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The irrational Professor
Posted by: McQ on Friday, October 27, 2006

Yeah, I can't wait to see this:
On Tuesday, November 7th, American voters will go to the polls for the mid-term elections. On Monday, November 6th, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, author of the forthcoming book The Myth of the Rational Voter, will argue that we can't count on voters to make rational decisions in the lead essay of the November Cato Unbound, "Majority Fools: Irrationality and the Limits of Democracy." Brown University philosopher David Estlund, Yale University political scientist Ian Shapiro, and University of Virginia philosopher Loren Lomasky — some of the world's leading experts on democracy and democratic ideals — will grapple with Caplan's provocative argument, and what it means for democracy.
Oh, be still my heart.

What Caplan really means is he's going to explain why he can't explain why voters won't vote like he thinks they should vote (uh, rationally, of course), and are thus irrational in their choices.

My bet is he'll offer any number of categories where it seems voters vote against their supposed best interests - socially, economically and politically.

Left out will be the gazillions of categories and other things which also influence their lives, and ultimately their voting choices. But hey, what are academics for if not this sort of pointless nonsense, eh? Book sales are book sales and it's publish or die, right? [/cynicism]

Really ... what would we do without the 'experts' explaining all this stuff to us proles?

Oh, and the "grappling". We must see the grappling. Looking forward to the grappling. Hmmm ... maybe James Webb could put it in his next book.
 
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I don’t know, Bruce. Caplan isn’t the liberal wishful-thinker you might guess he is. I can’t say what his thesis entails, but it may have more meat to it than you think.
 
Written By: MichaelW
URL: http://asecondhandconjecture.com
I wonder if he’ll touch on the area of thought that says it’s irrational to vote at all. On the tangible cost side there’s:

- The amount of time invested to read up on candidates and decide who to support
- Time, gas money, etc. to go to the polls
- Time waiting in line and navigating a bureaucracy (which can run to hours when lines are long)

Balanced that are the civic duty of voting and the resulting satisfaction. Such positive intangible motivations do not seem to have the force they once did in an instant-gratification oriented society. And there are also negative intangibles:

- The vanishingly small probability of affecting the outcome
- The possible irrelevance of getting your own choice even if they win (because the two parties are now much more alike than different)

This adds up to a case of what the economists call "rational ignorance". If you have have anything productive or enjoyable to do with that time, it may be completely rational to ignore the election and remain in ignorance about the candidates and issues involved.

I discussed this phenomenon over at Daily Pundit a while back, and Bill Quick really bristles at the idea that it makes sense to call such behavior "rational". But if someone makes such a cost-benefit judgement (even implicitly), I have a hard time coming up with purely rational cost-benefit arguments to counter them. You might consider it irrational to feel no civic duty, for example, but it’s a prime theorem of economics that you can’t tell another person how much they should value an intangible.

What Bill worries about, justifiably I should add, are the larger effects. In the macro sense, it’s a a free-rider problem, or you could think of it as a Prisoner’s Dilemma writ large. Even if it’s more rational for any individual to do it, there are still bad effects if everyone takes that route.

We’re seeing those now, as voter participation has gone way down in the last century. Nobody who’s a part of the establishment wants to consider that behavior rational - they want to brand it apathetic and undesirable, partially because we really do need an informed, voting electorate, and partially because the establishment needs the implicit authenticity of an election in which lots of people participate.

This problem will get worse if our elections come to be seen as illegimate, i.e. "fixed". While that possibility fires up partisans on each end of the spectrum, to the typical guy in the middle, it just imposes another cost in the form of a negative intangible. Why go vote if the election is likely fixed?

The partisans who jump to the "fixed election" hypothesis any time an election doesn’t go their way may not realize it, but such behavior degrades the entire process if it’s done all the time. It makes the problem worse because it turns off the electorate, resulting in fewer people who vote. And the fewer the number of voters, the easier it would actually be to fix an election.
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
I don’t know, Bruce. Caplan isn’t the liberal wishful-thinker you might guess he is. I can’t say what his thesis entails, but it may have more meat to it than you think.
It may MW, but I was in a particularly p*ssy mood when I wrote that after a day of perusing the goings on around the country and the world.

