Then there are those instances of one or both houses of Congress flipping, especially at mid-term, which can signal dissatisfaction with the results of current policies. We’d probably see more of this if it weren’t for the Incumbent Protection Acts – gerrymandered safe seats and campaign finance reform (sic.)

    Does anyone who has read Caplan’s book know how he deals with the theories of political scientists such as V.O. Key or Morris P. Fiorina?

    Kevin

  50. Big Al Tocqueville said it best: “Give power to the majority, they’ll oppress the minority; give power to the minority, they’ll oppress the majority.”

    Trouble is, people keep forgetting to read the first half of that statement.

    That, in a nutshell, sums up the problem. So…is there anyone here who thinks the Electoral College is a bad idea?

  51. .Ken | May 29, 2007, 6:27pm | #

    It’s clearly the advertising that causes (or beter to say ‘channels’) a great deal of the irrationality in voters.

    Chicken or the egg?

    could it be just that advertising effectively exploits pre-existing irrationality? It seems a little strange to suggest Ads “make people irrational”. They help people make decisions by pulling the strings of their irrationality. “ooh, he has kids! and he likes God!” No one asks about monetary policy.

  52. So…is there anyone here who thinks the Electoral College is a bad idea?

    not me. I just wish their football team were better.

  53. Aren’t elections in a free nation just like markets (built on voluntary choice, albeit influenced by advertising), and isn’t this market failure? I’ve been interested in how libertarians view this.

    Ken,
    The break down between voting and rational market behavior is most easily understood if you give your daughter your platinum Mastercard.
    Her market behavior will be totally different from when she is spending her own money.

    Voters (quite understandably) know they are spending other peoples money.

  54. This argument is one half-step away from traditional political arguments. “Why don’t they behave rationally” will then instantly devolve into a debate over what is the “rational” correct vote. Isn’t that the same issue faced by the book “What’s the matter with Kansas”? It asks the question of why people in Kansas would continue to vote against their own interests (meaning, continue to vote Republican). The question itself assumes that voting for Democrats is the correct choice. What poses as some sort of meta-argument is really just the same old arguments dressed up in a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches. And perhaps smoking a pipe as well.

  55. Big Al Tocqueville said it best: “Give power to the majority, they’ll oppress the minority; give power to the minority, they’ll oppress the majority.”

    Trouble is, people keep forgetting to read the first half of that statement.

    That, in a nutshell, sums up the problem. So…is there anyone here who thinks the Electoral College is a bad idea?

    Actually, the Libertarian solution is to give neither power… or at least strictly limit the power, and therefore the oppressiveness of either side.

  56. What poses as some sort of meta-argument is really just the same old arguments dressed up in a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches. And perhaps smoking a pipe as well.

    indeed! Here here. (puf, puf) I must concur, sir. Jeeves! a brandy.

    ahem.

    Yeah, I agree. I said something similar earlier, but less artfully. It’s sort of ironic that we accept rhetoric dressed up a science…making a point that people are irrational 🙂

    Dr. Leiderhosen, your patients are waiting.

  57. “Isn’t that the same issue faced by the book “What’s the matter with Kansas”? It asks the question of why people in Kansas would continue to vote against their own interests (meaning, continue to vote Republican). The question itself assumes that voting for Democrats is the correct choice. What poses as some sort of meta-argument is really just the same old arguments dressed up in a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches. And perhaps smoking a pipe as well.”

    Not exactly the same argument.

    People, because of what they share in the way they process information, exhibit inherent, and systematic reasoning errors, from a strictly rationalist stand point.

    Human cognition is not inherently rational, but does have some systematic tendencies that will show up in aggregated behaviors like markets and voting.

    So you can expect systematic biases in the way voters vote that have nothing to do with rationality.

    Here
    http://duncanpierce.org/node/53

    Is a list of some common biases that can be expected to systematically skew voters behavior away from either rational or random voting…

    Advertisers have learned a lot about how to exploit these systematic biases, and their techniques are very much a part of how politicians sell themselves and how companies sell their products.

