The Social Costs of Getting Out the Vote
By Bryan Caplan
I’ll keep you posted on the airdate. But whatever happens, meeting Stossel and his team was great experience. I’ve long suspected that the best way to make libertarian ideas popular is to create several hundred clones of Mr. “Give Me a Break.” Now I’m convinced.
The main focus of the interview: Should we encourage everyone to vote? My answer, of course, is no. The average voter’s understanding of politics and policy is disappointing at best. But hard as it is to believe, the average voter is an above-average citizen. Voters are more educated and know more about economics, politics, science, and statistics than non-voters. So if you think that politicians are pandering to the lowest common denominator, think again. With 100% turnout, the denominator could and would get lower still.
One thing I forgot to mention to Stossel: Most of the fear of low turnout probably rests on the empirically discredited Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis. If voters were selfish, then groups with unusually low turnout would become the punching bags of democratic politics. Fortunately, for all their flaws, voters have a strong sense of fair play. They may have crazy beliefs about the consequences of their favorite policies, but they are usually trying to promote the general interest. The main route to better policies isn’t equalizing (or maximizing!) turnount; it’s raising the average competence of the people who show up.
If you’re a normal American, you’re likely to conclude that we just need more (or better) education. But if you’re an economist, it’s hard to ignore a much cheaper alternative: Encourage people who don’t understand the issues to stay home. At minimum, we should stop trying to raise turnout, and stop trying to make the politically apathetic feel guilty about non-participation. Apathy may not be a virtue, but it’s a lot better than the activism of the irrational.