Caplan was just a target of convenience given the fine mess so many other "experts" have managed to help us achieve. And then there’s the Jim Webb thing ... it just, well, you know .... but I’m quite serious about my gist of his "findings". I’d almost bet the moon I’m correct.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/blog
You might consider it irrational to feel no civic duty, for example, but it’s a prime theorem of economics that you can’t tell another person how much they should value an intangible.
That was actually the reason I took exception to the Caplan thesis. I was quite serious when I said, "he’s going to explain why he can’t explain why voters won’t vote like he thinks they should vote (uh, rationally, of course), and are thus irrational in their choices."

My guess is, when you finish it all up, he really has no idea since he cannot begin to fathom, or measure, or sort out how each individual’s values combine to drive him to vote a certain way ... or not.

And yes, I find it a completely rational choice not to vote, although I’m sure Caplan would disagree.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/blog
I think a case can be made that anyone who votes for what he thinks is best for society at large, and NOT his own personal interest, is not a "rational" voter in the strictest sense of the word. I vote a straight Republican ticket because I think they have the better ideas for society at large. If I voted pure self-interest, though, I’d have to vote Democrat, as most of their bad ideas don’t affect me personally, and some would actually allow me to profit.
 
Written By: Xrlq
URL: http://xrlq.com/
If I voted pure self-interest, though, I’d have to vote Democrat, as most of their bad ideas don’t affect me personally, and some would actually allow me to profit.
No kidding, damn lawyer;^}
 
Written By: Lance
URL: www.asecondhandconjecture.com
Billy Hollis -

I was going to post a comment earlier on the "rational apathy"/"rational ignorance" argument a la Anthony Downs, but I don’t think it’s pertinent, given the title.
 
Written By: OrneryWP
URL: http://
This is an interesting book I read a while back that discusses the wisdom of crowds vs. the wisdom of experts.

http://www.randomhouse.com/features/wisdomofcrowds/

It explains that, meeting certain conditions such as the ones that exist in our electoral system, a larger group of dumb, irrational people are more "smarter" than any expert.

In this endlessly fascinating book, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.
 
Written By: Fyro
URL: http://
What was that book that came out a few years ago about people in the midwest don’t know whats best for them? I remember seeing an interview with the author and it was so silly. He was trying to say that they don’t vote their own economic self interest because in HIS view, voting for a bunch of high tax Democrats was really in everyones self interest.
 
Written By: kyle N
URL: http://impudent.blognation.us/blog
Billy Holis makes some excellent points, I think.

I teach Political Science (though my focus is international/comparative), and I talk about voting to my classes the week before the election. I tell students I don’t see a rational reason to vote — what is the probability that my one vote will have any impact on the outcome. They seem shocked, and I ask them to try to convince otherwise. After about ten minutes students realize that, yes, in terms of individual rational choice going to vote is almost always irrational, especially if one doesn’t think that their act of non-voting will cause others not to vote. That leads into a discussion of the free rider problem, the necessity for a since of community responsibility and not simply raw self-interest, and questions with new clear answers such as ’what is my duty to my community/country? If it entails voting, should it entail ’national service, etc.? There are no solutions, but it demonstrates that, at its core, democracy requires some kind of sense of community and identity.
 
Written By: Scott Erb
URL: http://faculty.umf.maine.edu/~erb/blog.htm
Kyle - I never read it, but I suspect you mean "What’s Wrong With Kansas?"
... which really should have been more appropriately titled, "What’s Wrong With Democrats?" I mean, if your policies will make people unambiguously better off, and you still can’t convince them to vote for you, you have to start wondering why you’re in politics.
-=-=-=-=-=-
Scott Erb -

Here’s the rational reason to vote: it sends a message. Every vote may not turn the tide, but it does tell interested parties what they have to do to win an election. When you vote, I guarantee there are political analysts out there whose job it is to find out why you voted the way you did. They couldn’t usually care less about the non-voter, because it’s really hard to filter out the apathetic from the sophisticated abstainer, and even if they could, the sophisticated abstainers are among the most difficult to get out in the first place.

