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Morons Who Vote
Raddy asked the question the other day -- how many people know who their Congresstool is? A more stomach-churning question is how many people do you actually trust to cast an informed, intelligent vote? Gary J. Bass writes in The New York Times Magazine:

Of all the people who deserve some blame for the debacle in Iraq, don’t forget the American public. Today, about two-thirds of Americans oppose the war. But back in March 2003, when United States troops stormed into Iraq, nearly three out of four Americans supported the invasion. Doves say that the public was suckered into war by a deceitful White House, and hawks say that the press has since led the public to lose its nerve — but the two sides implicitly agree that the public has been dangerously unsure, or easily propagandized, or ignorant.

The disaster in Iraq has also fed a contradiction in American thinking about democracy. On the one hand, Americans continue to share the triumphalist, post-Soviet conviction that no other system of government has any real legitimacy. On the other hand, there is a deepening despair about whether and how the United States should spread democracy, prompted not just by Iraq but also by the endurance of authoritarianism in booming China and Vietnam and the disheartening Palestinian and Lebanese experiments in democratization.

Now Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, has attracted notice for raising a pointed question: Do voters have any idea what they are doing? In his provocative new book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies,” Caplan argues that “voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational — and vote accordingly.” Caplan’s complaint is not that special-interest groups might subvert the will of the people, or that government might ignore the will of the people. He objects to the will of the people itself.

...If the public doesn’t know how to think, is there a solution? Caplan has some radical medicine in mind. To encourage greater economic literacy, he suggests tests of voter competence, or “giving extra votes to individuals or groups with greater economic literacy.” Until 1949, he points out, Britain gave extra votes to some business owners and graduates of elite universities. (Since worse-educated citizens are less likely to vote, Caplan dislikes efforts to increase voter turnout.) Most provocatively, perhaps, in an online essay Caplan has suggested a curious twist on the tradition of judicial review: If the Supreme Court can strike down laws as unconstitutional, why shouldn’t the Council of Economic Advisers be able to strike down laws as “uneconomical”? (Caplan’s book has been warmly recommended by N. Gregory Mankiw, the former chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, although Mankiw did not allude to this particular proposal.) Caplan also suggests changing the educational curriculum to stamp out biased beliefs in voters and policy makers alike — a suggestion as old as Plato’s wish that a city’s ruling guardians be schooled in the “royal science” of governance, which has seemingly been reincarnated as economics.

Democracy, by the morons, for the morons...we get the government we deserve (because we randomly and unthinkingly vote it in -- if we even vote at all). And go ahead, make fun of the commie French, but 85 percent of them voted in their last election. How informed they were, I can't really say, but at least, this time, they elected somebody in who has some chance of dragging them out of their socialist malaise.

Posted by aalkon at May 30, 2007 11:15 AM

Comments

Another "radical" idea I've heard suggested is to treat voters as you would stockholders -- one would get a number of votes based on the amount of federal income tax one paid during the last election cycle (with caps on the number of votes -- otherwise, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett would be electing everyone). For instance, 1 vote for each $5,000 or part thereof in tax paid, up to a max of 10 votes.

This would take care of the economic literacy problem, since the more taxes one pays, the more likely one is to be literate about what's happening with the taxes paid. It would also solve the increasing problem of those who pay no tax being able to vote themselves ever more goodies out of the public trough, and would thus force politicians to address efficiency, rather than just pander to greed and envy in certain groups of voters.

Unfortunately, neither this nor some type of literacy test would ever pass muster with the courts, as they would be found to be a form of "poll tax" and thus in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Posted by: cpabroker at May 30, 2007 5:49 AM

"It would also solve the increasing problem of those who pay no tax being able to vote themselves ever more goodies out of the public trough, and would thus force politicians to address efficiency, rather than just pander to greed and envy in certain groups of voters."

I completely agree. An alternative would be that anyone can vote, EXCEPT people getting any kind of government welfare check or subsidy. But then again, Social Security has already become a welfare program - not the "insurance" program it was originally designed to be.

Posted by: Pirate Jo at May 30, 2007 6:59 AM

Here's an experiment that will sadden your day, recalled from my high-school civics class...

Survey a small group of people on a variety of subjects to find one that about half the class considers themselves "knowledgeable". Give the not-so-informed group a hall pass for thirty minutes and teach the remaining group the underlying factors behind the class of issue - not the actual one - on which a poll will be taken. When the remaining class members return, conduct a poll, using a fictional referendum which speaks to the issues without repeating any of the class material (props to Mr. Misener, so many years ago - this was a lot of work on his part).

Compare the poll results with the level of knowledge of those polled. In a small group, this can be done by direct questioning.

