Caplan’s Republic

It’s a harsh assessment of ordinary citizen-voters. We’re told that when they are confronted with important matters of public policy, over and over again they show themselves to be clueless. Experts say one thing; citizens in their benighted splendor say another. The problem is not merely the ignorance that might be expected of amateurs wandering into territory where seasoned professionals tread warily. Rather, voters routinely are irrational. That is, they are easily manipulated by conniving demagogues, jolted into action by emotion rather than evidence, and display levels of confidence inversely proportional to the depth of their knowledge. Whatever one thinks of the ordinary man or woman’s capacity to conduct private affairs, political decision-making is altogether beyond them.

The preceding paragraph could be a synopsis of Bryan Caplan’s “The Myth of the Rational Voter,” but in fact it is a restatement of the indictment offered 24 centuries ago by Plato in The Republic. This work is the seminal political treatise of our civilization, and it is as critical of the workings of democratic governance as any public choice economist’s screed. Plato proposed to overcome endemic citizen irrationality by taking affairs of state from their hands and instead lodging them with the experts. These he dubbed “philosopher-kings.” The association of surpassing expertise with the practice of philosophy has, alas, waned over the years, but Caplan’s proposal is identical in spirit if not in language. Because voters so regularly get things wrong, Caplan wants to transfer policy determinations into other hands, elite hands. The Supreme Court is his paradigm of a body that combines aptitude for deliberative rationality with a high degree of immunity from popular frenzies. Perhaps whimsically – perhaps not – Caplan contemplates a Council of Economic Advisers empowered to invalidate legislation as “uneconomic.” Best of all would be to substitute markets for politics, but where collective decision-making is unavoidable, it should be kept away from the hoi polloi.

Although I am in some sympathy with Caplan’s argument, I must confess that I find it less persuasive than Plato’s. Democratic Athens was a regime in which citizens voted early and often. Sometimes they cast ballots to elect office holders, but more often they voted on specific matters of policy: war or peace with Sparta, life or death for the convicted miscreant Socrates. In American federal elections, ordinary voters are asked only to choose among candidates, never among policies. Thus, even if they are every bit as misinformed as Caplan alleges, this has no direct effect on, say, whether more or fewer immigrants are admitted across borders. These determinations are the province of members of Congress, one and all full-time professionals with abundant access to informational and evaluational resources. If the problem is rule by ordinary voters, then it is a problem for Athens, not for Washington, D.C. (Individual states that put referenda on ballots are an intermediate case.)

Caplan, I am sure, will respond that this is to give short shrift to the dynamics of representative democracy. Legislators cast the final vote on contested policy issues, but their constituents choose who those representatives will be. That puts Congress on a short leash. A senator or representative who votes her considered judgment rather than the interests of electors may be noble in Edmund Burke fashion but, like Burke, she will soon be unemployed. Accordingly, economistically-inclined analysts of politics routinely identify election candidates with packages of policies for which they stand. Voters pull levers next to candidates’ names, but in so doing they are endorsing or rejecting specific policy stances. According to this account, elected officials have little latitude to do other than comply with the passions of their masters, the sovereign citizens. As far as they are concerned, the voice of the median voter is the voice of God.

This equation squares uneasily, however, with the economists’ ascription to voters of rational ignorance or, as in Caplan’s essay, irrationality. A significant percentage of Americans cannot name their congressional representative. What is the likelihood, then, that they can tell you what this anonymous individual’s positions are on immigration, ethanol subsidies, Swiss cheese importation, aircraft carrier construction, or 1001 other matters on which legislatures pronounce? If voters are as intellectually maladroit as Caplan suggests, then they are incapable of mastery of their elected representatives. Moreover, only the most naive voters will labor under the illusion that the politicians who plead for their votes can be counted on once in office to do as they had pledged. Woodrow Wilson ran on the platform “He kept us out of war,” George Bush Sr. vowed “No new taxes!” and his son decried the futility of nation-building. The rest, as they say, is history.

Am I maintaining, then, that politicians do not pander to voters? Not exactly. In order to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of hearing people address you as “Mr. Senator,” you need to receive more votes than the other guy who craves that status. Average citizens are not sober-minded assessors of evidence bearing on policy determinations. As Caplan observes, they vent their prejudices. Given the mechanics of electoral dynamics, this so-called irrationality makes good sense. The chance that any individual vote will swing an outcome is minuscule. If one’s primary concern is to “make a difference,” there’s not much point in going off to vote at all, let alone to studying in depth the crucial and semi-crucial issues. Rather, elections are opportunities to express emotionally redolent attitudes. Accordingly, the secret to electoral success is to position oneself to be the beneficiary of these expressions.

Citizen passions are, then, incentives to pandering. But they also are a gateway to accountability. Voters have precious little control over any particular political platform. What they can do, though, is “throw the rascals out.” And, indeed, on Nov. 7, 2006, a large regiment of rascals was shown the door. To be sure, many who are taking over their seats will soon reveal themselves to be rascals. Eventually they, too, will be tossed out. This is far from an ideal way to exercise governance: rule by philosopher-kings it’s not. For Caplan, as for Plato, that is a damning indictment of democracy. I’m not so sure. Give me an airtight guarantee that those advertised as the Best and the Brightest are the genuine article and that, in addition, they are indelibly committed to serving the public good, and I’ll sign up with the Plato/Caplan antidemocrats. But this is a tune we have heard spun before. Early in the 20th century, it was the mantra of the Progressive movement. It is not obvious to me that the resultant efflorescence of regulatory commissions and bureaucratic technocracies constitutes a triumph either of political wisdom or liberty. Plato, I think, was too enamored of philosophers. Because he was one, he should have known better. Caplan is partial to the policy judgments of economists. Because he himself is one, he should know better. Replacing one set of rascals with another set doesn’t amount to much. It is, though, something. Call me unambitious, but I’m willing to settle.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan

    In this month’s lead essay, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan argues that voters are not just ignorant, they’re irrational. According to Caplan, when the cost of holding irrational beliefs is low—as it is in religion and politics—we should expect a lot of irrational belief. “Even when his views are completely wrong,” Caplan writes, “[the voter] gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price.” But the low personal cost of irrationality has a high social cost. Caplan provides statistical evidence of voters’ “systematically biased beliefs” in economics, and argues this undermines the electorate’s ability to implement good policy. Caplan suggests we should rely “less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets,” in addition to several other provocative reforms sure to make civics teachers blanch.

Response Essays

  • Outsmarting Democracy? by David Estlund

    In his reply to Bryan Caplan’s lead essay, Brown University political philosopher David Estlund argues that neither of Caplan’s proposed alternatives to democracy, markets and experts, satisfactorily correct for the problem of voter irrationality. With respect to experts, Estlund observes that political questions are moral as well as empirical: “[M]aybe … my morally wise mother would perform better overall than the economists. That settles nothing, since there is no entitlement to rule others based simply on the fact that you know what is best.” As far as markets go, Estlund says “Voters and market actors are the same people, so we should expect the charges of ignorance and irrationality to be leveled against people in both guises… In the aggregate many market mistakes, like voting mistakes, affect everyone.”

  • Irrationality, or Just Plain Ignorance? by Jeffrey Friedman

    Jeffrey Friedman argues that Caplan’s charge of voter irrationality relies on the unrealistic idealizations of economic theory and that “[v]oters who don’t understand economics because they haven’t been exposed to it, or because they’ve been exposed to it but have found it tough going, aren’t irrational; they’re just ignorant.”

The Conversation