    Luckily, the system is somewhat self-correcting by having check and balances, and term-limits, and the like.

  58. Dan T,

    “This sounds like a bunch of elitist crap. ”

    Hey your clock must be stopped! You are right.

    I’m no fan of “the tyranny of the majority” but I trust my fellow Americans a lot more than any bureaucrats or “experts”.

  59. Several people have made this point already (most recently Rex Rhino), but nevertheless several other people continue to be very good at missing the point. Therefore I would like to restate it thusly:

    (Specific theoretical examples are used to make this more pungent and hopefully more noticeable.

    Our options are not limited to the following:

    1) Vote for the Republicans, and let the Republicans make laws that tell us who we can fuck. (Probably not a good choice.)

    2) Vote for the Democrats, and let the Democrats make laws that tell us who we can fuck. (Probably the better choice, if those are our choices.)

    3) Do not trust the voters to vote correctly, and instead install an educated aristocracy or benevolent dictatorship or some other kind of elitist arrrangement to wisely tell us who we can fuck.

    There is, instead, a 4th option:

    4) Have a government with sufficiently restricted power that, no matter what faction the voters put into power, nobody has the authority to tell anybody who to fuck.

    We don’t have to argue about what is the “rational, correct vote” for the whole country if we leave matters up to individuals to decide themselves, to the maximum degree possible.

  60. I don’t remember the priest telling me when I went to Confession when I was a kid, “Well, Lance, it was wrong of you to disobey your mom and talk back to her like that, but since you set the table every night and do your homework and sent your aunt a birthday card, what the heck! You’re a good kid. Your sins are forgiven automatically. No need for you to do any penance.”??? ???? ?? ??? ?????

  61. Stevo Darkly | May 29, 2007, 9:09pm | #

    …nevertheless several other people continue to be very good at missing the point

    possibly.

    But other people have also been talking about a different angle altogether than your 1-4 option thing

    I think the topic was more interesting because of the question about ‘irrational reasoning’. Not who to vote for, or anything about why less-government is rational or not.

    I think it is. I feel it is. I may be wrong but for all i know it may be right (cue guitar line)

    Most people probably vote for the haircuts that appeal most to them.

    I’m voting for Obama in the primary because hilary and rudy both have too much experience. i hope they one day both get real jobs. Plus, I want to be a white man living in a black man’s world.

  62. This is a thoughtful discussion. I wish more threads were as high-quality. Keep up the good work…

    Lost in Paradise

  63. i couldnt read the whole thread just yet, but id like to add that a good defintion of irrationality would be supporting a policy x because you think it has effect y when in fact (you can convincingly demonstrate) it really has effect z.

  64. Stevo Darkly,

    4) Have a government with sufficiently restricted power that, no matter what faction the voters put into power, nobody has the authority to tell anybody who to fuck.

    Of course one has to convince people that is appropriate so that they adopt it and follow through with it after adoption. So one is back to square one.

    One wonders, can one have a demoratically created libertarian government?

  65. For those folks who think that most voters are largely rational, let me disabuse you of that notion. I ran for office. I met with thousands of voters. Some of the more awe-inspiring moments on the campaign trail:

    1) A voter in a rusted-out Datsun telling me she “always votes for whoever has the most yard signs up.”

    2) An lady in her late 90s who was quite proud of having always voted in every election for roughly 8 decades, and having marked her ballot for a Democrat in every single race (including a dead person, Patsy Mink)

    3) Many, many people who told me they just voted for whoever was endorsed by the labor unions (who all endorsed the dead person, BTW).

    4) Many people who asked just one question, and said they based their decision on that one answer (usually “are you against gay marriage?”)

    5) One person, who had an open door when I went up to his house, slamming his door and deadbolting it as soon as he saw what party label I had chosen

    6) People with multiple yard signs of politicians with totally opposite political philosophies, but all of the same ethnicity

    7) People who didn’t know who their elected officials were, who proudly bragged that they never missed a chance to vote.

