I’m traveling to a wedding in England this weekend, so there will be light blogging until next Monday.
I just got Bryan Caplan’s new book The Myth of the Rational Voter in the mail. I ordered it mainly for a research project, but the reviews make it seem like a pretty good read in general. Here, Louis Menand sums up some of the book’s main points, which would seem to be of universal application:
Caplan suspects that voters cherish irrational views on many issues, but he discusses only views relevant to economic policy. The average person, he says, has four biases about economics—four main areas in which he or she differs from the economic expert. The typical noneconomist does not understand or appreciate the way markets work (and thus favors regulation and is suspicious of the profit motive), dislikes foreigners (and thus tends to be protectionist), equates prosperity with employment rather than with production (and thus overvalues the preservation of existing jobs), and usually thinks that economic conditions are getting worse (and thus favors government intervention in the economy). Economists know that these positions are irrational, because the average person actually benefits from market competition, which provides the best product at the lowest price; from free trade with other countries, which (for American consumers) usually lowers the cost of labor and thus the price of goods; and from technological change, which redistributes labor from less productive to more productive enterprises.
The economic biases of the non-economist form a secular world view that people cling to dogmatically, the way they once clung to their religious faith, Caplan thinks. People do not, he proposes, vote their self-interest: they are much more altruistic than the standard model, in which voters behave like shoppers, predicts. (This explains the phenomenon, puzzling to many social critics, of the auto worker who supports the elimination of the inheritance tax and the Hollywood producer who favors its retention.) “Precisely because people put personal interests aside when they enter the political arena,” Caplan says, “intellectual errors readily blossom into foolish policies.” People really believe that the country would be better off if profits were regulated, if foreign goods were taxed, and if companies were prevented from downsizing. Politicians who pander to these beliefs are more likely to be elected, and the special interests that lobby for protectionism and anticompetitive legislation are the beneficiaries—not the public. The result, over time, is a decline in the standard of living.