Tuesday, November 07, 2006

how rational are voters?

Considering Bryan Caplan's hero status it's odd that I'm not over excited by his new book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter". Somehow, the title didn't grab me. Reading this long essay of his has changed my mind though. It's very interesting and mentions something that I often wonder about:
In my book, however, I argue that rational ignorance has been oversold. Rational ignorance cannot explain why people gravitate toward false beliefs, rather than simply being agnostic. Neither can it explain why people who have barely scratched the surface of a subject are so confident in their judgments ? and even get angry when you contradict them. Why, to return to the case of immigration, do people leap to the conclusion that immigration is disastrous, and have trouble holding a civil conversation with someone who disagrees?
Of course I'm not particularly calm when it comes to immigration, but that doesn't change the fact the comments on post's about immigration are very different from other topics. There is always a longer discussion and commenter's are often aggressive, even to the blogger who they otherwise like.

He also discusses the "negative externalities" of irrational voting. I never thought about it like that. Just as driving a car harms others by polluting the air, making a noise and requiring roads, voting for bad policies harms other citizens. How can you deal with that, not by taxing stupid voters surely.

Finally, I agree that economists should spend more time talking about things like free trade, outsourcing and immigration (at least when trying to communicate to a popular audience). Everybody has views on these things, but they are often poorly informed:
when economists get the public's ear, they should not bore them with the details of national income statistics, or quibble with each other about marginal issues. They should challenge the public's misconceptions about markets, foreigners, saving labor, and progress.
These things are really important, many of the things that economists find interesting are probably about as important as number theory or cosmology.

Update: Steve Sailer responds to Tyler Cowen's post on irrational voters
On immigration, the elites and the masses have different interests. Anyone who has followed the immigration debates on blogs like this one, Caplan's, Mankiw's, or DeLong's knows that most academic economists tend to be palpably ignorant of the basic facts about immigration, and frequently get taken to school by their commenters. Academic economists, other than the tiny number who specialize in immigration, show little evidence of being more rational than the masses, just more ideological.

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