    8) People with my opponent’s yard sign up, saying they liked me and would vote for me, and also for that nice fellow whose sign was in their yard

    9) A person who had my yard sign up, who called me up, furious at one position of dozens in my campaign mailer, and saying she would not vote for me even though she totally agreed with everything else in my brochure, and even though she had no idea where my opponent stood on that issue or any other

    10) Did the mention the dead person thing?

  66. Leif | May 29, 2007, 10:36pm | #
    i couldnt read the whole thread just yet, but id like to add that a good defintion of irrationality would be supporting a policy x because you think it has effect y when in fact (you can convincingly demonstrate) it really has effect z.

    WHO LETS SWEDES COMMENT ON ANYTHING AMERICAN>!? LEFTISTS

  67. Russ –

    Your idea about voting according to taxation has already been tried, after a fashion.

    In the Roman Republic, the votes for officeholders was taken “by the centuries”, a complicated voting system which boiled down to class-based voting where the votes of the wealthy counted more and usually determined the issue on their own before the poor even voted.

    This didn’t work out that well in the end, since the effectively disenfranchised minority sought other outlets to express its political will, first through a parallel system of government where a popular assembly declared its own laws directly, and when that was neutered, by supporting demagogues who sought to undermine the system and eventually [via Caesar] toppled the Republic entirely.

    One man, one vote isn’t necessarily about finding the best governing system, the best policies, or even the best representatives. It’s also about a basic human drive to not be subordinate. If you devise a governing system that tells people their vote is worth less because of their social class, all you will end up doing is embittering the majority against your system. You may get the “right” electoral outcomes a couple of times, but eventually someone will come along to express the wills that have been frustrated. If you’re unlucky, that person will be a Lenin – and then you’ll be treated to some really irrational outcomes. We’re much better off devising a system that requires immense supermajorities for fundamental change [like the Constitutional system] but which nominally gives each person an equal vote.

  68. Name one well-run government.

    I think the US government is pretty well-run.

    After all, it’s successfully created the leading civilization in the world.

  69. Only relative to each other.

    This is like saying that the Indianapolis Colts are only a good football team compared to other football teams.


    Compare how governments run with how very large corporations run, and I think you’ll find that, by and large, even GM, Microsoft, and Walmart are paragons of organizational virtue.

    I don’t know how you can make that comparison as a business and a government have very different goals. Wal-mart is great when you need light bulbs but I’m not sure I’d trust them to govern a large country.

  70. My wife’s thesis is on how people respond to their political system. Part of the reason that Americans are poorly-educated about their government is…they’re supposed to be!

    Basically, PR systems provide more incentive to be informed than Single Member Districts. And being rich provides more incentive to be informed than being poor. And a bunch of other things, but those are the two strongest causations. And, given that the US is rich and SMD, it is, not surprisingly, near the top end of the SMD range. But we are less informed, generally, than most PR nations. Because we have less incentive to learn.

    Neat stuff. Smart one, Mrs. Damar…

  71. After all, it’s successfully created the leading civilization in the world.

    And there we have the pathology of statism encapsulated in one sentence. Nothing good happens unless the state does it; everything good that happens must have been done by the state.

    God forbid that the vast majority of civilization-building that was done in the USA by non-state actors be given any recognition at all.

  72. Mrs. Damar is smart. Where I live it is theoretically possible to elect a representative who is not a candidate of the Democratic party, but that has never happened in the over 30 years I have lived within the city limits. Our municipal and county elections are officially non-partisan, and we don’t have voter registration by party, so perhaps there have been some secret Republicans elected from time to time. Our current county executive was a Republican state legislator, but he ran up his winning margin in the suburbs, and only got the chance to run when a long-term incumbent was ousted in a recall election made necessary by a financial scandal. Our state’s senior Senator, a Democrat, is an entrenched millionaire incumbent, while the junior Senator, of the same party, could conceivably be defeated, but is also becoming an institution.

