Home > Andreas Kluth, Bryan Caplan, Democracy, Religion, Voting > The Great American Taboo: Democracy is Overrated

The Great American Taboo: Democracy is Overrated

Democracy is a morally necessary tool for a legitimate state and social contract, but the reality is that it is also a mechanism for choosing irrational policies. As Andreas Kluth, a correspondent for The Economist, said about democracy in a debate on if California is failed state, “James Madison didn’t want [the word] even used in the constitution of the country, because he was afraid—they had studied ancient Athens which was a failure because of direct democracy. They had studied Republican Rome, which was very stable, they wanted Rome, not Athens.”


In America, it is probably more blasphemous to criticize democracy than even religion. The founders recognized the need for a constitutional republic with limited state powers over a pure and far-reaching democracy for many reasons. In a book I read about a year ago, Bryan Caplan nails up his own version of the ninety-five theses. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies merges economic analysis with political science to explain why voters often act against their own (and the country’s) economic interests. I encourage everyone to read what I think is one of the most important and counter-intuitive studies of our political system.

Among all the fascinating data and analysis, in one of my favorite chapters Caplan explains the phenomenon of “rational irrationality” in voters. Any one person’s vote is astonishingly unlikely to sway an election. Therefore since an individual’s vote has more emotional effect on the individual than electoral effect it may be rational to vote in a way that makes the voter feel better than to vote for a policy that may be materially better for the nation. After all it is a lot of work to research and discover the most effective policies. Aside from effort, social costs can be high to hold unpopular beliefs regardless of their veracity. Also, even think of the politician for whom it makes more sense for him to vote for policies that get him elected over policies that might better the country. Human self-interest is an insight that doesn’t only apply to economics.

I imagine this is part of the reason politics can rarely be looked at dispassionately – people so often take offense if you criticize their preferences for a particular candidate or policy.
Voters see themselves as validating their own values so to criticize democracy one is seen, by extension, to be judging the integrity of the voter himself.

This is too similar to religion to ignore. In 2007, philosopher Dan Dennett gave a talk at the Atheist Alliance International convention where he outlines “good reasons” for belief in religion. He doesn’t mean reasons for beliefs in the doctrines of religion, but reasons for acting as though you believe in those doctrines. Watch his whole talk but it boils down to the social costs being very high for not being religious.



What Bryan Caplan argues for voters applies to the religious, “If agents care about both material wealth and irrational beliefs, then as the price of casting reason aside rises, agents consume less irrationality (p. 123).” The price for an individual consuming irrationality, whether it is in the voting booth or the church pew is often small, but in aggregate for society the cost can be very high. Although Caplan’s book is about political beliefs he, to his credit, spots the connection with religion. He writes, “Human beings
want their religion’s answers to be true. They often want it so badly that they avoid counterevidence, and refuse to think about whatever evidence falls in their laps[…] Once you admit that preferences over beliefs are relevant in religion it is hard to compartmentalize the insight (p. 15).”


Understanding that voters can be irrational and the reasons for it tempers enthusiasm for democracy (and often increases appreciation for markets). A balance obviously has to be found between giving citizens the power to make their own decisions as voters and limiting the influence that a group of potentially irrational voters can have over another group of citizens. But an important step is to break the taboo that democracy always good.
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  1. February 1, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks for that extension of my little aside during the debate to the topic of religion. FYI, I've tried to phrase my doubts about (direct) "democracy" more coherently, both in The Economist and on my blog.Andreas A

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