Friday, March 02, 2012

People Aren't Smart Enough for Democracy

It is interesting that progressives think citizens are much too stupid to make their own choices in the grocery store.  But somehow, people get a lot smarter when they enter the voting booth., they don't, actually. 
The problem, as I argued in a recent paper about "self interest," is that people have pretty good incentives to learn about which apples taste good. But Santorum vs Perry? Ooooh, I like his tie. Here is an excerpt from my paper:

There are three parts to the Public Choice Theory “citizen as private actor” story. First, the citizen is motivated to seek his own self-interest. Second, the citizen has limited information. Third, political elites know this, and use advertising and simple slogans to attract votes.

The evidence that Lewin (1991) offers bears only on the first step. But if we change the motivational assumption to its most extreme form, “Citizens only want to act in the public interest,” the cost of information and the value of simple political messages as persuasion are unchanged. From Marx to Downs to Buchanan and Tullock, the costliness of information and of collective action has been a constant theme. Motivational assumptions are nearly inconsequential for the PCTist. What matters is the aggregate consequences of individual action.

Do voters have the information they need to make accurate decisions? The very literature to which Lewin refers provides a resounding “no” answer. Very few citizens are aware of even the most basic political facts, and they have only cursory knowledge of how government works (Page and Shapiro 1992, Table 1.2; Somin 1998). Less than half can name their congressional representative, much less identify her voting record or issue positions. Even fewer can give a coherent attribution of their own political ideology in terms of its specific policy implications (Converse 1964; Feldman and Conover 1986, 1984, 1982, and 1982). The rationally ignorant public-interest voter is essentially indistinguishable from the rationally ignorant self-interest voter. Rationality need not imply self-interest, but it clearly does, as an empirical matter, imply that voters have very little idea of how policy works and what candidates will do once they are in office.

For reasons I cannot understand, Lewin (1991, 107) denies this in terms that can only be called naïve:

While proponents of the self-interest hypothesis centre their hopes on setting satisfactory prices through market mechanisms, the representatives of the public-interest hypothesis believe in cooperation as a method to escape the “prisoner’s dilemma.” Both camps maintain that their particular world—the market and politics, respectively—is the more transparent, i.e. the one characterized by a minimum of unintended consequences. Although this may be true of the way the market functions ideally as a model, however, faulty information, limits on competition, and other imperfections are quite evident in real-life economies. Politics, by contrast, because of its combination of collective organizations and public debate, is probably easier to predict even in reality.
Yet Public Choice scholars have never claimed that politics is unpredictable. In fact, it is all too predictable, precisely because people can be counted upon to act in their self-interest. A legislative séance of the sort Prof. Lewin envisions for the public sector, groping toward some seraphic group wisdom, would indeed be unpredictable, and (by his lights) not transparent. But the Public Choice argument is that one can project the decisions of a group with high precision if one knows the goals of each individual and the decision rule that will be used by the group.

Lewin argues for the superior competitiveness and informational abundance of the public sector. The information problem I have already discussed: buying a car is a private good, and I have solid reasons to learn about cars. Voting for a candidate is a public good, and information about it will be underprovided by private action. The fact that voters have public-interest intentions at the first stage, the motivation stage, is essentially irrelevant, since they have private interest reasons to free ride and can thus be influenced by operatives whom Downs called “persuaders,” who have their own reasons to distort information. 

As always, happy to send a PDF if you are interested. Just contact me at munger at duke dot edu

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