Democratic Authority Within Limits

In his post “Overruling the Majority,” Caplan says that this conversation shows “how uncomfortable people are at the idea of overruling the majority.”

Few believe that majority rule ought to be unlimited; I certainly don’t. Some think the limits can all be explained by the goal of protecting democracy itself, but I doubt that could explain why a majority may not boil anyone in oil, for one example. So I think there are limits to democratic authority, even though it is hard to say where they are and why. If there is someone who is uncomfortable with ever overruling the majority, I don’t know who they are, but I agree with Caplan that they are wrong. If he means me (and, as I write, no one else contributed anything yet) I have only argued here that the majority cannot always be overruled simply because they are mistaken. If there’s discomfort on my part, it would be because I suspect that Caplan might think that the majority may always be overruled when it is mistaken.

In Caplan’s initial essay, interference with majority decisions was supported by pointing out that voters’ decisions don’t just affect themselves but they affect others. Now, in “Overruling the Majority” he supports overruling the majority when, and because, they harm themselves. There seem to be two cases where Caplan thinks the majority’s mistakes may be overruled: when they affect others, and when they don’t. He is very comfortable indeed with the idea of overruling the majority when they are wrong.

In case there’s still any question about the reaches of this comfort, in his reply to Lomasky, Caplan cheerfully (comfortably) allows that his analysis is much like Plato’s, the main difference being that his own is better defended. The consistent message from Caplan, so far, is that there is nothing to be said for democracy’s authority unless democracy happens to be better than any expert at getting the right answers–something he finds very unlikely. College grads and economists can, he thinks, do better. So much for democratic authority. I’m very happy to see the grounds of democratic authority questioned, since that’s how we come to understand things. At the moment, I just want it to be quite clear where the Plato/Caplan inference from expertise to authority leads. He accepts Lomasky’s label: “the Plato/Caplan antidemocrats.”

So, virtually all modern democratic thinkers agree that the majority’s authority has limits, and often the reason for the limits is to prevent the majority from marching off a cliff. That unprovocative boilerplate isn’t what Caplan argues for. He thinks that whoever knows best is thereby entitled to rule, and that it is not usually the voters. So what needs to be engaged (as I have tried to do in previous posts) is this ancient theory of authority.

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.”