Bryan Caplan in *The New Yorker*

Louis Menand, who has written a book on pragmatism, writes in response to Caplan:

In the end, the group that loses these contests must abide by the outcome, must regard the wishes of the majority as legitimate.  The only way it can be expected to do so is if it has been made to feel that it had a voice in the process, even if that voice is, in practical terms, symbolic.  A great virtue of democratic polities is stability.  The toleration of silly opinions is (to speak like an economist) a small price to pay for it.

There is much more at the link.

Addendum: Here is a good sentence from Menand: "People are less modern than the times in which they live, in other words, and the failure to comprehend this is what can make economists seem like happy bulldozers."

Comments

A great virtue of democratic polities is stability.

This is a joke, right? Has the author ever heard of Central America, South America or Africa, where democracy (indeed, perhaps every government) is remarkably unstable?

The author of the article is being deceptive suggesting that Myth of Rational Voter hints that we should be ruled by economists. Caplan suggests only that more areas of life be governed by markets, where participants increase their rationality. He does not suggest that economists should rule the earth.

I liked the cartoon of the pig at the Complaint Department. "I wish I was taller."

"In the end, the group that loses these contests must abide by the outcome, must regard the wishes of the majority as legitimate. The only way it can be expected to do so is if it has been made to feel that it had a voice in the process."

We've often witheld the vote from some people. We still do in many states for felons. The case has been made that withholding the vote based on sex or race is wrong -- and I agree. But I think we should look hard at why we give the vote to people who don't positively participate in the enconomy.

Joshua Holmes: Very few Latin American countries have had democracies for any extended period of time.

Another required piece is relatively swift turnover. If I've just lost the election and therefore been shut out of power for 100 years, I'll be madder than if it was 4 (and, before the election, if I think I might lose for 100 years I'll fight harder and dirtier to win). Yet another is low stakes. If winning the election grants unbridled power (as is true in most Latin American countries), I'd fight harder and dirtier to win than if the winner's power is constrained (like in the USA).

Giving everyone a voice isn't the only requirement, by far.

Menand tries to defend democracy by arguing that while it may choose bad economic policy, it acheives other values such as "values that are deeply constested," "protect themselves from the downside of change," "preserve a way of life," and "feel good about themselves." Menand doesn't seem to appreciate that irattional voters can mess up these things just as easily as they can mess up simple economic policy.

Hate democracy?

Caplan’s book, and I admit I’m not done with it yet, continually refers to the institution of democracy (representative voting via universal suffrage) without once taking an opposite view. It’s a critique of an institution. As an author, economist, and human with a working cortex he doesn’t make his critique a diametric screed where voters are stupid and economists are philosopher kings. (At page 147 it’s still possible he says this, but I doubt it.)

Democracies choose bad policies because the aggregate decision making that takes place within the voting process supports the weak reasoning of many of its participants. I personally love the democratic process but find it very frustrating for the same reasons Caplan suggests for low turnout—it’s hard to stay informed, have an impact, or sometimes even see the point. (I live near Chicago where Democratic city politics seems, well, less than democratic.) The overwhelming bias toward ‘make everyone happy’ social programs is understandable but still damaging-- minimum wages, anti-foreign tariffs, and farm subsidies make most voter ‘good deed’ lists. Like a 5,000-year-old earth, 100 percent employment, and Paris Hilton as an actress, they are dumb but very popular ideas.

Menand suggests that Caplan, the mean spirited economist, thinks in a clumsy or oafish way by critiquing democracy. But Caplan’s critique is as important as it is accurate given the evidence of history and controlled studies. He then suggests barriers to voting booth entry and incentives for critical thinking might make voting count for more than it seems to now. The idea that your candidate might lose and you’ll move to another country (as much as Hollywood folk keep promising) isn’t true here or in the EU. So somewhere between low stakes and catastrophic stakes might be an improvement to the system.

Libertarians don’t hate government any more than Republicans do when Democrats are in power, or Liberal Dems do when Conservatives hold Parliament. It’s a trust issue. And it’s a stretch to wholly trust a process that supports returning Congressmen to seats term after term, indicted or not, at a statistically overwhelming rate. Having said that I admit to not only enjoying democracy but actually reveling in it. Years ago I lost a small town election by one vote—seriously only 1. But then I found out that if I had one more vote to tie, the tie-break method was to toss a coin. I was actually happy it didn’t come to that. I didn’t hate the democratic process but I think I can fully appreciate Prof. Caplan’s book. Having read Plato lo those many years ago I don’t see the philosopher king in what he suggests. Just a little more thought.

