Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneAt the Risk of Being Unpopular, This Economist Places the Blame for All This Squarely on You, the Voter!
Posted at 5:50 pm on September 26, 2010, by John W. Payne

I’m currently reading The Myth of the Rational Voter by George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, and his basic thesis is that democracies enact bad policies not because the democratic process is take over by self-interested elites but because the people are ignorant and biased and get precisely the bad policies they want. I’m certainly inclined to agree with this as I believe that, by and large, the people are stupid, vicious, and evil (not you, dear reader; you take the time to listen to what I have to say), but I think Caplan errs when he literally marginalizes the role of special interests:

Politicians’ wiggle room creates opportunities for special interest groups–private and public, lobbyists and bureaucrats–to get their way. On my account, though, interest groups are unlikely to to directly “subvert” the democratic process. Politicians rarely stick their necks out for unpopular policies because an interest group begs them–or pays them–to do so. Their careers are on the line; it is not worth the risk. Instead, interest groups push along the margins of public indifference. If the public has no strong feelings about how to reduce dependence on foreign old, ethanol producers might finagle a tax credit for themselves. No matter how hard they lobbied, though, they would fail to ban gasoline. (Emphasis in original.)

I think this explains much if not most of public policy, but there are some glaring exceptions where special interests have persuaded Congress, by comfortable majorities, to override public opinion. To take a recent example, solid majorities opposed bailing out GM and Chrysler, and the public followed the issue about as closely as any in the last two years, yet it still passed Congress with bipartisan support. Similarly, although the TARP was initially popular, by the time the second round of funding was set to be released, the public had turned overwhelmingly against it, but there was never a realistic possibility Congress would rescind the funding.

Now, I’m sure these votes will come back to hurt some Congressmen in November but not all that many, and I think this is where Caplan’s theory falters. Congressional districts are so heavily gerrymandered that most incumbents never face a serious challenge regardless of their voting record. Nancy Pelosi could kill and eat a hobo in the Haight-Ashbury, and the people of San Francisco would still return her to Congress. Members of Congress from safe districts, which is about 70-80 percent of the House, are essentially free to indulge whatever special interests they please, so when basically every lobbyist in Washington starts telling them that the sky will fall if they don’t start shoveling money into the yawning mouths of failing banks and auto companies, they willingly complied without regard to public opinion.

Although I’m only about forty pages into the book, Caplan’s theory of democratic failure seems relatively sound, but he should take into account how non-competitive most elections are.

Cross-posted at Rough Ol’ Boy.

Filed under: Public Choice
Comments: 2 Comments


  1. However, the link to “solid majorities opposed” begins with “While initially supportive of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), public opinion etc…”. Then “Americans initially supported the stimulus”, and “43 percent were in favor of financial assistance to the big three automakers.” These are big numbers and keep in mind that voters were not expected to vote on these issues for another 2 years (the presidential election was riding on different emotions).

    Comment by Pietro Poggi-Corradini — September 26, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

  2. We’re usually aware that public opinion polls can be worded to slant the results. The same is true of election ballots but even more so. Elections are not randomized to select voters, for example. Access to the ballot by voters is severely regulated where permitted and generally prohibited, write-in voting is an example. So stupid ballots force stupid choices on voters. What is really stupid is that most voters don’t think to challenge the strait-jacket ballots they are offered at the polls. Those who do generally just boycott the elections, a short-sighted and self-nullifying tactic in my opinion.

    Perhaps some heavy demonstrations at state capitals to give us an honest ballot or we secede might induce beneficial changes. Or, just go straight to secession and skip the ‘hat in hand petitioning’ routine.

    Comment by D. Frank Robinson — November 18, 2010 @ 9:24 am

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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