Winning Jeff’s Trust

Jeff writes:

But while that may be an argument—in my mind, at least—for making me king, it’s hardly an argument for giving more votes to people with bachelor’s degrees, or to councils of economics Ph.D.s. It so happens that at this particular point in history, American economists agree with me (and Caplan) on a few basic issues, such as free trade. But from the 1930s through the 1970s, economics was, from a free-market perspective, a disaster area, as it is in many other countries right now. So the temporary agreement of Caplan’s moderately Democratic colleagues with more pro-market views than are held by the general public doesn’t mean that we should institutionalize the rule of economist-kings, or the rule of the more educated slice of the public that (presumably through having majored in business or economics) seems to have picked up unusually pro-market views.

I agree that economists were less pro-market from the 30s to the 70s than they are today. Almost everyone was less pro-market back then. While we don’t have good data, I see no reason to doubt that economists and the well-educated were – compared to the general population – relatively more pro-market throughout the 20th century. In a similar vein, economists in the U.S. are more pro-market than economists in most other countries. Nevertheless, economists around the world usually seem quite pro-market relative to public opinion in their home countries.

So what do I have to do to convince you, Jeff? Would you be satisfied if my data spanned the century and the world? Or would that still be too “temporary” for you?

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.”