In his provocative new book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies,” [Bryan] Caplan argues that “voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational — and vote accordingly.” Caplan’s complaint is not that special-interest groups might subvert the will of the people, or that government might ignore the will of the people. He objects to the will of the people itself.Guess which way Americans are "systematically biased"?
In defending democracy, theorists of public choice sometimes invoke what they call “the miracle of aggregation.” It might seem obvious that few voters fully understand the intricacies of, say, single-payer universal health care. (I certainly don’t.) But imagine, Caplan writes, that just 1 percent of voters are fully informed and the other 99 percent are so ignorant that they vote at random. In a campaign between two candidates, one of whom has an excellent health care plan and the other a horrible plan, the candidates evenly split the ignorant voters’ ballots. Since all the well-informed voters opt for the candidate with the good health care plan, she wins. Thus, even in a democracy composed almost exclusively of the ignorant, we achieve first-rate health care.
The hitch, as Caplan points out, is that this miracle of aggregation works only if the errors are random. When that’s the case, the thousands of ill-informed votes in favor of the bad health plan are canceled out by thousands of equally ignorant votes in favor of the good plan. But Caplan argues that in the real world, voters make systematic mistakes about economic policy — and probably other policy issues too.
...Scott L. Althaus, a University of Illinois political scientist, finds that if the public were better informed, it would overcome its ingrained biases and make different political decisions. According to his studies, such a public would be more progressive on social issues like abortion and gay rights, more ideologically conservative in preferring markets to government intervention and less isolationist but more dovish in foreign policy.Love the name, Scott, but why am I not feeling confident that your own "ingrained biases" are not affecting your studies? I'm picking up a bit of the old: if only people thought clearly, they'd agree with me. I'm never surprised when a professor discovers that democracy is defective because Americans aren't more left-wing. But unlike Althaus, Caplan thinks voters are incompetent because they aren't libertarian enough.
To encourage greater economic literacy, [Caplan] suggests tests of voter competence, or “giving extra votes to individuals or groups with greater economic literacy."
Until 1949, he points out, Britain gave extra votes to some business owners and graduates of elite universities. (Since worse-educated citizens are less likely to vote, Caplan dislikes efforts to increase voter turnout.) Most provocatively, perhaps, in an online essay Caplan has suggested a curious twist on the tradition of judicial review: If the Supreme Court can strike down laws as unconstitutional, why shouldn’t the Council of Economic Advisers be able to strike down laws as “uneconomical”?But who designs the economic literacy test, and who appoints the Council of Economic Advisors? I assume Caplan doesn't think it would be Althaus and his ilk.