Democracy is a commons, not a market

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Before Mencius hijacked my brain, I read another, softer anti-democratic piece, Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. I’ve discussed it before, but in an election year, it all bears repeating.

And there’s the fact that I finally got around to reading the book, not just a good summary or two.

Caplan’s ideas are fairly straightforward, if controversial. The key is that he has gone to the data — the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy. He isn’t just rhapsodizing about political philosophy from his lofty perch.

Despite all the jokes about economists, they really do agree on a number of issues — and ordinary folks do not “get” this economic point of view. An important, but subtle, point is that ordinary folks don’t simply make random “mistakes” from an economic perspective. Those would cancel each other out in the aggregate. They make systematic mistakes with systematic biases — against markets, against foreigners, toward making work rather than improving efficiency, and toward pessimism rather than optimism.

The other key point is that citizens have very little incentive to educate themselves on the issues and to improve their understanding of the implications of the economic policies they’re voting for or against, because “Democracy is a commons, not a market.”

Your individual vote has a negligible effect on an election. Consider it zero. But your vote does not have a negligible effect on how you feel about yourself. So we all have an incentive to vote for things that feel good, even if they won’t work. We can be rationally irrational.

If a policy is bad for the economy, it’s bad for the economy, and if it’s good for the economy, it’s good for the economy, but your one vote, one way or the other, doesn’t change whether that policy get implemented or not. You don’t individually have the power to choose policy for the nation. But you do have the power to vote your heart.

Is that so bad? Think of it this way: since you don’t actually choose policy, you don’t have to put your money where your mouth is. And people have all kinds of strong opinions that disappear as soon as you ask, “Wanna bet?”

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