Anti-Democratic Excuses

Via Ezra: Bryan Caplan writes a long-winded article about how voters are irrational. While most of the article is okay, Caplan is overzealous in relying on public choice theory to explain ignorance, instead of correctly blaming political propaganda. His main example of irrationality is foreign aid:

The National Survey of Public Knowledge of Welfare Reform and the Federal Budget finds, for example, that 41% of Americans believe that foreign aid is one of the two biggest areas in the federal budget — versus 14% for Social Security.

Somehow, in trying to explain why 41% of Americans believe that foreign aid, all of 0.2% of the GDP, is a big chunk of the budget, Caplan neglects to mention a protracted media campaign of conservatives and libertarians. Americans didn’t just randomly decide to think foreign aid was a big chunk of US government spending; they read it on the media, which the right wing carefully manipulated.

After ignoring one of the most important reasons Americans are being duped, Caplan suggests as a solution stripping the people of even more power:

Another way to deal with voter irrationality is institutional reform. Imagine, for example, if the Council of Economic Advisers, in the spirit of the Supreme Court, had the power to invalidate legislation as “uneconomical.” Similarly, since the data show that well-educated voters hold more sensible policy views, we could emulate pre-1949 Great Britain by giving college graduates an extra vote.

I suspect that these — and other! — eccentric institutional reforms would be helpful if tried. Unfortunately, there is a catch-22: The majority is unlikely to vote to reduce the power of the majority. Still, milder versions of these reforms might slip through the cracks. The public has largely ceded control of monetary policy to professional economists; perhaps the public would be willing to defer to expert judgment on some other areas as well. In a similar vein, although the majority is unlikely to approve plural votes for college graduates, it does allow the well-educated to exert extra influence by virtue of their higher turnout rate. It might be politically possible to further increase the de facto influence of educated voters by spending less money to increase turnout.

Both the ideas and the implementations are wrongheaded beyond belief. Certain things in economic policy probably should be outside majority control. Monetary policy, which is based on long-term coarse tuning, is one. Even budget balancing is possible: while at times deficit spending is necessary, at the current US level of debt I would support a Constitutional amendment that says Congress can only approve deficit spending by a supermajority.

What distinguishes these two special cases from the rest is the interplay between short-run populism and long-term benefit. While some short-run deficit spending is necessary, in the long run protracted deficits wreck both the domestic and international economies. Although cutting taxes while increasing spending can be popular, the balanced budget should be in some way protected from this meddling. The same applies to monetary policy, to some extent; but note that in Britain the Chancellor of the Exchequer has the powers of both a Secretary of the Treasury and a Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

A council of economic advisors that can veto legislation will also attain so much power it’ll become corrupt. Courts are somewhat protected from that because of their absolute emphasis on good ethics; economics and defense advisors are less immune to corruption. There’s a reason aristocracies don’t work. Evidently, countries where councils of economic advisors run the economy don’t do much better than countries where elected representatives do. It wasn’t elected politicians who destroyed the German economic miracle or impoverished Singapore’s bottom quintile.

As for extra votes, not only is the idea going to destroy whatever is left of American education, but also the more palatable alternative is horrible. As long as election day is not a national holiday, there is a de facto poll tax, which does nothing except disenfranchise the poor.

Spending less money on getting people to vote will not get better politicians; if it did, there’d be a huge difference between the quality Congresses elected in mid-term years and Congresses elected in Presidential election years. In the long run, it might get politicians who are less responsive to the concerns of the poor. That’s not a positive development, even though it might be in the short-term financial interest of the rich.

Caplan complains that regulations of democracy are just like regulations of the market. But there already are regulations of democracy. The pure free market must be tamed by some government regulations; the pure democracy of mythologized Athens must be tamed by representative democracy and a constitution. Saying that just because some economic decisions are out of elected politicians’ hands it’ll be good to exempt more decisions out of popular will makes as much sense as saying that because some economic regulations work, so will every anti-business policy.

One Response to Anti-Democratic Excuses

  1. Somehow, in trying to explain why 41% of Americans believe that foreign aid, all of 0.2% of the GDP, is a big chunk of the budget, Caplan neglects to mention a protracted media campaign of conservatives and libertarians. Americans didn’t just randomly decide to think foreign aid was a big chunk of US government spending; they read it on the media, which the right wing carefully manipulated.

    That’s true, except for the minor fact of it not having happened.

    I mean, seriously, where do you see conservatives (and libertarians? — as if the media ever paid attention to us?) talking about foreign aid? What, maybe 30 or 40 years ago?

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