Two things may result, of course differing by degree: either the uninformed vote the same as the informed, or they do not.

The whole exercise demonstrates the value of activism, because when a simple majority can be gained, then permission to proceed with the issue is also granted.

Of course, you know that "activism" can take every form, from door-knocking campaigns to cunningly-worded referenda. And no economic group is immune to this. Presidents have been elected because of their looks, and discussion of the current guy is notably illogical whatever social strata one views.

Posted by: Radwaste at May 30, 2007 8:02 AM

So let me get this straight: According to this article, by definition, an "informed, intelligent" voter could not possibly have supported the war in Iraq? It's not possible that, say, people supported going in, but not how the war was handled after that? Or some other permutation? Sorry, Amy, I know I'm getting away from the main point of the post, and I agree with your larger point, but...

Posted by: marion at May 30, 2007 8:30 AM

Scott Adams said it best. Either intelligence is very important to democracy, but it is cancelled out by vast quantities of morons; in which case we're doomed. Or intelligence is irrelevant to democracy; in which case we're doomed.

Humans are not rational beings. They are rationalizing beings.

The intelletcually dishonest among the voting public will support something, and thenwhen it goes south will say "That was a dumb idea, how could you have conned me into supporting it".

And then they voted.

Posted by: brian at May 30, 2007 8:44 AM

A weighted vote sounds utterly pernicious to democracy, and would certainly operate to entrench power one group or another much more so than is currently the case. Under the type of plan described vaguely in the article about Bruce Caplan, and much more specifically by cpabroker, the value of a voter measured by one specific aspect of economic productivity. At the risk of sounding like a leftist, which I'm not, I find it troubling to think that a person's worth to society (which is what a weighted vote makes explicit) is measurable in terms of the taxes they pay. Some examples- Under this policy, the vote of a high-school educated member of the Teamsters or the UAW (who generally earn solid middle class wages or more) would cast votes (as directed by his union, natch) outweighing those of: most teachers K-12, most community college professors, most enlisted soldiers, lots of parents who stay at home with their kids, etc. etc. etc. Anyone can feel explain to me how this is likely to make for better policy.

Posted by: justin case at May 30, 2007 9:00 AM

Forgive the typos above (caffeine hasn't kicked in yet apparently).

Posted by: justin case at May 30, 2007 9:03 AM

You guys are all wrong about this ('cept Justin). I already got into a fight about that book review over the weekend. When two tenured academics start prattling on about the stupid peasants from the pages of the New York Times, you're getting elitism of the purest cane.

Everyone who imagines doing something about this (including you-all) imagines being the chair of the committee. Caplan dreams of grading the tests; he can't imagine a world where he might be asked to take one, let alone fail one. But there are many corners of this country where his opinions would be regarded as worthlessly naive. As would yours and mine. We don't get to choose who gets an opinion.

Posted by: Crid at May 30, 2007 9:26 AM

Crid nails the ugly, messy (and occasionally sublime) truth:

We don't get to choose who gets an opinion.

Posted by: justin case at May 30, 2007 10:15 AM

Regardless (Irregardless?) of the political system, countries get the kind of leaders that reflect themselves. The US gets quasi celebrities, China gets kindly mass murderers, Russia gets mean mass murderers, African countries get kleptomaniacs, Europe gets technocratic partiers (sp?), India gets bureaucrats, the Middle East gets the cruel and selfish.

Just because Oman becomes a democracy doesn't mean better people will rise to power there.

Posted by: doombuggy at May 30, 2007 12:37 PM

That's a hideous thing to say. Is there any reason at all to think that it's true?

Posted by: Crid at May 30, 2007 1:14 PM

I don't agree with his proposed methods, but I do worry about the problem, and I don't know what the solution is -- and goading people that it's their responsibility to be informed doesn't seem like it would be effective.

"We" don't really get the government we deserve if we aren't the ones unthinkingly voting along party lines or otherwise voting for dimwitted people and stuff.

And point taken, Marion.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at May 30, 2007 1:43 PM

Heinlein also worried about the same thing, Amy (as I'm guessing you likely know). His proposed solutions ranged from requiring the solution of a quadratic equation in order to have the right to vote - no minimum age required - to limiting the vote to those who had volunteered and been willing to serve in the military (albeit with most of those being in non-combat support roles). _Starship Troopers_ the book deals with this in some detail. However, addressing Crid's point, Heinlein didn't pick any tests that he himself would be unable to pass.

Posted by: marion at May 30, 2007 2:39 PM

If everyone is so stupid, low voter turnout is a positive, self-correcting mechanism, no? Clearly some primal wisdom is keeping uninformed voters away from the Inkadots of Power. Though I have a suspicion voting for judges secretly (and rightfully) disqualifies your ballot because who the fuck are those guys?

