Bryan Gets Some Pushback
the book eats its own tail. Caplan wants to grant a presumptive authority to the consensus view of economists, but the consensus view of economists is that voters are rational, which is, of course, precisely the position he wants to convince us is wrong.
I do think that the biggest weakness of Myth of the Rational Voter is that it overstates the case for looking at the consensus of academic economists. In my view, any “scientific consensus” is a scoundrel’s refuge. If you want to argue that a particular point of view is correct, do so on the basis of the logic and evidence for that viewpoint, not on the basis of how many people with a particular credential hold that view.
Thanks to Mark Thoma for the pointer. Further on, Hayes says,
Caplan’s willingness to embrace the darkness, however, is what makes this book so important: It articulates in lurid detail the obscene id of Chicago-school, Grover-Norquist-style, free market fundamentalism (a term Caplan spends a chapter rebutting). Given a choice between democracy without free markets or free markets without democracy, many conservatives would gladly choose the latter. Hence Milton Friedman advising Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the Bush administration’s support of a coup in Venezuela.
This is a bit over the top. Would Hayes have preferred that Friedman advise Pinochet not to pursue market-oriented economic policies? I think that one could argue that not only did market-oriented economics help Chile’s standard of living, it ultimately resulted in a transition to a more open political system.
Which gets me to a more general point. Democracy is not the same thing as a political system with individual rights and liberty. Democracy can mean populist authoritarian leadership. As Amy Chua points out in World on Fire, democracy can even support genocide.
Democracy is attractive not so much as an end in itself but as a means to check the power of rulers. All the democracy I want is the power of the people to vote rulers out of office.
Instead, some people want popular democracy, meaning that people get to vote on everything. But the implications of unlimited popular democracy are disturbing. It means that if people vote to abolish free speech, so be it. If they vote to criminalize minority religions, that is the majority will. If they vote for genocide, then that becomes state policy.
Supporters of popular democracy might respond by saying, “Come on, the people aren’t that bad. Their instincts are basically good. You’ve gotta trust the people.” That’s the argument that Myth of the Rational Voter shoots down.
Where I think Bryan goes astray is in making it seem as though the solution is to increase the power of elites. But Government by elites is little better than popular democracy. Instead, the best idea is to limit the power of government.