Ten Ideas Worth Thinking About
By Bryan Caplan
A couple years ago, someone asked me to write a list of ten interesting ideas. I just stumbled across it again today, and I still like what I wrote. If you like it too, you’ll probably enjoy my book.
1. The myth of selfish voting. Contrary to popular clichés, individual’s material interests rarely line up with their political views. There is only a slight tendency for Republicans to be richer than Democrats, and the patterns that we do observe largely reflect racial and gender gaps, not “class.”
2. Unselfish voting versus charity. Since one vote is extremely unlikely to change the outcome of a major election, unselfish voting represents a tiny sacrifice. Voting to pay a million dollars in extra taxes – when the odds of deciding the election are one-in-a-million – is on par with giving a dollar to charity.
3. Feeling good versus getting results. To a large extent, unselfish voting is (subconsciously?) motivated by the wish to feel like a wonderful person, not to actually solve problems.
4. Silly beliefs feel good. People feel better about themselves when they relax normal intellectual standards and believe what “sounds good.” It is hard to see, for example, how boycotting products made in “sweatshops” helps poor workers in the Third World, but it is more pleasant to embrace this confusion than critique it.
5. Silly beliefs don’t balance out. In the realm of ideas, only rarely is an error balanced out by an equal and opposite error. Almost all countries scapegoat foreigners for their troubles; very few over-state their own responsibility for their own problems. People have been blaming unemployment on technological progress for centuries, evidence notwithstanding.
6. Selfish voters with realistic beliefs do little harm. At least the policies they support have to benefit someone.
7. Unselfish voters with silly beliefs do a lot of harm. Trying to “help people” before you understand their problems is usually worse than doing nothing at all.
8. Politicians are not in the business of education. No matter how silly voters’ views are, few politicians can get ahead by candidly pointing out their shortcomings. To win, they have to take the electorate as it is, warts and all.
9. Politics is the realm of intellectual pollution. Everyone can be worse off if everyone emits toxic chemicals into the air. Similarly, everyone can be worse off if everyone expresses silly beliefs in the voting booth. In both cases, individuals focus on the private good of convenience or feeling good, ignoring the serious side effects on the public good of clean air or wise policy.
10. The less democracy decides, the smaller the danger of intellectual pollution. Outside of the voting booth, silly beliefs are largely inert. It is too hard to implement them on an individual level; even the staunchest protectionist buys foreign-made products all the time. Once silly beliefs are enshrined in policy, though, they often persist and stay popular in spite of the damage they inflict.