No to the know-nothing voters

The Myth of the Rational Voter
June 8, 2007

This is the first modern book I have read that is willing to discuss both competence tests for voters - arguing that "a test of voter competence is no more objectionable than a driving test" - and the idea of giving multiple votes to the more highly educated. It is also the first book willing to make a strong case against moves to raise voter turnout, on the grounds that if turnout rises then parties have to compete for the votes of increasingly ignorant people.

As Bryan Caplan puts it, in one of many pithy sentences: "If it is disturbing to imagine the bottom half of the class voting on economic policy, it is frightening to realise that the general population already does. The typical voter, to whose opinions politicians cater, is probably unable to earn a passing grade in basic economics. No wonder protectionism, price controls and other foolish policies so often prevail." Democracy commonly fails, Caplan argues, not because voters are let down by shyster politicians but because democracy delivers exactly what voters want. The problem lies with the represented, not the representatives.

Certainly, given how frequently governments enact policies that fail to achieve their desired objectives - and often accomplish the exact opposite - any book that helps to explain what goes wrong should be welcomed.

Unfortunately, while it is lively and provocative, and written with some aggressive verve, this book flunks the Ronseal test, failing to do what it says on the tin. Contrary to its title, this is not a book about why democracies choose bad policies because it doesn't look at democracies and or policies. It looks at one democracy (albeit an important one: the US) and one policy (albeit an important one: the economy). And by "bad" Caplan means policies with which he (and most of his fellow economists) do not agree.

He shows convincingly that (American) economists and the (American) people have different views, and that voters are astonishingly ignorant about politics and the economy. This may be hardly revelatory, since demonstrating the ignorance of voters is the academic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, but his rallying call for academics to spend longer studying their folly and ignorance is a good one. Caplan's four particular bugbears are the biases of voters: non-economists underestimate the wisdom of the market, they distrust foreigners and foreign trade, they over-value work and they are too pessimistic, always thinking the economy is getting worse.

The problem comes once we move from demonstrating that voters are ill-informed to showing that it matters all that much. It is one thing to claim that "rule by demagogues is not an aberration. It is the natural condition of democracy"; it is quite another to demonstrate it. Because, pace Caplan, politicians frequently do not deliver what voters want. They frequently challenge the views of voters or just ignore them outright. They have far more wriggle room than Caplan acknowledges or allows, not least precisely because of the ignorance that he so clearly identifies. This is a book by someone who may understand economics better than the voters but does not have the understanding of policymaking to go with it.

That is one, though only one, of the many reasons why we can reject his proposed reactionary restrictions on the franchise. In addition to striking dimwits off the electoral roll, Caplan also proposes more widespread teaching of economics and argues that economists should proselytise more. I doubt I am the only person to suspect that flooding our TV screens with university economists may not produce the result he is after.

Philip Cowley is professor of parliamentary government at Nottingham University.

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

Author - Bryan Caplan
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 266
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 9780691129426

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