As something of a recovering political junkie, I’ve followed the electoral process of the United Kingdom with amusement. My friends from across the pond tell me that the Brits tend to take a more cynical perspective on politics than we Merkins do. Some may find that hard to believe, considering how low Congress’ and the President’s approval ratings are.
But perhaps the low approval ratings are the result of exalted expectations. Our politicians sweep into office with high ideals and vast promises, but fail to deliver. According to public choice theory, which was pioneered by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, we should expect politicians to behave rationally once elected–i.e., with an eye toward maintaining power and rewarding the special interests that got them there.
The public choice story, however, may not be the whole story. A couple of years ago I read Bryan Caplan’s excellent book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. In Caplan’s view, democracies work surprisingly well at giving majorities what they want. The problem is not that special interests hijack the electoral process and hang a huge albatross around the voters’ necks–it’s that the public’s faulty views about policy actually win.
It’s not just that the voting public is uneducated, though it is. If most people voted randomly, we would get pretty decent policies overall. If 90% of the public is ignorant but votes randomly for Candidate A or Candidate B, statistics tells us that 45% will vote A, 45% will vote B. Then the remaining 10% of informed voters would choose the better of the two.
The problem is that the public doesn’t vote randomly; it is biased toward bad policies. Caplan, an economist, focuses on four systematic public biases concerning economics:
- Anti-Market Bias — A mistrust of the free market to produce socially beneficial results. We are suspicious of people acting in the market in pure self-interest, because we realize that in our personal relationships self-interest is destructive. With the right constraints, however, market competition compels people to try to please people they otherwise wouldn’t care about.
- Make-Work Bias — A tendency to focus on employment over production. This bias shows itself in the clamor to avoid technological advancement or imports in the interest of save jobs (particularly domestic jobs). This bias is also behind the misconception that war stimulates an economy.
- Anti-Foreign Bias — A mistrust of foreign competition, either in goods or labor. This bias leads to irrational fear that imported goods will harm the domestic industry, or that immigration will undermine a nation’s economy.
- Pessimistic Bias — A belief that overall productivity and prosperity are diminishing over time.
In aspects of our lives in which the consequences of holding a false belief are great, we rationally moderate our beliefs. Caplan’s example is Dr. Smith, a surgeon who very happily believes that he is so talented he could operate quite well while intoxicated. The consequences of being wrong, however–losing his medical license, a lawsuit, criminal charges–prevent him from acting on those beliefs.
Unfortunately, the statistical insignificance of a single vote makes an individual more likely to indulge these biases in the voting booth. Since it makes no difference whether Dr. Smith votes rationally or irrationally, he chooses to indulge his mistaken beliefs about policy rather than to sacrifice his beliefs for the minuscule chance of changing policy for the better.
So, democracy works surprisingly well, giving the people what they want. The bad news is that the range of questions that are democratically decided is increasing, and therefore bad policy persists.
I have decided not to vote in November. I know that, statistically speaking, it is irrational for me to waste an hour voting. I’ve abandoned the romance and religious conviction about civic duty that I had when I turned 18. Maybe that’s wrong–I’m open to being re-converted.
Back to the UK, it looks like a hung parliament for now. As much as some UK natives complain about the supposedly outdated system, seems to make more sense than our “winner-take-all” presidency. Because the generally left- and right-wing parties failed to get a majority, the centrist Liberal Democrats now get to influence policy in ways that third parties cannot in the US presidential race or in Congress. It will be interesting to see which party eventually gets to “form a government”–choose a PM and a cabinet.
כְּעַן אֲנָה נְבֻכַדְנֶצַּר, מְשַׁבַּח וּמְרוֹמֵם וּמְהַדַּר לְמֶלֶךְ שְׁמַיָּא, דִּי כָל-מַעֲבָדוֹהִי קְשֹׁט, וְאֹרְחָתֵהּ דִּין; וְדִי מַהְלְכִין בְּגֵוָה, יָכִל לְהַשְׁפָּלָה׃