Monday, November 06, 2006

'Twas the night before the election...

...And the economists are on the prowl, reminding us of why we ought not to vote and how voters are largely irrational. First there was this post by economist Greg Mankiw at this blog (more here). Then there's "The Myth of the Rational Voter" by Bryan Caplan at Cato Unbound (with Matt Yglesias' response).

I agree with Yglesias that it's a bit weird for Caplan to complain about the irrationalities of the demos in a system which so obviously favors the elite. I would go further than this, however. Most people do understand, and not a few champion, the idea that a free market system by its very nature creates inequalities of wealth. Moreover, despite the "equality of opportunity" in this country, many people understand that those same inequalities of wealth help to compound the differences between socioeconomic classes so that a large group of people, no matter how hard they try, will never be able to match the performance (sic) and rewards of the entrenched elite. For this reason, is it really such a surprise that:

"Compared to the experts, laymen are much more skeptical of markets, especially international and labor markets, and much more pessimistic about the past, present, and future of the economy. When laymen see business conspiracies, economists see supply-and-demand. When laymen see ruinous competition from foreigners, economists see the wonder of comparative advantage. When laymen see dangerous downsizing, economists see wealth-enhancing reallocation of labor. When laymen see decline, economists see progress" ?
Even if economists espouse such things when you have adjusted for income and job security, you still have not answered the question cui bono? within the framework of the system outlined above (with wealth gravitating towards an entrenched elite, etc). So, even if the pie is getting bigger because of the wonders of the market so that everyone is better off than they would have been, there is no guarantee that the benefits will not be distributed extremely unequally, which is of course the case in the United States. Faced with the choice of redistributing more income now or waiting to receive increasing marginal returns, no matter how slight, more or less indefinitely, is it surprising or "irrational" that a large number of voters would favor the former? And to get back to Yglesias' point about all this, are they ever really given the chance for the former at all, once the policy has been crafted by the political elite?

There are further points in Caplan's that lept out at me as needing clarification. For example, when discussing how to "correct" for voter rationality, Caplan suggests taking more options off the table and leaving more decisions to "private choice and free markets." He mentions freedom of speech and religion as two such options that have been safeguarded from potentially dangerous democratic tampering. This example, however, seems to me to work against his argument. What if, for example, we drafted a constitutional amendment that stipulated that every American was owed $15,000 a year as a Basic Income Guarantee? We could call it the "freedom from hunger." (This is an idea promoted both by socialists like Philippe van Parijs and conservatives like Charles Murray.) Short of voting to overturn the amendment, that would be a pretty easy way to decrease the factors that give rise to democratic debate on the subject, although it certainly wouldn't be the free-market option.

Caplan also suggests reforming the Council of Economic Advisors so that they had veto power over legislation that they deemed "uneconomical." Caplan draws parallels between such a hypothetical institution and the Supreme Court. The catch, however, is that the whole purpose of the Supreme Court is to judge legislation based on a document, the Constitution, which is temporally and juridically prior to the Supreme Court itself. What is the parallel document in the Economic Advisors case? The Wealth of Nations? Social Statics? Economics 101? The comparison is absurd, because it would be arbitrary and most likely biased to choose a founding document ex post facto.

I won't go over all of the rest of Caplan's arguments, but I will point out that he suggests giving educated voters two votes, since "well-educated voters hold more sensible policy views," and tilting elections in favor of these votes by decreasing spending for turnout. In this case, the well-educated, who are more inclined to come out to vote anyway, would come out in typically strong numbers and ignorant voters would be more likely to stay at home.

I won't mount a serious challenge to this argument, but I will point out my serious, almost innate distaste for it, which is the more important feature anyway. Austin and I were talking the other day, and the idea of a "thymotic" conception of human nature came up. In brief, this idea dates back to Plato's Republic, in which Socrates distinguishes three parts of the human soul: the appetitive (basic desire for stuff), the rational (calculation), and the spirited, or thumos, whence we get our common conceptions of nobility, baseness, shame, fairness, etc. Obviously no one has a hard time finding desires for certain things, but only a few people (according to Plato, at least) have the right kind of calculation to judge the best means for achieving those ends. (Plato also thinks that reason can show us what sorts of things ought to be judged desire-worthy, in a normative sense, but that's irrelevant here.)

Now, the problem with Caplan, it seems to me, is that he apparently believes there are only two relevant questions--what we want, and how we're going to get it. Examining only these questions, we might easily forget about "democracy," "fairness," and "equality," because these pesky concepts always seem to intrude upon best laid plans. It is also taken for granted that only a few elite people (in this case, economists) can truly tell us what is in our best interests, based upon their special knowledge. Again, this is an idea as old as Plato, and Caplan reinforces the comparison by using phrases like "elites persist in unmerited deference to and flattery of the majority," which is all over the Gorgias.

However, once we recognize the "thymotic" element of human nature, which strives to have itself recognized and respected, the problems of having "free market everything" and restricting or altering democratic rights start to make a lot more sense. People don't just want to have their desires maximized, they want to be able to hold themselves with dignity and a sense of self-worth. Therefore, it's not surprising that they should all want to be able to vote and affect their government, especially when they see their social position not as a "natural" one that is somehow "deserved," but as one which is more or less arbitrary, and which could have been improved, even to the level of the elites, given a more egalitarian social scheme.