It's sad that that article had to be written. It's sad that people here defend Kaplan. It's sad that people don't seem to understand that some of your interest you should be allowed to defend on an equal basis with other people, without concern for how useful you are to society (= how rich you are. Except for the existence of crime and unpaid work like raising kids and caring for your old parents, but never mind that right now).

Yes, there are some questions best left to experts, scientists, economists, and so on. And there are some where no one are more important than others, especially issues of ethics.

The question of which questions should be left to experts, is itself a question which should not be left to experts. I hope Kaplan sees that and comes to his senses.

Very few Latin American countries have had democracies for any extended period of time.

My point exactly.

So, according to Menand, Caplan wants to "teach people introductory economics without making the usua qualifications about the limits of market solutions", yet does not regard himself as a "market fundamentalist."

In other words, if you admit to the proles that there might be just the teensiest problem with your beloved theories you're asking for trouble.

Menand writes a competent summary of many of the arguments in Caplan’s book, but then reverts to “democratic fundamentalism† toward the end of his review. He ignores Caplan’s take home message (democracy is fallible so we should ask ourselves where and when it outperforms other institutions) and does a hack job of cost-benefit analysis, implicitly assuming that democracy is the best method to decide questions such as “when life begins, whether liberty is more important than equality, how racial integration is best achieved.† To Menand, because some issues are not straightforward optimization problems, democracy must sort out the answer and psychologically appease the losers.

Menand also seems to have a short memory; he aptly describes many of the problems irrational voters create, but then decides in conclusion that they are nothing but “silly opinions†, ignoring the negative externalities often associated with such opinions.

MikeP, since you're getting philosophical: Yes, I believe in absolutes, and that some policies are actually better than others. Also some policies are immoral. However, I realise that the best way for society of finding out which is which, and how our insitiutions should act, democracy is the only decent option. Ultimately, experts must be recognised by non-experts.

Those "experts" you speak of were not only experts, but also prophets. They had good ideas for how certain goals should be attained, and as such they were experts, but they also had strong opinions about which goals should be striven for, and in that way they are similar to prophets. Winning not just minds, but hearts as well.

The ugly thing with Caplan is that he doesn't admit that he is a "prophet" himself, with pretty big assumptions about what is desirable.

TGGP, if you think it's possible to "clear your mind of all but reason", I see the problem right there. You can't - there will always be foul-smelling moral assumptions left lurking in the corners, if you try.

So it seems to you that various experts are best suited to decide how democracy should be? Maybe, but it's up to us all to decide what we want from that institution (which needs not be what the experts want!), and to verify that these experts are indeed experts on terms meaningful to us, and not just terms meaninful to themselves.

Otherwise they are just the social science equivalients of quacks or craniometricians.

"People are less modern than the times in which they live, in other words, and the failure to comprehend this is what can make economists seem like happy bulldozers."

Yes, I agree. Economists give people way too much credit. I credit Caplan for not making that mistake. It appears that Menand is making Caplan's point for him.

Shorter Menand: "People are irrational and superstitious, and I shall demonstrate that by making irrational and superstitious critiques of Caplan."

"However, I realise that the best way for society of finding out which is which, and how our insitiutions should act, democracy is the only decent option."

So, to go to the old philosophical saw, if 51% vote to take the corneas of the other 49%, then it's cool?

Look, markets are far superior to democracy. That's why decent societies use markets more. You don't have the majority of your country vote on what you'll eat for dinner, do you?

Now, there may be cases where markets break down so badly that even democracy is preferable.

But if technology lowers contracting and transactions cost, then markets may be viable across a wider range than before, which means they could replace democracy in more and more areas, to society's benefit.

We can also consider market-like institutions, that have the desireable qualities of markets, like better feedback and better weighting of preferences, but don't have as many of the bad qualities, like exploitation and inequality.

And that goes to my earlier point about alternatives to democracy, like Smith Auctions. Communications technology is going to allow us to replace traditional representative democracy with participatory auction-like mechanisms, and that's a very, very good thing for everybody.

There may be cases where markets break down so badly that even democracy is preferable."

Hahahah.

Maybe cases where you consider somebody has a right to something, instead of just a preference?

An inalienable right?

"An inalienable right?"

Those aren't very democratic, are they?

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