Our Life to Ruin Our Own Way?

A number of people who read my original essay interpreted it as a defense of experts’ right to tell individuals how to live their lives. This is a good time to set the record straight. Here goes…

In one of my all-time favorite songs, Morrissey says:

So…the life I have made

May seem wrong to you

But, I’ve never been surer

It’s my life to ruin

My own way

If I were giving expert advice to an individual about how to run his life, I’d heed this reply—even if I knew for sure what was best for the individual in question.

But when the majority asks for the same latitude, it’s a very different story. The majority isn’t just asking for the freedom to makes its own mistakes. It’s ordering all of us to pay for its mistakes. If the majority supports price controls on gasoline, for example, we all have to live with the shortages, the lines, and the other inefficiencies.

You can say that it’s arrogant for experts to try to overrule the majority on this basis. But would it be fairer to say that the majority was arrogant to impose its folly in the first place?

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.”

  • Caplan’s Republic by Loren Lomasky

    University of Virginia political philosopher Loren Lomasky compares Caplan’s criticism of democracy and defense of expertise with Plato’s argument in The Republic, while noting that in a modern system of representative democracy, voters choose among candidates, not policies. “If voters are as intellectually maladroit as Caplan suggests,” Lomasky writes, “then they are incapable of mastery of their elected representatives,” who are thus left with a fairly free hand to set policy. “What [voters] can do, though, is ‘throw the rascals out,’” and that, Lomasky argues, is good enough.

  • 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