Illiterate voters

I should know better than to visit Arts & Letters Daily when I am up to my ears in work. The wealth of reading material found there provides the ideal excuse for procrastination. “Hey, I am doing something intellectual here”. Nevertheless, after having resisted the temptation to go there for a while, I finally succumbed and discovered an interesting blog and an essay on the illiteracy of voters when it comes to basic economic principles. The blog is Cato Unbound and the essay, written by economics professor Bryan Caplan, is called Straight Talk about Economic Illiteracy (pdf, via Mercatus Center). My high school major in economics notwithstanding, please do not laugh, I consider myself to be an economic illiterate and therefore had to read the essay. It was a good call. One quote to wet your appetites as well:

Admittedly, economic illiteracy does not automatically translate into foolish policies. We could imagine that the errors of half the electorate balance out the errors of the other half. In the real world though, we shall see that such coincidences are rare. The public tends to cluster around the same errors – like blaming foreigners for all their woes. Another conceivable way to contain the damage of economic illiteracy would be for citizens to swallow their pride, ignore their own policy views, defer to specialists, and vote based on concrete results. Once again, though, this is rare in the real world. Politicians plainly spend a lot of energy trying to find out what policies voters want, and comparatively little investigating whether voters’ expectations are in error. Indeed, even when politicians brag about their “results”, they usually mean that their proposals became policies, and sidestep the difficult issue of whether those policies worked as advertised.

I do have to add one caveat concerning Bryan Caplan, at least for economic illiterates like myself. Caplan, according to wikipedia, “has been heavily influenced by Ayn Rand, Thomas Szasz, and Thomas Reid”. This influence is notable in the essay, just look for his take on the word “greed”. There may be an ‘agenda’ here. I especially like the before-I-saw-the-light style he adopts. In any case, I am mainly interested in his ideas about voter illiteracy and how he defines that illiteracy in terms of his own economic belief system. Is Caplan right, in general, in saying that voters are economically illiterate? Or is he simply using that angle as a trick to ‘convince’ true illiterates to see his light as well? This is an important, albeit naive, question, since illiterates like me are dependent on information from ‘specialists’, and Caplan ‘is’ an economics professor… To be filed under “forest and trees” and “caveat emptor”?

8 thoughts on “Illiterate voters

  1. I’ve seen other things along these lines, such as a survey (in New Scientist I think, can’t remember when) which compared public attitudes to a given issue (such as GM food or global warming) in which the ‘control’ group was simply asked the questions and the ‘test’ group was given one statistic related to the issue that is completely uncontroversial among experts. Even just that one sentence shifted people’s thinking substantially towards the ‘expert’ position, typically making about a third of people change their minds. Of course, you could say that the subjects were ‘tricked by a soundbite’ and didn’t really learn anything, but it gives some idea of how easily swayed people can be on some issues.

    There are two axes by which one can measure the quality of a democracy: one is the distribution of political power, and the other is the competence and enthusiasm in wielding it shown by the average person. These two are co-dependent, in that a low level of one makes it hard to sustain a high level of the other, and vice versa. The disastrous consequences of voters lacking political nous are most apparent in the third world, but even ‘mature democracies’ have no grounds for complacency. In the long run, we therefore have a choice – either we invest heavily in education relevant to citizens’ duties as voters, and treat critical thinking, and knowledge of basic economics, politics etc as seriously as literacy, or we accept a society that will become progressively more inefficient and/or undemocratic.

    Unfortunately, due to the ‘ignorance trap’ (the more ignorant you are of something, the less you are aware of your ignorance), few voters will realise how badly informed we all are, and so are unlikely to support/put in the effort required to remedy it…

  2. Colin, you are right. But the learning curve is enormously steep, what with all the specialization. Also, who will be the provider of the correct material? For the time being that is my major problem. There are so many theories and so many so-called facts out there that it is hard to see the forest for the trees. Of course, things are constantly shifting too, so that does not make the task any easier either.

    I really have to repress an urge sometimes to just opt out and not bother anymore. It seems most of the time I am just busy unlearning instead of learning. It is overwhelming and that is why I believe some voters, either consciously or unconsciously, go for populists with ‘easy’ messages. Sometimes I really wish I could be of the blame-it-all-on-the-foreigners kind. But, alas, or fortunately, I am a foreigner myself 🙂

  3. Guy,

    People are not policy specialists. On any policy. That’s the point. Democracy is not meritocratic, it’s egalitarian. There’s no exemption for economics on this one that doesn’t lead down the slippery slope to a technocracy. Ayn Rand’s entire mythology is antidemocratic to the core, and someone who was heavily influenced by her will likely have traces of those sentiments left.

    What’s more dangerous in our present situation than policy-makers who don’t know economics, is policy-makers who know a little economics. This argument has been made recently by Christofer Hays in ‘What we learn, when we learn about economics’ (.pdf). Applies to all kinds of situations, like listening to economic professors, and is excellent reading as well.

  4. @David: Not regularly, why?
    @Nanne: The link does not work. Or, it does but I get a page not found message. The file is propably behind a firewall now.

  5. Guy,

    Try scrolling from left to right while selecting the link (it’s partially outside the window on firefox).

    Otherwise, see this post.

  6. Not bothering to read the essay itself, as the idea on its own is ridiculous enough: economics is not a hard science, there are multiple ideological positions one can take and anyone who pretend you can get the one true answer to any moderately complex economic question is lying or ideologically deluded.

    The experts disagree and in practise their expertise seems to be of somewhat less value than propaganda like this makes out to be, eh?

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