Bryan Caplan is irrational

by on November 6, 2006 at 11:21 am in Political Science | Permalink

That’s how he knows so much about the American voter, this week at Cato Unbound.  His research (likely to be one of the top books for next year) outlines the claim that voter irrationality is the fundamental force behind bad policy.  Unlike the well-known theories of "rational ignorance," Bryan stresses that the irrationality is willful rather than the result of simple misinformation.  That makes the problem harder to dislodge.

So what are Bryan’s remedies?

Above all, relying less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets.  By and large, we don’t even ask voters whether we should allow unpopular speech or religion, and this "elitist" practice has saved us a world of trouble.  Why not take more issues off the agenda?  Even if the free market does a mediocre job, the relevant question is not whether smart, well-meaning regulation would be better.  The relevant question is whether the kind of regulation that appeals to the majority would be better.

Another way to deal with voter irrationality is institutional reform.  Imagine, for example, if the Council of Economic Advisors, in the spirit of the Supreme Court, had the power to invalidate legislation as "uneconomical."  Similarly, since the data show that well-educated voters hold more sensible policy views, we could emulate pre-1949 Great Britain by giving college graduates an extra vote.

I don’t think those reforms would work, if only because voter irrationality has to be given enough free play so that it doesn’t explode or boil over into a more fundamental revolt.  (Matt Y notes: "Voting and legislatures aren’t a very good mechanism for generating knowledge, but they at least serve as peaceful mechanisms for resolving coflicts of interest, which are simply endemic in the policy arena.")  In addition Bryan is legislating policy or procedural outcomes by fiat, rather than explaining how they might come about through the (irrational) status quo.

My idea?  Voter irrationality often makes American policy, especially foreign policy, more magnanimous than it otherwise would be.  And truly rational voters simply would not show up at the polls, thereby ruining democracy. 

So we need voter irrationality, although we should seek to improve its content. (Note also that many good policies are based on irrational voter views, such as the belief in meritocracy.)  Irrationality is what keeps us going, and that is why Bryan Caplan, like American democracy, is so extremely productive. 

Addendum: Greg Mankiw wants fewer people to vote.  Here is my previous post on whether or not you should vote.

1 DK November 6, 2006 at 11:56 am

The result of giving college graduates an extra vote should be obvious: colleges will admit everyone and everyone will “graduate”.

2 Rafal Smigrodzki November 6, 2006 at 12:52 pm

“Irrationality is what keeps us going, and that is why Bryan Caplan, like American democracy, is so extremely productive. ” ??

Irrationality is what keeps the American democracy from being significantly more productive. Only in comparison to countries where voter irrationality is even more of a problem, does our system shine.

Bayesians of the world, give no intellectual quarter to irrationality!

3 Johan Richter November 6, 2006 at 1:00 pm

Maybe the founding fathers were just afraid that the people would vote away some of their priviligies, like slaves.

4 Peter Schaeffer November 6, 2006 at 2:56 pm

All,

If you read Bryan Caplan’s article, it amounts to yet another plea for Open Borders. The new argument is that the public is ignorant, but the economists really know the facts. Caplan then proceeds to demonstrate a woeful lack of knowledge of the subject. Take one example

“immigrants wind up paying more in taxes than they take in benefits”

Really? Back in 1998 the National Academy of Sciences found that each family in California was paying an extra $1174 in taxes because of immigration. A Rand study reached similar conclusions. The NAS study also concluded that tax transfers to immigrants more than offset income transfers from immigrants. Studies in the Netherlands have reached identical conclusions. Heritage just released a long report showing the adverse fiscal impact of immigration.

I could go through the rest of Caplan’s claims in favor of immigration. All of them are either debatable (how much have wages declined from immigration) or just wrong. However, this is not the thread for doing so.

I should say that Caplan clearly doesn’t read MR. Take a look at “Should Californians walk more?† The study shows large negative externalities from immigration in California.

Overall Caplan’s piece is a good example of why the public shouldn’t trust “experts†. Rather that seriously addressing the issues, Caplan is advancing libertarian immigration ideology as “fact† and complaining that the public won’t go along.

No wonder.

5 Raghav November 6, 2006 at 4:39 pm

Peter:

Googling around I do find the $1,174 number often attributed to the 1998 NAS publication. Maybe I’m wrong, but actually looking at the publcation in question, The Immigration Debate: Studies on the Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration the number is attributed to a 1997 NAS publication. Furthermore, the publication includes a chapter by Lee and Miller—the ones who wrote the paper Bryan Caplan cites. They find that while immigration does result in a negative tax burden on high-immigration states (California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey) the impact on taxpayers in other states—and the nation as a whole—is positive: “If immigrants and their concurrent descendants were to have vanished in 1994, the average member of the remaining population would have had to pay $107 more in taxes, or suffer a comparable reduction in benefits.”

6 ralph November 6, 2006 at 5:43 pm

I’m amused. I think democracy was designed to be able to release political pressures in a social context in which more than the leaders are considered worthy of input. I don’t think democracy has anything to do with good policy. It is useful mainly to correct atrocious policy, and that only after it happens.

7 Dan Goodman November 6, 2006 at 8:24 pm

‘By and large, we don’t even ask voters whether we should allow unpopular speech or religion, and this “elitist” practice has saved us a world of trouble.’ It’s not government which barred Jews from joining the Minneapolis AAA branch at one time. It’s not government which kept African-Americans from AMA membership in the South. Or kept them from working in Henry Ford’s factories.

In a libertarian (minimal government or anarcho-capitalist), it might be true that free enterprise would result in better answers to problems. But in what’s called “the American Free Enterprise System,” you’re likely to get more Enrons.

