Thursday 25 September 2008

Lisbon and the Irrational Voter

Voters are not ignorant, according to Bryan Caplan, they are irrational. Caplan is the author of the provocative “The Myth of the Rational Voter”, a book in which he lays a large part of the blame for poor political outcomes on the shoulders of voters. The voter messes things up because he or she makes choices about issues which they do not understand and about which they hold inbuilt biased opinions. Given the huge amount of discussion about how well or badly voters were informed on the issue, I immediately thought of Lisbon.

If the only problem were that voters are ignorant the so called Miracle of Aggregation would still hold. Suppose 90% of voters knew nothing about the EU or about the Lisbon treaty and the remaining 10% understood the EU institutions, how they work, and the exact nature of the proposed changes. Well, the 90% of voters just don’t know, so some are swayed to vote Yes, some to vote No. Overall they statistically cancel each other out. The remaining 10% of ‘informed’ voters effectively make the choice, and that choice, since these voters understand the policy implications, is the right one. (whether that is yes or No can be debated elsewhere!).

But Caplan calls on an impressive swathe of empirical evidence to show that voters aren’t simply ignorant, they are, he argues, irrational. They have inbuilt biases which predispose them to prefer policies which are anti-foreign, or pro-national, or to policies which are against the free market (Could this be why voters latched on to many of the very right, very left or socialist campaigners during Lisbon?) By bias here he means that they prefer certain policy choices that go against the accepted wisdom in the relevant field of expertise. He focusess on economics, but argues the same applies to other fields too. He cites a number of voter biases in economic and foreign policy and argues that it there are likely other biases, which haven’t yet been tested, which mean that the voters make the wrong choices.

Are the experts right? Well Caplan argues that most lay people on the whole accept the opinions of doctors in medical matters, physicists in nuclear energy, traffic planners, legal advisors and so on. Why then would they not accept the analysis of economists and foreign policy experts?

Caplan would not be surprised by the evidence that voters didn’t understand Lisbon - there is good evidence for this from polls after and since the vote. But he would go further. He would argue that voters are pre-disposed to prefer inward looking, anti-foreign choices.

Not only that, he argues that emprical evidence show that voters take an overly pessimistic view of policy proposals in general. He showed that voters had thought the outcome of previous choices at the time would be worse than they turned out. During Lisbon there was much of the hype about conscription and doomed farming communities. Caplan may have a point.

Some commentators pointed to the large Yes vote for Lisbon among middle class males a sign that this cohort favoured the treaty because they thought it would benefit them. Caplan would take a different view. First, Caplan says his findings show that voters are far less selfish than we might expect. In general they are more in favour of improving the general social welfare than merely their own welfare. (Caplan spends a lot of time demolishing the traditional public choice hypothesis of the Self Interested Voter). The problem is they don’t know which policies are best to bring it about. Second, Caplan would say that his studies show that as a persons level of education increases their views converge with those of the experts. So if middle class males happened to be (statistically speaking) better educated, they would be more likely to agree with the experts. Since most experts were for Lisbon, this is likely why middle class males voted Yes, not because they thought Lisbon would favour them as a cohort.

One of the most controversial aspects of Caplan’s work is the exceptionally dim view he takes of what he calls the median voter. Basically, he says most voters don’t know about issues terribly well and are biased against optimum policies. Therefore it would be WORSE not better if more voters come to the polls. This is because those who currently don’t vote are generally the least educated and knowledgeable about politics. If they voted they would bring down the average choice.

Caplan goes further. Because educated voters make ‘better’ decisions, it would be better if their vote had extra weighting. The result, he argues, would be better for everyone. (Caplan doesn’t go into the ethical or practical difficulties with this approach or the dangers of ending up aiming for philosopher kings and getting dictators). Perhaps next time Lisbon comes round the government will only give the vote to PhDs in European Politics.


Vince said...

I worry a bit when ever I read studies like that. For some reason or another they seem to lean to the measurement of heads. And from there define intelligence. To me such arguments are dangerous, they start at some watered down point and zip off at speed to a train station in the middle of nowhere.
I voted for the treaties because I want to pull a bit of the power away from the local. We see what this can do when we view the health business. And there are other little historic fifes which could do with a trim. But this will not happen while there is the feel of loss.
That the text was unreadable was an error, that we were told to ignore this an even bigger one, that more than one placed to advise had not bothered their hat to read the thing was criminal.
I have a reasonably good grasp of texts, how they are put together and the implications which can be drawn from them. I had copies of those texts since the new year, three different renditions of them, and it took me three months to come to any clear idea of what they were about.
And simply put this was all about change, the ability of the EU to change at will anything they wanted to change whenever. The rest was just smoke.

Póló said...

In the case of Lisbon, the no side simply scared the shit out of almost everybody else with a campaign which was based on a series of lies. Yes side attempts to counter this were too late and completely ineffective as many on the yes side didn't know what they were talking about.