When a district swings Democrat by 5% from one election to the next, Republican analysts start trying to figure out if those who switched (or stayed home this time) did it out of spite/Bush fatigue, or because the Dems actually represent their views better, or because of high name recognition, or because of one flash-in-the-pan news item. This stuff is valuable to them, because they want to know how to win the next election.

The best strategy, in my opinion, is to vote your conscience, because that transmits the least ambiguous feedback about what your preferences are. If, for example, principled conservative Republicans do well but moderate Republicans get hammered by Democrats, one could take that partially as a sign that the Democrats weren’t really appealing, but people voted for them because they were dissatisfied with the Republicans not acting like Republicans. In the next election, those political analysts will be exhorting their smiling hand-shakers to change their policies, work on their records, modify their approach/message, and try to capture those voters better next time.

Furthermore, in the course of informing yourself about politics and economics and international affairs, you tend to learn a great deal that can empower you at times other than when you’re pulling that lever. I don’t treat my courses in PoliSci and Economics as if they’re all just training so that my personal ballot will be super well-informed. There’s a lot of time between elections that I use to try to convince others to vote my way, to raise money for my cause, to get my own arguments out there into the meme stream. That goes far beyond my own individual vote.

I can hold my own in conversations ranging from philosophy to politics to war to money, and a big part of the reason for that is that I spent time debating them with everyone from avowed fascists to avowed communists to die-hard anarcho-capitalists, and reading tons of info on the side. Exposing yourself to the wide world of ideas comes with a ton of side benefits.

And every once in a while, you can vote.
 
Written By: OrneryWP
URL: http://
Thinking like this is the foundation for later suggesting removing or deminishing Democratic rule.

We already suffer from choices from two essentially closed clubs. In the past, the parties atleast folded and reformed. I doubt that will ever happen again. And the possibility of a third party, kept the other two in check. That possibility has been snuffed out be election procedure and bureaucracy deliberately.

But the piece is rationalization to remove even that limited choice.
 
Written By: jpm100
URL: http://
To OrneryWP,

I agree with just about everything you said, except I would still hold that in a pure cost-benefit analysis the opportunity costs of going to the poll outweigh any impact one small vote would have on the outcome. In a pure rational choice world, it seems the rational position would be to inform yourself, discuss as you see fit, but then either pretend to have voted or not mention that one did not vote. In fact, you are doing precisely what I would say is the reason to vote: you recognize that you have a kind of civic duty to inform, persuade and be part of a political process. The reason for notions of duty and ethics is to get people to do things not in their personal myopic short term interests, but instead contribute in a way which combined with the contributions of others ultimately helps everyone. In short, only with a sense of duty and ethics is it possible to avoid the free rider problem. Pure rationality always comes up short.

I vote on three criteria: 1) do I trust the person’s integrity; 2) do I agree on the issues; and 3) do I think the person will be a force for pragmatic problem solving or shrill partisanship. I have many times voted for someone whose stance on the issues was further from mine than his or her opponent, but whom I trusted and thought would take a pragmatic problem solving/cooperative approach. Nowhere in that mix does political party play a role for me.
 
Written By: Scott Erb
URL: http://faculty.umf.maine.edu/~erb/blog.htm
I wonder if this guy mentions Jimmy Carter.
 
Written By: Neo
URL: http://
"do I think the person will be a force for pragmatic problem solving or shrill partisanship."

You must vote rarely!

 
Written By: Unknown
URL: http://
I think a case can be made that anyone who votes for what he thinks is best for society at large, and NOT his own personal interest, is not a "rational" voter in the strictest sense of the word.

