On Bosses

In his most recent post, “The Bossy Majority,” Caplan rightly says that when a majority rules, it bosses people around every bit as much as a panel of economic experts with the power of review would be bossing people around. (Well, let’s just say in both cases they boss people. “Bossing around” connotes something extra, a kind of limitless power to boss arbitrarily. I don’t mean the majority or the panel would be doing that.) He seems to suggest that there might be some tension in my view then, since I don’t want the people bossed around by experts. In reply, I should be clear that I don’t for a moment think that there can’t ever be legitimate bosses. “What makes you boss?” is not meant to be rhetorical. I think in some cases there can be a satisfactory answer. My argument was that “because I know best” isn’t a satisfactory answer. It wouldn’t justify the rule of economists or college graduates, any more than it would justify the rule of the Pope or my mother, even if they do know best.

A tiny thing: Caplan calls my concern about the majority being illegitimately bossed around “quasi-libertarian.” I just don’t want terminology to confuse us. If he means that this is close to, or a version of, or a concession to political libertarianism, I think that’s not right. (And he must have meant that. If he just meant “having something to do with liberty,” then there would have been no point in saying “quasi.”) Every modern political philosophy is centrally concerned with locating the proper limits of state authority. There’s nothing libertarian about it. It would be a little like saying that when Caplan grants that state authority can be appropriately used to regulate markets in some cases where things are going badly wrong, he is being quasi-socialist. But as I say, this is not about the main point Caplan was making, which I address in the paragraph just above.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.”