Donald Trump? WTF? Democracy Can Be Rough.

Libertarians have long warned that democracy might not be all it's cracked up to be.


Donald Trump is doing better and better in the polls. (Though one ought to apply the 8 percent "Deez Nuts" discount to his highest poll number, and assume that people are saying yes to Trump in polls for exactly the same reason they said yes to "Deez Nuts"—for the lulz.)

All the caveats apply: early polling is no solid predictor of future results. No one has actually voted for him yet. People have time to make up their minds as they become familiar with the actual politicians running and aren't just saying yes to the name they recognize.

But the more he exposes himself as ill-tempered, ignorant about public policy, bigotedly protectionist, viewing international relations as zero-sum games in which we must "win" while other losers lose, and with an over-the-map view of governing philosophy that seems as genuinely close to strongman-y nationalistic fascism as we've seen gain any apparent traction in a while (complete with being slow to condemn brownshirt violence by his fans), the more people seem to like the idea of him being president.

See two unsettling surveys of the reasoning behind supporting Trump for president from GQ and The Atlantic and find stews of rabid nationalism, mania, sheer fanboyishness, comedy, and a confused desire to see some kind of big change that they think will help them that they for some reason believe Trump will bring about.

It's possible, I think highly likely, that Trump's sheer classic unapologetic bossman alpha bluster is the bulk of his appeal, which doesn't make any of the more on-the-surface political reasons people dig him less alarming. (Trump opponents, you aren't going to beat him by pointing out he isn't "conservative." I'm not sure he ever said he was, and his fans don't care about that, because he is going to win and he'll make sure America wins and the losers are going to lose, and who wants to be a loser?)

Despite his huge apparent support, many who would not vote for him are quite sure that doing would be one of the stupidest things someone could do. 

How can so many people seem to want this guy to be president?

Well, because when it comes to political choice, people are often idiotic and irrational.

This is not necessarily a character flaw—as libertarian economist Bryan Caplan shows at length in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, excerpted here in Reason in "The 4 Boneheaded Biases of Stupid Voters," especially when it comes to economics, most voters don't know much, know a lot that ain't so, and have zero incentive to learn. And if they are just living their own lives, none of that matters. It's only when they are given the power to select the people who make the policies that get imposed on all of us that it matters.

Voters are, in Caplan's term, not just rationally ignorant, a term that has leaked out to pretty widespread public awareness, roughly meaning that the benefits costs of becoming learned on economics and policy far outweigh the benefits to most normal working Americans.

They are actually rationally irrational, intentionally just plain bonkers in areas where being bonkers has emotional benefits and low to no real costs. For philosopher Michael Huemer expanding on the meaning and dangers of rational irrationality, go here

Telling a pollster you want Donald Trump to be president—or even voting for him—has such low to zero costs, and you don't know any better anyway, so his various anti-trade, zero-sum-game, let-government-take-what-it-wants-to-help-"businessmen"-like-him beliefs aren't bugs, but features: this guy has all the same vague economic (and other) prejudices I do, and is loud n' proud about them!

As Caplan summed up:

Do democracies use everything we know?  Do they constantly strive to learn more?  Do they at least avoid acting on sheer superstition?  I say the answer is no across the board.  When we actually measure voters' policy-relevant beliefs against reasonable proxies for the Truth, voters do poorly.  Democracy's defenders often insist that these errors will harmlessly balance out, but the facts of the matter is that voter errors are usually systematic.  Voters err alike…..

Regardless of ideology, for example, economists have a strong tendency to support free trade, oppose price controls, and favor more open immigration.  The main reason is that they actually know surprising, unpopular facts about trade and markets: Specialization and exchange enrich the world, even if one trading partner is better at everything…

I do think that democracies are very responsive to public opinion.  Given the facts about public opinion, however, responsiveness is greatly overrated.   When the public holds systematically biased beliefs, politicians who want to win have to pander to popular error.  And that's precisely what happens in every major election: Pandering.

….The fact that most people vote for X doesn't make X a good idea.  We also need to take a more favorable view of constitutional checks on democracy.  But above all, the evidence is a strong argument for relying less on government and more on markets.  

Jason Brennan, a libertarian philosopher at Brown   Georgetown University, has also delivered a lot of dark wisdom about the value of democracy in his great book The Ethics of Voting. (Despite this, he remains himself an advocate of a properly-approached democracy. He is not against voting, but against certain damaging types of voting.) While I have not seen him speak out on Trump specifically, many of the arguments in his book add up to the notion that someone who would want to vote for Trump really just should not vote, to be ethical.

As Brennan wrote, generically, about silly voters, they are "often ignorant or misinformed about the relevant facts or, worse, are simply irrational. Though they intend to promote the public good, they all too often lack sufficient evidence to justify the policies they advocate. When they do vote, I argue, they pollute democracy with their votes and make it more likely that we will have to suffer from bad governance."

Libertarians, who value the content of government over the methods of choosing leaders, have long been willing to barely even give two cheers for democracy as a method of selecting political leaders, or at the very least to consider the methods of political choice to be less vital than the actual content of governance, whether it respected citizens' rights and liberty.

For some of the reasons above, and many others, that can't be relied on to be the case. And even a written Constitution designed to limit government's ability to violate rights, as the past century of U.S. history at least shows, can't reliably do the job. Democracy is no guarantee of decent, liberty-respecting governance.

Absent someone as colorfully absurd as Trump, it's easy to forget this. The political beliefs and practices of nearly all the "respectable" candidates would be similarly absurd and damaging, by the way, and one hopes that elite Trumphate might be an opportunity to educate about that.

Trump's utter lack of judgment or apparent self-control, his willingness to play the absurdity as absurdity, the type of human judgment and wisdom he willingly projects, is what makes him a slightly different phenomenon than the average terrible politician.

You might think Trump would make a great president, in which case all the above is meaningless blather. And I should repeat, there is no moral crime in being dumb about economics and policy. But, as Brennan, himself an overall defender of democracy, argues at length in The Ethics of Voting, there might be a moral crime in letting that ignorance or irrationality harm others by voting for politicians or policies that will themselves harm others or the common good. People's ignorance or irrationality as a private indulgence is their business, and I'm sure they enjoy it. When democracy allows them to turn it into a weapon, that's a problem.

You might think, conversely, that it isn't relevant because, well, it just is absolutely impossible that a majority of even Republican primary voters could ever select Trump to be president. (Roughly, political wisdom based on experience and not current poll numbers says that the bizarrely outre election result rarely happens. History would indicate that a boring, "acceptable" choice like John Kasich is more likely to win the nomination than the heroically bizarre outlier Trump.)

But if you do agree with all the reasons that a President The Donald would be a bizarre, unthinkable disaster, and you look at the current poll numbers, you might start to wonder if the results of democracy, independent of the actual content of governance, is as unassailably wonderful as grade school civics indicates.

How can phenomenon like Trump happen, many previous admirers of democracy are now wondering? Because, as many libertarians have known all along, voting itself is by no means a guarantee of an acceptable or just or even sane political outcome.