Every four years we overdose on pious talk about the need for a greater portion of the electorate to stop watching Oprah long enough to show up at the polls. But why? Aren’t those people who are too lazy or uninterested to show up and vote the very last people we want to see shaping the future of the country? For those who are skeptical of populist claims that a bigger democracy is a better democracy, economist Brian Caplan of George Mason University has offered evidence in the form of an unsentimental and unsparing look at what voters actually think in The Myth of the Rational Voter. Not only are most voters in the dark about the fundamental problems they want government to solve, they actually go out of their way to avoid learning. They aren’t just ignorant, Caplan argues in an interview with National Review deputy managing editor Kevin Williamson, but are irrational, ignoring both reason and evidence.
NRO: You once wrote: “In markets, where people suffer from their own mistakes, they try to learn, and are partly successful. In religion and politics, where mistakes have little or no consequence for the believer, people avoid learning, and stay in the dark.” Can you elaborate on that? Do you think voters are ignorant because they don’t take the time to learn, or that they’re actively avoiding learning?
Brian Caplan: I think it’s pretty active. One example is the great public response to the presidential candidates saying they’re going to put in some kind of fiscal stimulus package when the reality is these guys aren’t going to be in office for a year, won’t be able to get a stimulus package passed until after that, and who knows what the economy will be like then? But imagine somebody who says, “I’d like to do something but I can’t do much.” That’s the truth, but it wouldn’t be popular. In terms of people actively not wanting to learn, or to think about problems, that’s revealing. Telling the truth would immediately turn off a great many people.
NRO: You write about irrational voters and voter biases. Can you give a quick breakdown of the four major biases you identify?
Caplan: The first is Anti-Market Bias, which is the tendency of non-economists to underestimate the social benefits of the market mechanism. Non-economists tend to judge things by intentions — they see something that looks to them like selfish or greedy intentions, like somebody who wants to make money or profit, and then they infer from those intentions that the results will be bad. Economists don’t really worry about problems that somebody will make a lot of money solving; those problems take care of themselves. Economists worry about problems where there isn’t any obvious person who’s going to make money by solving the problem.
NRO: Give us an example of Anti-Market Bias.
Caplan: An example I find very vivid is the market for human organs. We’ve put a price-tag of zero on organs, which says that you can give away an organ for free but you can’t sell it. So a lot of good organs go into the ground. People need these organs, desperately, to live, but they’re thrown away for lack of incentives.
Secondly, we have Anti-Foreigner Bias. This is the tendency to be especially pessimistic when foreigners are involved in an economic interaction. It’s pretty apparent in attitudes toward international trade. When an American buys something from an American, we can see that everybody’s better off, but when an American buys something from someone Chinese, there’s a sense that there’s some sort of diabolical plan. If their plan is to give us a lot of stuff on credit and then attack us, there’s a flaw in that plan. Attitudes toward immigration are similar. It’s so much that there’s never a case when these things are problems, but people tend to be overly pessimistic.
On immigration, if the complaint is that immigrants are driving down wages of low-skilled Americans, there’s a much cheaper way to solve this problem than sealing off the border and deporting people. You could allow immigrants in with a surtax, an extra 10 or 20 percent, and then use that tax money to subsidize low-skilled Americans. The fact that this idea strikes people as ridiculous indicates that the complaint isn’t the real problem. Immigration restrictions are a solution in search of a problem.
Third, we have Make-Work Bias, the tendency to judge economic performance on employment instead of production. This seems very natural to people, but if you use that standard to compare today to 1850, 1850 looks better because there were lots of jobs to be had, since people were working a lot of hours on the farm. But we had massive improvements in agriculture and didn’t need all those people to grow food anymore. So they did something else. It would have been hard to describe at the time what that something else was going to be, and it wouldn’t have been very rhetorically persuasive. But it gave us the modern world.
There are real problems when trying to save industries in decline. Compare U.S. labor law to that in continental Europe. In Europe they have a conscious policy of trying to save jobs, and productivity is hurt. So there aren’t as many jobs. And, it’s harder to get a job because employers are reluctant to hire someone who will be hard to get rid of later. The labor market regulations we have already, for wrongful termination or anything along those lines, means that people who can sue their employer are the ones employers need to worry about. You hire a white male under 40, he’s not going to sue you for race, age or gender discrimination.