    Urban politics being as they are, my Democratic state senator is sometimes accused by the local lefty activists of being a crypto-Republican, while my county supervisor shows up at the annual picnic of the Socialist party.

    All of this is to say that, except for statewide elections, my interest in politics is essentially academic, which I suppose is somehow fitting. I do have an undergraduate degree in political science, and, given the fact that since I earned it I haven’t been employed in a position that required that specific training, my interest in politics could essentially be considered a hobby.* I’d expect that to be true for many politically aware people who live in uncompetitive constituencies, if they are not part of the local majority. There’s also the perverse effect that the combination of registration by party, closed primaries and partisan elections has. People who are sympathetic to the stated goals of a particular minority party often register as members of the dominant party so that they can participate in the only elections that matter, the dominant party’s primaries.

    No matter how ineffective my interest in politics may be, I don’t think it is any more nonsensical than rooting for my favorite sports teams. Arguably, if I make a good a point about the local nine’s pitching rotation, the manager is unlikely to be paying attention. If I want to make trenchant political comments to one of my representatives they might take heed, especially if they are unaware of how unlikely it is that I would ever vote for them.

    Kevin

    * I have run for office as a Libertarian candidate, which could be considered putting my degree to work. It was sorta like someone who has just earned an undergraduate degree in business administration applying for a top spot at a large firm that is certain to go to someone with a more impressive resume. Best case, I influenced the debate in those campaigns a bit, or the relative positioning of the various candidates.

  73. And there we have the pathology of statism encapsulated in one sentence. Nothing good happens unless the state does it; everything good that happens must have been done by the state.

    That’s quite an exaggeration of what I’m saying. The state is simply the institution that we’ve put together to provide a framework that allows our society to florish.


    God forbid that the vast majority of civilization-building that was done in the USA by non-state actors be given any recognition at all.

    In that case, shouldn’t the government be given credit for helping and allowing those actors to do their thing? And remember, the state was created by non-state actors…

  74. The situation is even worse than this. Voters generally do not vote directly for policies; they vote for candidates for office who enact legislation.

    Voters are generally ignorant of the political stands of candidates for office, even on the issues they consider most important; for example, most voters think that Hillary Clinton has opposed the Iraq War from the outset, despite the fact that she voted for it.

    Legislators are generally ignorant of the legislation they are considering; few actually read the bills they vote on. That is how the PATRIOT renewal bill managed to include a section giving Bush the power to appoint federal prosecutors outside the normal process.

    Legislators almost never follow up on the effects of previously passed legislation, whether the results are good, bad, or indifferent, and almost never investigate how the laws are being administered.

  75. “Irrational” government practices do not imply either an undemocratic system or irrational voters. Our system is broken because it contains lots of “incentive traps” — situations akin to the Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals, each acting perfectly rationally, caused a disaster.

    I would like to see a scholarly effort (to be followed, if successful, by a constitutional convention) to redesign the system to get rid of these traps. I would expect it to make two major kinds of changes:

    (1) Remove powers that create potential for harm. One example: prohibit the federal government from doling out funds to state and local governments on condition that they follow Congress’ bidding on matters where the federal government has no jurisdiction of its own. Another example: replace the federal government’s general power to regulate interstate commerce with a narrower power that lets them prohibit violent and property crimes that cross state lines, but doesn’t let them impose licensing schemes on entire industries.

    (2) Change at least one house of Congress to a proportional-representation scheme such as STV, so that no member represents a specific geographic district smaller than the entire US (and thus, no member can “bring home pork”).

  76. There are two problems with democracy:
    1. Leaders
    2. One person one vote

    This new form of government gets rid of those two obstacles to true democracy and solves pretty much every criticism I see in the comments on this page:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source_governance
    http://www.metagovernment.org

    Sure, the concept isn’t perfect, but it is far better than any other. Including representative democracy, democratic republics, etc.

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