The Myth of Bryan Caplan's Seriousness

What happens when libertarians get together to talk about why people who disagree with them shouldn't make decisions, why democracy isn't really as important as people think, and why low voter turnout isn't a bad thing? People roll their eyes and move on, right? Actually, no. Apparently employees of government agencies, embassies, and think tanks trek down to 1000 Massachusetts Avenue to listen and be enlightened in the F. A. Hayek Auditorium.

On Tuesday, the Cato Institute sponsored a panel discussing George Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan's new book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton University Press, 2007). Cato Unbound managing editor Will Wilkinson moderated, Caplan gave an overview of his argument, and the Pew Research Center's Director of Survey Research Scott Keeter provided a few comments.

"If you were to ask me, I would tell you that mammals make the best pets," Wilkinson explained by way of introduction. "But if you're shopping for your seven year old daughter, you shouldn't be indifferent between a kitten and a badger." And just like we choose not to keep badgers as pets, should we also decide to remove economic policy from the domain of democratic decision-making? "If voters don't know what they're doing and support policies and politicians for silly, arbitrary, or purely emotional reasons," Wilkinson continued, "we may end up with policies that make us all worse off." Perhaps, he suggested, we should limit the scope of democracy in favor of other things: like experts, or markets, or... well, just not the unwashed masses.

He then introduced Caplan, whose argument is basically that the general public is not simply ignorant, but irrational. Rather than making random errors in political judgment, its errors are systematically biased against libertarian economics. To make up for this supposedly harmful situation, Caplan suggests limiting the scope of democratic involvement in economic decision making because economics experts would make better policies for society at large.

Caplan said many people think there is a "self-serving bias" that leads economists -- presumed to be disproportionately well off and comfortable in their jobs -- to assume markets are working for them and thus they must be working for everyone else as well. Second, he said, some people accuse economists of having an "ideological bias" towards being right-wing ideologues regardless of evidence.

"Neither of these stories can stand up against the data," Caplan asserted. Rich economists still think differently than rich non-economists, he said, and most economists are moderate Democrats with disproportionately pro-market economic views.

Caplan didn't try to explain how people who dedicate their lives to the study of economic behavior on a theoretical and statistical level might have different indicators for success than English teachers or a desk clerks, nor did he explore that disproportionate faith in the market exhibited by economists -- beyond asserting that because they supposedly vote Democratic, they must not be ideologues. Whatever his economic credentials, Caplan isn't a particularly savvy political scientist.

When Keeter took the podium, he offered three critiques, but only after prefacing them by saying how much he liked most of Caplan's book. Keeter was a critic in the sense that Alan Colmes is a liberal and Joe Lieberman is a Democrat. The soft-spoken pollster noted first that non-economists and non-experts probably don't privilege economic expertise in the same way Caplan does.

Second, economists don't always agree with each other. According to a 1996 survey of economists and non-economists Caplan based his book on, economists have wildly different views of whether new jobs are lower-paying, whether income is keeping up with the cost of living, and whether tax cuts and regulation are good.

Third, Keeter expressed concern about Caplan's unstated assumption that most citizens resist learning when information is made available to them. It seems to follow from this that Caplan thinks there is no reason to even try.

This soon proved correct. When a poll worker asked how to increase voter turnout, Keeter gave the standard political scientist and pollster's answer of increasing motivation, noting all along how important civic participation like this is.

Turning to Caplan, Wilkinson asked, "Bryan, is low turnout even a bad thing?"

"No," he replied to some laughter. "Low voter turnout is actually a blessing in disguise. One of the two key things that predicts turnout is actually higher education, and more educated people generally have more sensible views about policy."

As to whether people should perhaps just be more properly informed, Caplan said, "If you can either encourage people who don't know what they're doing to not vote or at least not encourage them to vote, or you could have massive public education to raise the level of awareness in everyone up to the level of a Ph.D. -- if there are even such resources in the universe -- I think it's better to just encourage people to be lazy. Say, 'You know, if you don't really know what's going on, it would actually be the more responsible thing not to participate.'" That latter option, he said, is "much cheaper."

No one at this panel at any time mentioned inequality, or race, or actual people -- not statistics and theories -- struggling to get by. Caplan certainly did not seem concerned, but notably neither did Keeter -- the supposed critic -- or anyone in the audience. Wilkinson seemed almost gleeful when he asked Caplan the question about voter turnout, no doubt knowing precisely what would follow. These issues probably weren't considered important, or at least not the primary concerns of the attendees. But when the topic at hand is economic policy in a nation where almost 40 million people live below the poverty line, or voter participation in a democracy where the most historically disadvantaged groups have been the ones perpetually discouraged from voting, leaving this out is leaving out quite a bit.

The comparative political analysis was likewise lacking. Chairman of Cato's Board of Directors William Niskanen asked why different Western countries have significantly different economic policies. "I believe that levels of rationality vary from country to country," Caplan replied. The French, in particular, fare poorly in this measurement.

Carl Johnston, also from George Mason, asked Caplan whether, given his belief that the consensus of economists is more valid than the varying views of non-economists, the consensus of healthcare experts advocating universal healthcare might also be more valid than the varying views of non-healthcare-experts. But worry not my libertarian friends, Caplan has another bad answer. Unlike economists, healthcare experts are experts in how to perform medical procedures, not experts in economic allocation, he said. As such, their liberal political biases, not their expertise, make them promote non-market based healthcare reform. Roughly translated, I think Caplan just said it's because they aren't economists.

Whenever the "experts" get too liberal in a certain field, Caplan seemed content to assign their solutions to ideological biases. When David Bernstein, George Mason law professor and contributor to the Volokh Conspiracy blog, asked a similar question about law professors, Caplan was quick to point out their liberal bias as well.

However, this is something he thoroughly refuses to do to economists like himself. "The data doesn't back it up," he often said throughout the discussion. But it generally seemed more like the data just didn't back it up for Caplan, which, of course, is pretty convenient.

It's easy to think economists have all the right answers when you're an economist in a room full of people that agree with you. But it probably strikes most average people as absurd. These people aren't irrational. They just have different values. Unfortunately, the people in the auditorium nodding in agreement didn't share them, and they happen to come from some pretty powerful places. Some of them even get to make policy.