This is not, by the way, what Austin and I actually talked about with respect to the thumos, but I still think the concept offers a better way of looking at voting motives, "rational" or "irrational," in contrast to the homo economicus view. It also helps to explain why so many people find the "pure" free market and its mass/elite binary as arbitrary and unfair as Caplan finds it natural and optimal.

5 Comments:

Blogger Robot said...

I have a slightly different interpretation of thumos as applied to voting. To be honest, I think one of the major reasons why there is Trouble in Kansas, and seemingly no desire for Americans to vote according to class consciousness, or economic necessitym is exactly their striving "to have [themselves] recognized and respected." No one, particularly in America I think, wants to feel like he or she is the oppressed one who can´t move up in the world. Many people do understand that economic injustice exists, it´s just that they don´t really want to think it´s themselves who are the victims. So, while they might indeed want to influence government for their own sense of self-worth, it´s also often their sense of self-worth that prevents them from voting for real change.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

In a world where wages are sinking for most in the middle class, I think this voter has even less reason to respond to current policies with indignation. So long as everybody else is stagnating with him or her, and so long as someone else is worse off below him or her, there´s not as much reason to be furious with the country´s economic direction.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Scantron-
You pack a lot of stuff into this post; unfortunately, neither you nor Yglesias address the central problem here: voters don't understand what they're voting about. Caplan isn't challenging democracy (or at least he shouldn't be). Instead, he's saying that voters should be deciding norms and goals, but that they clearly don't understand enough about means to do so. I think if you look at any study of voter knowledge you'll come to the same conclusion.
Thus "Cui bono?" is not the correct objection to this argument, because, if we institute policies that are more effective and less costly, everyone can benefit. Environmental regulation, for instance, is too costly for what it accomplishes. If we instituted policies based on what we know of how policy can change actions, everyone would be better off: we could reduce the level of pollutants in the air, and save money at the same time.
The premise here that you need to disprove is that to achieve a certain goal, there are some policies that are objectively better than others. Moreover, because these questions can be determined empirically, we should depend on expert conclusions rather than voter opinion in determining these policies. If you really look at policy and the way it works, I think you'll come to agree with this. Not every decision need be politicized because once we determine our aims; there are ways to further the interests of all at the same time.
A great example of this is the $15,000 a year guarantee. While I haven't examined his argument fully, I believe that Charles Murray argues that this would actually save the government money while providing greater benefit to those in need. Thus it is a better policy. Why don't we have this policy, then? Because it's politically infeasible. While we can tolerate welfare for people with kids (for the kids' sake) and some basic healthcare and retirement programs because these are seen as consistent with our values, no one wants to give money away because the redistribution is too obvious. If someone could explain to Americans that all of this costs more to them than it should, given their preferences, they would probably see the light in the end. But they don't want to take the time to learn. Which is why we need some kind of way to prevent their ignorance from screwing up everything.
This is not a liberal issue or a conservative issue, and it's not the same issue it was when Plato wrote about it. That's because scientists are a fundamentally different kind of elite then the kind that existed in Plato's time. Science is a very effective, very systematic way of understanding and revealing certain truths; our policy should incorporate those truths. As an example, one of those truths is that the release of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels is screwing up the planet pretty badly. Good policy would have to take this truth into account, even though it would be against the (short-sighted, short-term) interest of many rich elites. So don't dumb this down into a new version of Plato. That's disgusting and ignorant.
Having considered various solutions to this problem during the writing of my thesis, I sympathize with Caplan but can't agree with him on most of his proposals. His ideas about voting and the Supreme Economist Court are sort of crude and fail to consider political realities, as he admits. On the other hand, I do agree with his assessment of what experts should do. Scientists should force their way into the public domain by any means possible. Another, more interesting proposal is Bruce Ackerman and Jim Fishkin's Deliberation Day. Their argument is that we should convene meetings before every election in which people could debate various issues. Their experiments have shown that people make more informed decisions and are happier with them. We could have a national holiday for this purpose. Unfortunately, this is an extremely unlikely proposition. One can hope.
The most probable improvement we can make is to increase the independence of national bureaucracies. This is the solution that Justice Breyer argues for in his ground-breaking and intelligent Breaking the Vicious Circle. Bureaucracies are pretty good at science and should be allowed to do more direct policy work. This requires that Congress delegate some power to these bureaucracies; it already has for many issues and should continue to do so.
I’m not sure what your argument vis-à-vis the thymotic impulse is: are you saying that people should vote so that they can become recognized, or that people will vote because they desire to be recognized? I agree with the latter; it’s harder for me to see a good reason for the former. We've discussed the possibility of positive liberty before and I think we should let it lay for now. I agree with Robot's assessment; that people see reality as it pleases them is one of the main reasons that we have to worry about intelligent policy at all.
To conclude, we can criticize solutions to this problem all we want. But I don't think you can deny that it exists. Doing so would require that you deny the validity of a lot of hard science and all of social science. So what is your solution? Why not an intelligent debate about how we can do better?

11:12 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

One last quick note on stupid voters. If Republicans are able to pass out flyers that say that the two main Republican candidates are actually Democracts, and it actually works -- ie. someone votes for a Republican, thinking they're a Democrat in a non-Palm Beach-esque hanging chad situation -- then our democracy is in worse shape than I thought.

5:25 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Listen, all I have to say here is that the Economic Council should be governed by the same founding document as the Supreme Court-- The Ten Commandments. "Don't Steal" it's in there!

5:45 PM  

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