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Votes of Idiots

Mises Daily: Tuesday, July 08, 2008 by

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H.L. Mencken once described democracy as "simply a battle of charlatans for the votes of idiots." Writing in 1937 for the Baltimore Evening Sun, Mencken theorized that by now "the incurable idiots may conceivably constitute an absolute majority of the population." Alas, another election season is upon us to prove his prophetic point.

Of course, this is about the time democracy fans will throw out the old Churchill saw: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." But few realize that Churchill quickly added: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

For those true believers who need a couple hundred pages of arguments that reinforce the Sage of Baltimore's and the Prime Minister's view, George Mason University associate economics professor Bryan Caplan has obliged with The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.

No one will accuse Caplan of being as clever a writer as Mencken — but then nobody is. And despite leaning in the direction of free markets ideologically, the author takes great pains to draw from economists across the political spectrum as well as taking an unwarranted swipe at what he calls "market fundamentalists," or the followers of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard as being "way outside" the economics mainstream (Caplan's emphasis).

A few pages later, the professor makes fun of William Greider's "childhood faith" in democracy, writing that if "an economist waxed poetic about his childhood faith in the free market, he would be tagged a market fundamentalist, and his credibility would plummet." But, near the book's end, Caplan writes, "even economists, widely charged with market fundamentalism, should be more pro-market than they already are."

But he doesn't believe they should completely be pro-market? One wonders where Caplan draws the line, and how he draws it. It's also amazing that the book has not a single mention of Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy: The God That Failed, a book of "genuine importance" according to Thomas Woods who describes the book as "a stimulating and intellectually exciting interdisciplinary analysis of the present situation of Western civilization."

Despite his market fundamentalist digression and omissions, the author makes some valuable insights in The Myth of the Rational Voter, and has sprinkled the book with more than a few juicy quotes, such as: "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt," from Bertrand Russell.

The fact is people hold irrational biases. And they vote these biases because it doesn't cost them anything. So while a voter will care most about the price and the quality of a good or service in the marketplace because they are directly paying that cost, in the voting booth, the voter/consumer can vote his or her anti-foreign, make-work or pessimistic biases for nothing. Unfortunately, all of these biased votes have severe negative ramifications for the economy.

The odds against affecting any single election with one's votes are massive; thus the votes, no matter how irrational, don't directly cost the voter anything. "Since delusional political beliefs are free," Caplan explains, "the voter consumes until he reaches his 'saturation point,' believing whatever makes him feel best." Economists often make the point that being a bigot in the marketplace costs money, but in the voting booth the cost vanishes because a single vote against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton because he is black or she is a woman will not decide the election.

Caplan also addresses Hollywood's left-leaning millionaires. Arguably, voting for high-taxing democrats will cost Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins more money in taxes than the average Joe or Jane. But their votes won't swing an election, and thus they will "pay a few expectational pennies to enhance their self-image."

On the supply side, the author goes to the man who wrote the book on politics — Machiavelli. Caplan explains that when the cost of systematic error is high, politicians make "shrewd and clear-eyed" decisions. Thus, elected officials appeal to voter biases and don't necessarily care how policies work — because voters don't care.

Voters don't want politicians with economics training; they want lawyers telling them what they want to hear. Thus, 70 percent of presidents and half the House and Senate have been lawyers.

To fix all of this, Caplan naïvely thinks economics professors can correct human biases in economics class, thus making the public better voters. I side with Mencken: The voters are incurable.