Overruling the Majority

One thing this conversation has brought out is how uncomfortable people are at the idea of overruling the majority. Even if it’s clearly making a mistake, shouldn’t the majority be free to choose?

This line of reasoning makes libertarians uncomfortable, but for no good reason. After all, when the majority votes for protectionism, it isn’t just hurting itself. To over-rule the majority on an issue like this is to prevent them from imposing their misguided will on the minority.

More interestingly, there isn’t even a superficially plausible reason for non-libertarians to object to overruling popular but socially harmful policies. Who but a libertarian has any principled objection to stopping people from hurting themselves? Paternalism provides the rationale for everything from Social Security (if you don’t force people to save for their retirement, they might end up on the streets) to drug prohibition (if you let people ruin their lives with drugs, they might). If you’re willing to embrace this line of thinking—as practically every non-libertarian is—you have at least as much reason to try to stop the majority from adopting policies that impoverish it.

Whatever your philosophical starting point, then, defending the majority’s right to be wrong doesn’t make a lot of sense.

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.”