Posted by: Paul "Zulu Time" Hrissikopoulos at May 30, 2007 4:10 PM

Unfortunately, the professional politicians will appeal only to active pressure groups who agendas may not have the best outcome for the whole nation. As long as these particular political pressure groups deliver the votes.

Personally, I would simplify the voting requirements to 2 principle areas:

1. You must be over 25 years old.
2. You must own property. (paying property taxes)

Property owners will have a 'sensitivity' in such lame laws as property forfeiture seizure in drug matters or eminent domain statutes. Also a great deal of burden will be placed on nonproperty owners to achieve or do something with their lives instead of going through the motions of life.

Posted by: Joe at May 30, 2007 6:02 PM

I'm reminded of that joke about how one person says the food at a certain place is horrible, and the other says "I know! And such small portions!"

If most American voters are stupid, be glad they don't vote!

(disillusionment with the 2-party system is, IMO, part of the problem. Maybe more people voted in France because under a parliamentary system, they have more options?)

Posted by: LYT at May 30, 2007 7:30 PM

2. You must own property.

So what, like 2/3 of the people in Manhattan, 1/2 in LA, 1/2 in SF, Chicago, etc. shouldn't be able to vote (these numbers I made up, but I'm sure they're not far off)? Bringing back the old landedness requirement seems like a good idea to disenfranchise the young, those in expensive places, the poor, many of the elderly, etc. Yeah. Good idea Joe - keep those undesirables from voting.


N.B. This isn't sour grapes; I pass this test. We rent our house in SF (much better deal than buying right now), but own a rental property out of the state.

Posted by: justin case at May 30, 2007 7:30 PM

I'm very un-impressed with this democracy thing. I agree with Amy I think it is really not working at all. Who is up for getting rid of it?

Crid, what buggy said isn't hideous, but he touches on something. That, in America at least, the culture drives politics, not the other way around.
And to buggy I'd recommend the book Mao for China, which is disgusting how-to for dictators. Also The World Was Going Our Way or the original archive from Mitrokhin for Russia. Those are educational. Mao - not so much, just gross.

But back to the US. Did you know back in the day, US voters actually elected only 1/6 of the fed govt? I don't have an issue with that. I like the whole Constitutional Republic thing. If 51% of people vote to enslave 49%, that is Democracy.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a constitutional republic via inalianable property rights.

ps - Vasili Mitrokhin was a Soviet KGB archivist for 3-4 decades and was tasked with moving THE KGB archive from an old building to the new building. He made hand copies for a decade and hid what amounted to dozens of boxes under his dacha floor. In 93-ish finally took them out via a still unnamed country. facinating, what is in there. I'd recomend the The World was Going Our Was, over the archive, just because it is put together pretty well, by a US KGB expert. I read them both though.

Posted by: newjonny at May 30, 2007 7:46 PM

The only voting restriction that seems to make any rational sense to me (but would be very difficult in practice) would be to restrict people's voting to issues and people they actually know something about (beyond party affiliation). Doesn't really matter, of course, because all of these ideas are clearly unconstitutional.

Posted by: justin case at May 30, 2007 7:48 PM

agreed justine - landed gentry is too absurd to coment on.

Posted by: newjonny at May 30, 2007 7:48 PM

I live in a major city. Rent an apartment, but own property in the states and overseas. My international holdings creates a sensitivity in blatantly using our military on foreign nations.

Property owners have a greater stake in the system than the rest, J.C. Its not to disenfranchise anyone, but placing the burden of responsibility on individuals. Long term versus short term hedonism of various citizens.

Posted by: Joe at May 30, 2007 7:55 PM

Our "leaders" constantly underfund our education system(s).

Connect the dots...they're doing it for their own job security.

Posted by: Doobie at May 30, 2007 8:27 PM

> low voter turnout is a
> positive, self-correcting
> mechanism, no?

You'd think so. George Will used to wonder about this fascination with increasing voter turnout. He thought it was like the imaginary need for term limits: We could always just vote the guys out. (This was years ago, when George Will seemed to make sense. It's not usually a problem nowadays.) Compulsory voting hasn't seemed to do much for Australia. BUt I agree about the judges, I vote against them where possible but never for them.

Why are you in "Zulu Time"? It's "Pygmy Hour" here on the westside.

> nonproperty owners to achieve
> or do something with their
> lives

I don't think it's enough of a fulfillment to actually give life meaning. It's possible to be a high-achievement person and still be an asshole.

> under a parliamentary
> system, they have more
> options?)

Maybe true, but I like the two-party system for the way it cuts fanatics out of the action.

