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”?