Indeed. Of course, we’ve built the entire discipline of economics as if the above scenario was a literal impossibility.

When the author here claims that voters are voting "irrationally", he’s probably referring to their failure to vote for things percieved to be in their immediate economic self-interest. Of course, McQ is correct to point out that under all the baloney, no one ever *really* knows how a macroeconomic policy is going to affect the nation, or which macroeconomic policies will be adopted and how it relates to who they vote for - and sometimes, even what any candidate’s preffered macroeconomic policies actually are. There are many, many layers of uncertainty between your vote and its effect on your economic self-interest, and this contributes to the "rational apathy" that Billy Hollis mentions. If a voter makes an assumption that, even if his candidate wins, who the heck knows what the policy effects of that will be - or basically assumes that those effects will be insigificant - he may perceive benefits insignificant to justify even the small costs of voting.

A smart partial solution for the nation is to make election day a national holiday. You have to start lowering the costs of voting to compensate for the uncertain benefits - which could kick-start greater citizen engagement and a less dysfunctional system overall. The Democrats might support a proposal like that. The Republicans? No way.

Of course, mail-in absentee ballots for all might also solve the problem.

Billy - the free market of political choice has led to the market failure of rational voter apathy, but as a libertarian, you’d have to be against changing the rules to tweak the incentives. I mean, national holidays infringe the freedom of employers to demand that their employees go to work. Right? If not, what makes this system so different than the economic one? If so, do you accept the capture of the system by special interests as inevitable?
 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
It explains that, meeting certain conditions such as the ones that exist in our electoral system, a larger group of dumb, irrational people are more "smarter" than any expert.

Yet not smart enough to put those conditions in place or keep them there under a wide variety of circumstances - certainly not without the help of the elite few in every generation who actually do the da*n job.


 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
glasnost:
Billy - the free market of political choice has led to the market failure of rational voter apathy
I’m sorry, what market failure? What free market? How do those terms even come close to applying here?
 
Written By: OrneryWP
URL: http://
...what makes this system so different than the economic one? If so, do you accept the capture of the system by special interests as inevitable?
People are driven by incentives, so their psychology in politics can be analyzed via economic principles. As a result, I do indeed regard the capture of the system by special interests to be inevitable, given that the government’s scope is sufficiently large.

And that’s the reason I’m a libertarian.

A libertarian believes that a large government is inevitably captured by special interests, because with that much money floating around, economic psychology drives people in that direction. It doesn’t matter if the special interest is Greenpeace or Exxon. If the government determines the fate of the issues that matter to them, they will attempt to capture as much influence as possible to drive the outcomes where they want to them to go.

They’ll use legal and quasi-legal means certainly, and even illegal means if the stakes are high enough. They’ll create an environment in which legislators and officials have plenty of temptations for various forms of corruption. They’ll pump money into elections and drive them into irrelevant forms of dirty campaigning, because the last thing those special interests want is an honest, open examination of their own desires in the campaign.

The only way to deal with that problem is to limit the influence, reach, and spending of government. If the government’s role is limited and cannot step outside specific bounds, special interests themselves have much less incentive to try and influence it.

This is not a perfect solution, but then capitalism is not a perfect system either. The libertarian doesn’t insist that capitalism is perfect - merely that it fosters freedom and enhances prosperity, and is thus better than any of the other possibilities.

Similarly, as long as government has any power, there will those who seek to influence it. But the less the amount of government power, the less need to influence and the more likely it will be that those who still seek influence will be exposed.

This certainly isn’t perfect, and I know liberals cringe at the idea that government shouldn’t have the power to do all the wonderful things that you guys want. In fact, that’s where we part ways, because we don’t understand how you can believe in a world where government has that much power but still stays clean, efficient, and focused on the "common good". It’s against all human psychology. No government in the history of the world has remained in that state for a protracted period, and we believe that it’s simply impossible to do so given the realities of human nature.