> in America at least,
> the culture drives
> politics, not the
> other way around.

Where's the payoff to this insight?

> US voters actually elected
> only 1/6 of the fed govt?

Only? Nowadays we elect 537 people out of millions of employees. If the gist of the non-voters' complaint is that there's too many of those guys ot pay attention too, it's true.

> would be to restrict people's
> voting to issues and people
> they actually know something
> about

I know you were just thinking out loud, but how could this work? When you say restrict, what do you mean? Who'd write this test, who'd administer it, what would the penalty be for crossing out of your boundaries?

Posted by: Crid at May 30, 2007 8:49 PM

Property owners have a greater stake in the system than the rest, J.C. Its not to disenfranchise anyone, but placing the burden of responsibility on individuals. Long term versus short term hedonism of various citizens.

I see your point, but still think it's such a judgment call that I can't buy it. It's a much more (generally) good financial decision to invest in securities than real property; people who stocks but no property have a big stake in the system, too. I just don't see where a line can be drawn that isn't totally arbitrary.

I know you were just thinking out loud, but how could this work?

Don't think it could (and sorta made that point). One of those things that can really only live in the realm of ideas. But it does get at what I think people getting at with their complaints - the informed voter. Not money, education, class, but just someone who gave enough of a crap to know what she was doing when she pulled the lever (or used the ink-a-vote thingy or what have you). But since it's not possible, and I don't think that any other suggestions are right, we might as well stick with what we've got. Works better than most systems.

Posted by: justin case at May 30, 2007 10:03 PM

> just someone who gave
> enough of a crap to know
> what she was doing when
> she pulled the lever

My problem with this post is the core fantasy of it... That there's some human standard that could be applied to the electorate in order to improve our judgment. You personally may be imagining some antiseptic, robotically-applied stadard of selection. But in the case of all too many who have this dream, if not you personally, it's a quick and tidy way to dream of how they'd be part of the enfranchised column when the list was written... And not one of the SOL good-fer-nuthin's to be excluded from polling.

This misunderstanding is similar to the one that makes people think the economy is about some sane, scientifically calibrated and human-independent measure of value, rather than being the huge (but sturdy!) shell game that it really is.

I have a lot of problems with my Christian background, but it taught meaningful principles of humility. No person or group of people is so special that they can be trusted with the whole ball of wax. We don't know all of the forces that are at work. It's not just that I can't write advice columns or you can't write computer programs or whatever. The number of variables at work exceeds any single intelligence or set of intellects, or races or backgrounds. The more willing opinions we sample, the better idea we have about how to move forward. You never know which corner of society is tipping the balance in an election.

And one reason so many Americans don't vote is because they don't need to... We got a pretty good machine running here.

Posted by: Crid at May 30, 2007 11:36 PM

Unfortunately, neither this nor some type of literacy test would ever pass muster with the courts...

Unfortunate indeed. What about the "hare/hunter/field" test?

2. You must own property.

Out of the box and into the fire! Well, I wasn't expecting an advocate for feudalism. Poor Democracy: your children have abandoned you! But my love is still true, babe.

Why are you in "Zulu Time"? It's "Pygmy Hour" here on the westside.

For work, naturally. I usually have to be dragged by force to exotic new locations. Fortunately, Fate frequently obliges in our little role playing game.

Posted by: Paul Hrissikopoulos at May 31, 2007 12:05 AM

I like the two-party system for the way it cuts fanatics out of the action.

The flipside is that it generally seems to force the major parties to pander at least somewhat to fanatical wings.

If, for instance, the Christian Coalition had their own semi-viable third party, wouldn't the Republican party be a lot better off?

The CC might still win a couple seats, but arguably be less influential overall.

Posted by: LYT at May 31, 2007 12:20 AM

doobie, "education" isn't underfunded - its allocation is just trash. And, of course, there is no link whatsoever to spending per pupil and results. But that's another thread.

Posted by: Radwaste at May 31, 2007 7:44 AM

> to pander at least somewhat
> to fanatical wings.

Well, "somewhat" is all the pandering they deserve. Even obsessives deserve a little attention. Just because a guy's an asshole doesn't mean we get to ignore him completely.

Posted by: Crid at May 31, 2007 9:19 AM

>doobie, "education" isn't underfunded

Then tell Bill Gates, who made that assertion, that he's full of shit.

Posted by: Doobie at May 31, 2007 5:21 PM

Seperation of School and State.

How much doobie do you have to smoke to think the gubment is doing a good job raising your children and they should get more money to "socialize" them. They barely pretend to teach anymore.

The whole system should be disbanded.

Posted by: newjonny at June 1, 2007 5:03 AM

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