Do Voters' Biases Bias Policy?
By Bryan Caplan
Daniel Casse’s review of my book in today’s Wall Street Journal raises an important objection:
As an analysis of how far voters are out of step with settled economic thinking, Mr. Caplan’s argument seems irrefutable. Yet as a work of political theory it is pretty dismal. Survey data do indeed show that Americans hold some irrational views. But nowhere in “The Myth of the Rational Voter” does Mr. Caplan demonstrate that dumb voter bias triggers bad public policy.
In a sense, Casse is right; I don’t empirically explore the connection between public opinion and policy. My main reason: This has already been done to death. Empirically, status quo policies are almost always popular.
In fairness to Casse, though, he offers specific counter-examples:
Take free trade. Mr. Caplan reports that support for free trade hit bottom in 1977, when only 18% of Americans favored eliminating tariffs. Yet three years later, Ronald Reagan campaigned on a platform of free trade and proceeded to sign historic free-trade agreements with Canada and laid the groundwork for free trade with Mexico. Later administrations have fought to grant China most-favored nation trading status. True, there has been a lot of populist noise against free trade, but for decades not a single presidential nominee from either party has run for office while waving the protectionist flag.
My question: If protectionist beliefs don’t get enacted into policies, why have thirty years of movement to free trade failed to actually yield full-blown free trade? It’s one thing to argue – as I do in my book – that the public gets somewhat better policies than it deserves. It’s another to argue that the public’s biases have done no damage, when a mighty edifice of trade barriers remains despite thirty years of erosion.
Mr. Caplan also claims that voters revile a corporation that downsizes at home and sends jobs abroad, a business decision that most economists view as socially productive. Yet to the chagrin of Lou Dobbs, CNN’s ultra-populist, there has been no serious proposal to stop such downsizing or to punish the companies who outsource their labor.
For Casse, “Voter bias has fueled some foolish national debate in recent years but imposed very little foolish national policy.” This is misleading in two ways. First, very little new national economic policy of any kind has been imposed in recent years. Gridlock keeps the status quo in place. Second, and more importantly, Casse focuses on changes when he should focus on levels. Yes, status quo policies haven’t changed much. But the status quo has been foolish all along.