8 kurtbattais November 6, 2006 at 10:40 pm

It would be interesting to know what percentage of voters (irrational or not) are actual government employees or government contractors. I bet such data will show that voters are not irrational, but pursuing their rational self-interest, namely job security.

9 Ray G November 7, 2006 at 12:16 am

A simple civics test would suffice in clearing up much of the irrational behavior. No one would be completely satisfied with the final version of any such test, but it would be a tremendous step in the right direction.

As long as it was difficult enough to require even a minimal amount of study, we would be headed towards making the act of voting a measure of responsibility.

Locally (Phx, AZ) we have one of the most absurd ballot propositions I’ve ever seen, at least for here. A voters’ lottery; vote, and receive a chance to win one million dollars.

Brilliant.

10 Michael Blowhard November 7, 2006 at 2:51 am

Bryan Caplan thinks that Bryan Caplan is rational, and that anyone who disagrees with him is irrational. He also thinks that he knows what’s rational and what’s not, and that he’s a fair judge of to whom these labels apply. He evidently feels, or thinks, or something, that people who disagree with him don’t have their own reasons (“rational” or “irrational,” who cares?) for behaving as they do.

Bryran Caplan is either one of the most clueless eggheads ever to find a perch in academia, or he’s from Mars. I suggest burying him in rotten tomatoes now before too many other such arrive amongst us.

11 bernard Yomtov November 7, 2006 at 7:49 am

Imagine, for example, if the Council of Economic Advisors, in the spirit of the Supreme Court, had the power to invalidate legislation as “uneconomical.”

Perhaps this is out of context, but if not, it is one seriously stupid idea.

First of all, the CEA is appointed by the President, who already has veto power. Does Caplan think that it would be a good idea to give the CEA a “super-veto?” Note that the Supreme Court analogy does not hold, beacuse the idea of an unconstitutional law is that it conflicts with the Constitution, which takes precedence.

No such principle applies here. Caplan seems to think that all laws should be “economical,” which I take to mean not have negative economic effects (actually I suspect it means they should comply with his ideological preferences). Why? Isn’t it reasonable to pass laws that don’t meet this standard? Is economics everything?

Michael Blowhard nails it pretty well.

12 Peter Schaeffer November 7, 2006 at 10:08 am

I am with Michael Blowhard on this one. The public isn’t always right, but nor are the experts. Note the tragic record of experts serving as Secretary of Defense…

13 Bill November 7, 2006 at 1:11 pm

I’m with Tom S.-The elites can make the decisisions as long as “the elites” means me and people who agree with me. I’m sure y’all be happy to bow to my wisdom:)

14 Ken November 7, 2006 at 2:48 pm

“It’s not government which barred Jews from joining the Minneapolis AAA branch at one time. It’s not government which kept African-Americans from AMA membership in the South. Or kept them from working in Henry Ford’s factories.”

No, what mainly kept them from being employed or served on a meritocratic basis, especially in the South, was terrorism. Once the KKK was neutralized for good, a competitive free market was able to encourage people to accept profitable deals with each other regardless of whether they personally liked each other or not.

Anti-discrimination law got the credit, but its main effect was to encourage employers to require college degrees so they could justify not hiring idiots in an anti-discrimination case.

“In a libertarian (minimal government or anarcho-capitalist), it might be true that free enterprise would result in better answers to problems. But in what’s called “the American Free Enterprise System,” you’re likely to get more Enrons. ”

You mean like the Enron where the fearless leaders had to break existing laws to swindle investors, and when everybody found out through the bad guys getting busted under the existing laws, the obvious solution was to write new laws?

15 Raghav November 7, 2006 at 3:32 pm

Peter:

This thread is pretty much drawing to a close, so let me just make two quick points. First, even if you don’t like the longitudinal NPV calculation, the annual figures show a positive fiscal effect from immigrants if you look at just immigrants themselves, or immigrants and their descendants while the immigrant is still alive. Surely either of these two are better than counting the U.S.-born children of immigrants only until they finish their education and leave their parents’ household—the only scenario by which the cross-sectional figures show immigrants are a fiscal drain. Secondly, Bryan Caplan didn’t say anything in that article about unskilled immigration; he was just talking about immigration, full stop. Most economists (yes, including Borjas) do seem to favor an immigration policy based more upon the skill level of the immigrants (like Canada and Australia) than upon whether the immigrants have relatives already in the country (the present U.S. system).

16 Sigivald November 7, 2006 at 7:15 pm

Similarly, since the data show that well-educated voters hold more sensible policy views

The data shows sensibility of views?

That must be one hell of a dataset.

(In fairness, a reading in context [his footnote on that claim] suggests he means “sensible” only in an economics context, and presumeably as a synonym for “agrees with the majority of economists”, or “agrees with some dominant economic theories”…

But it’s still terrible word choice, and unless you look at the footnote it’s too easy to miss that he really is, unless I’m being too generous and misreading, talking only about economics.

And no matter what, I’d still rather have an irrational polity making decisions than a team of experts, even if that causes economic efficiency to suffer.)

17 stuart November 8, 2006 at 3:23 am

Steve- You might wanna be a little self aware.

18 JohnDewey November 10, 2006 at 5:55 am

bernard yomtov: “Economic goals conflict. That’s one reason, among many, declaring a law “uneconomical” is ridiculous.”

But not ridiculous to an economist who believes that only your goals are important, and that those who disagree are irrational.

Our nation already has mechanisms for resolving conflicting economic goals. One is the market. The other is our Congress of elected representatives. We don’t need a group of “know-it-all” economists making rules.

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