Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Irrational Electorate
There was a very interesting article in the New York Times magazine over the weekend which discusses the notion that "voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational — and vote accordingly.” Those quoted words were taken from a new book by economist Bryan Caplan entitled “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies”:
In defending democracy, theorists of public choice sometimes invoke what they call “the miracle of aggregation.” It might seem obvious that few voters fully understand the intricacies of, say, single-payer universal health care. But imagine, Caplan writes, that just 1 percent of voters are fully informed and the other 99 percent are so ignorant that they vote at random. In a campaign between two candidates, one of whom has an excellent health care plan and the other a horrible plan, the candidates evenly split the ignorant voters’ ballots. Since all the well-informed voters opt for the candidate with the good health care plan, she wins. Thus, even in a democracy composed almost exclusively of the ignorant, we achieve first-rate health care.

The hitch, as Caplan points out, is that this miracle of aggregation works only if the errors are random. When that’s the case, the thousands of ill-informed votes in favor of the bad health plan are canceled out by thousands of equally ignorant votes in favor of the good plan. But Caplan argues that in the real world, voters make systematic mistakes about economic policy — and probably other policy issues too.
Caplan goes on to argue that modern democracies should have a system of identifying voters with greater economic literacy, and rewarding them with additional votes. This seems to me an even more skewed solution, as it is so easily open to fraud. In addition, it radically shakes up the democratic notion one man, one vote. However, it is a study in economics, and is a very interesting read.