Finally, there’s Pessimistic Bias, the sense the world is going to hell in a handbasket, that things were better in the past, bad today, and that they’re going to get even worse. On this bias seems to be more modern, have really risen in the last 20 or 30 years. Nineteenth-century economists don’t complain about this one very much, but the first three they’ve complained about as long as they’ve been writing.
NRO: Do you think that may be a product of people being better off but less secure, with people changing jobs more and businesses restructuring?
Caplan: If you look at the data, it’s not clear that there is less job security now than there was in the past. Furthermore, in terms of the U.S. vs. Europe, there’s a very good argument about where you have real job security. Do you have more security in a place where you can legally lose your job but there are employers looking to hire you, or one where it’s hard to lose your job but, if you do, you’re stuck. You have more security where your market opportunities are good. With legal security, you’re actually worse off. If you’re in Europe, there’s good chance of your business disappearing, and of finding it hard to find another job at all.
NRO: Why don’t voter liberals’ and conservatives’ biases simply cancel each other out?
Caplan: The miracle of aggregation assumes that for every person biased one way there is somebody biased the opposite way. There’s an empirical question of whether that’s true, and it turns out it’s not. People are biased in particular ways.
NRO: How are primary voters different from general-election voters?
Caplan: The obvious difference is that in primaries you’re competing for the support of a moderate liberal or moderate conservative instead of the actual support of a political moderate in the general election. Democrats are more liberal in the primaries, Republicans more conservative, because they’re trying to win over a different kind of voter. People in the primaries should realize this is going on, but it’s not clear that they do. But suppose you did believe that your candidates would be as extreme in the general election as in the primaries — if you want your party to win, it’s kind of dumb to vote for the extremist. Primary voters don’t realize that politicians are exaggerating how extreme they are, but also are not planning ahead to realize that the extremist won’t win.
NRO: Are there any particular irrational themes or statements in this campaign you’ve noted?
Caplan: Spending time reading the debate transcripts, I noted the role of demonology in both parties. Both parties have an enemies list. But they’re not mirror enemies. Republicans’ demons are almost always foreigners — Muslim extremists at the top of the list, and then illegal immigrants. For Democrats, the demons are domestic, with Republicans at the top. Republicans rarely demonize Democrats as causing the problems the country is facing. They focus outward on foreigners. Democrats focus on Republicans first, and then second what they call special interests: oil companies, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies. Muslim extremists come in third with Democrats.
NRO: And how does that affect the political conversation?
Caplan: It’s reinforcing pessimism. There’s the sense that we have these problems, and they’re caused by these various awful people. Second, it does set up both groups for some kind of crusade against whatever groups they say are causing the problems. But things like rising costs are nobody’s fault, really. But that’s not the narrative that politicians want to give.
NRO: What’s the dumbest thing you’ve heard a politician say in this cycle?
BC: Well, you have Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney both refusing to answer hypotheticals. Hillary Clinton refused to say what she would do if nuclear diplomacy failed with Iran: “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals, because we’ve had an administration that doesn’t believe in diplomacy.” Mitt Romney refused to say whether he would have invaded Iraq if he knew then what he knows now: “So it’s a hypothetical that I think is an unreasonable hypothetical. And the answer is: We did what we did.” These aren’t weird, far-fetched hypotheticals, like what we’d do if Martians invaded. These are reasonable questions.
NRO: Is there a worse influence on the public discourse right now than Lou Dobbs?
Caplan: [Thinks about it for about half a minute.] Probably not.
NRO: Voters were mostly in favor of the Iraq war in the beginning but now are mostly opposed. Most voters strongly favor expensive permanent entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the like. Where, in your estimate, do irrational voters do the most harm? Put another way, what’s your least favorite popular government program?
Caplan: I’m going to discredit myself with your readers and say immigration restriction.
NRO: Really? You think that’s worse than Social Security?
Caplan: I do. In terms of Social Security, I don’t think the result is all that different from what we’d get with private savings. In terms of immigration restrictions, we’re trying to make some Americans a little better off at extremely high cost to other Americans — and at a terrible cost to other people who are in pretty bad shape.
NRO: Do you vote?
Caplan: No. Steve Landsburg has an argument that is very convincing about how to allocate your charitable activities, that you should find the area where you can do the most good and go 100 percent. I don’t have a principled objection to voting, I have other things I can do that are a better use of my time to make the world a better place.
NRO: How can we incentivize voters to demand better solutions? Is it possible? Is it economical?
Caplan: It’s possible if the voters allow us to do it. Unfortunately, they probably won’t. Given that you first have to get the majority to approve the reforms to try them, it’s not likely to happen.