 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
The only way to deal with that problem is to limit the influence, reach, and spending of government. If the government’s role is limited and cannot step outside specific bounds, special interests themselves have much less incentive to try and influence it.

One could suggest that the advocacy of this solution is also born of a certain type of "rational apathy.".

For example, while a liberal - as well as any given theroetical citizen or community of them with infinite information and resources - would look at an individual governance issue where policy outcomes had been coopted by special interests against the majority
benefit, and advocate for a specific policy correction - that would preserve the benefits of the original, socially active policy prior to its co-option -

a citizen or community without the information, resources, and time to feel confident about the ability to fix individual problems individually, might turn to a perceived solution to every problem at once - such as shrinking the size of the government.

It doesn’t make much sense to me, though, because if the issue at stake is coercion, historically, where government has been too limited to act as the agent of coercion when an community or organization wants something someone else has, the community or interest group just goes ahead and takes it using all available coercive means, anyway. For details, visit a "failed state". The only way to stop an interest group that wants something an invididual has from taking it outright is to restrain it within a larger collective organization.

So all that you achieve by clearing out the government is to allow even less impartial forces to fight over the spoils, with even fewer ways to enforce "fair conduct" of the struggle.

In fact, that’s where we part ways, because we don’t understand how you can believe in a world where government has that much power but still stays clean, efficient, and focused on the "common good". It’s against all human psychology.

Well, a complex system tends to first move away from peak efficiency and then fail as it grows unless its parameters are continually adapted - be it a market allocating resources, or a governement allocating rights. I would say, as an empirical observer first, that overall human welfare has continued to improve over the past century despite the growth of government in size, spending, and regulatory complexity. Therefore, it seems that the idea of specific fixes to specific problems of government abuse for its own sake seems to be "working".

That doesn’t mean the system as a whole is going to make it, of course. But around the world, weak governments more directly correlate to development failure than strong ones.
 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
But around the world, weak governments more directly correlate to development failure than strong ones.
I was going to make a detailed response, but I think it’s unnecessary. The problem in your analysis is right here in this sentence. "Weak government" does not equal "limited government".

Our government for much of our history has been limited, but not weak. That is there were no challenges whatsoever to it’s standing except for the Civil War, which was resolved in the government’s favor. It was able to enforce a stable society, including enforcement of property rights and criminal law that prevented most of the various coercive things you were going on about.

From a libertarian perspective, that plus providing for the common defense constitutes 90%+ of everything the government needs to do. It can be as strong as it needs to be for those areas, but limited to not doing anything else. I don’t think there’s any historical evidence that such a government is correlated with failure by any reasonable definition of the word. (In particular, "failure" doesn’t mean that it failed to achieve perfection. Utopia is not an option.)
 
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
Bit late to this, but let me echo Michael’s praise of Caplan. I’d bet money that, when he talks about voters being "irrational", he isn’t talking about normative judgments. He’s a very, very good economist — one of the bright, clear-thinking ones — and I doubt very strongly that he’d make an elementary error like that.

....

A few minutes googling leads me to this:
In a secular age, politics and economics have displaced religion itself as the focal point for passionate conviction and dogmatism.

Before studying public opinion, many wonder why democracy does not work better. After one becomes familiar with the public’s systematic biases, however, one is struck by the opposite question: Why isn’t democracy far worse?

What happens if fully rational politicians compete for the support of irrational voters—specifically, voters with irrational beliefs about the effects of various policies? It is a recipe for mendacity.

Put bluntly, rule by demogogues is not an aberration. It is the natural condition of democracy.

To get ahead in politics, leaders need a blend of naive populism and realistic cynicism. No wonder the modal politician has a law degree.
...which strikes me as perfectly reasonable, accurate and consistent with a libertarian skepticism of democratic processes as a guarantor of intended outcomes.
 
Written By: Jon Henke
URL: http://QandO.net

 
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