Pundits, academics and bloggers are mad. They’re mad because even though they are so clever, nobody seems to be enacting their policy suggestions on a national level. Oh, people listen and tell them they’re clever, but the Bush administration keeps going on its merry way; no one seems to be storming the castle gates. Now that the congressional democrats have caved to the administration, the pundits and bloggers have someone new to whine about. With all this anger going around, so much desire to blame, it was inevitable that someone would blame the public. According to the NYTimes Sunday Magazine, in a section called the Idea Lab, a George Mason economist named Bryan Caplan has a new book “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies” where he argues that “voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational — and vote accordingly.” Apparently the conventional theory (“the Miracle of Aggregation”) is that voters act somewhat randomly, except for a small percentage of informed voters. Given a choice between a candidate with a wise plan for, say, health care and a candidate with a foolish plan, the ill-informed voters will, with their bundle of expectations, tend to split over the candidates, and the small percentage of informed voters will put the wise candidate over the edge. Except that Caplan says this does not, in fact happen. Large groups of voters can behave perversely in a systematic manner, and cancel out the other random and also the well-informed voters. His evidence comes from a survey comparing PhD opinions against average Americans opinions, but the popularity of the book will come (if it is popular) from people thinking about the ’04 election.
What Caplan is really complaining about is candidates, not issues. In our representative democracy, candidates have a variety of influences, and give us (the voters) a variety of statements about their positions. We may feel strongly about a single issue, a general position or simply like a candidate for a variety of commendable or not so commendable reasons (such as smartness or physical attractiveness or party affiliation). The thing is, of course, elected officials can run into unexpected situations, like the President with 9/11. The President’s behavior since 9/11 is the issue he has been judged on in subsequent elections. But I think the issue is more complicated, because the war on terror is so different from other wars. In the past we have given President’s wide latitude of action in dealing with wars, such as Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and Roosevelt’s internment camps. But the enemy in those wars was easy to see and the progress clear. By comparison, the role of the Iraq invasion and occupation is not clear in the war on terror, and the overall progress in the war on terror is not clear. But I think voters have hung onto and supported the President’s explanations as reasonable longer than they might of for a less important issue, such as a recession or immigration policy. We are, after all, supposed to be at war, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Voters should treat war differently. This war is more subtle than the events in Iraq, and I think voters know that. In fact, it is so subtle it is probably nearly impossible to define. After all, we are not at war with the Middle East, but we could be said to be at war with individuals and groups throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world (Indonesia, e.g.). We are not at war with Islam, but those who we are at war with describe themselves as devout followers of Islam. Voters can almost be forgiven for wanting to simplify the issue; I think that was a big part of the initial support for invading Iraq. I think voters still have a collective sense of guilt about that, and so want both to stay long enough to win (still), and leave as soon as possible to put it behind us.
Caplan, for his part, wants to give the Council of Economic Advisors “Supreme Court Status”; that is, the power to veto laws with bad economics. The NYTimes, for their part, argue that voters have been unable to make good voting decisions because the administration has lied to us. Myself, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t support any restrictions on democracy, unless you think campaign finance reform is undemocratic. Better funding of schools, and more college aid would actually probably help the situation some more. And maybe more Aaron Sorkin programs. Or maybe not.
I may come in and edit parts of this post as the day goes on ...