Nick Kristof’s New York Times column today (behind the pay wall, alas) summarizes the findings of a book by Bryan Caplan titled “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.” Kristof quotes this summary of the book’s thesis, in Caplan’s words: “This book develops an alternative story of how democracy fails. The central idea is that voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational — and vote accordingly.”
What are the ways in which voters are “worse than ignorant”? Kristof summarizes Caplan’s complaints of “systematic error” in voter rationality: Voters share “a suspicion of market outcomes and a desire to control markets.” They have “an anti-foreign bias,” evidenced by an unwillingness to embrace free trade wholeheartedly. They share “a neo-Luddite bias against productivity gains that come from downsizing or “creative destruction.'” And they have a “pessimistic bias, a tendency to exaggerate economic problems.”
Gee, it sounds like the real problem Caplan has with the voting public is that they don’t agree with the program of conservative economists!
There are a couple of ironies here.
There’s something hilarious about a market-oriented economist complaining about “irrational” behavior. Free-market theory depends on the notion that market participants are rational actors; if they’re irrational, then the whole theory collapses — the market doesn’t behave predictably. For classical economics to work, we need to trade in the populace and get us a better one. The whole thing reminds me of Brecht’s sarcastic suggestion that “the government dissolve the people and elect another.”
But let’s not knock the rabble so fast. Those voters may not be so irrational after all. Free-market economists wish that voters whose jobs are threatened by foreign competition would somehow become farseeing altruists, and trust that the general benefit that free trade provides might eventually lift their boats sometime after the same tide put them out of work. But these “ignorant,” “irrational” voters insist on trying to protect their jobs. The nerve! Why should they think it’s all right to act in their own short-term self-interest? Oh, right, it’s only CEOs and hedge-fund investors who have the economists’ blessing for short-term, self-centered thinking.
Personally, I’m reasonably comfortable with the pro-free-trade argument. But you won’t find me sneering at those who sense that the dynamic of the global economy is not doing them or their families any good.
Caplan is an economist at George Mason University, which (among many other things) is a center for conservative libertarian thinking. His Web site includes a “Libertarian purity test” and his “intellectual autobiography” is replete with references to Ayn Rand — so his perspective, while blinkered, is hardly surprising. But I wonder why Kristof presented the economist’s ideas so uncritically.
[tags]globalization, economics, bryan caplan, libertarians[/tags]
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