Is Voter Irrationality a Catch-22?
By Bryan Caplan
If voters are as irrational as I say, isn’t political reform a hopeless cause? Will Wilkinson and I discuss this (and many other issues) over at Bloggingheads. Think about it this way: To mitigate the damage of irrational majority rule, wouldn’t you have to get the majority to admit that it’s irrational in the first place? We seem to have a catch-22 – a majority irrational enough to favor protectionism will be too irrational to admit that majority rule leads to bad trade policy.
On reflection, though, the catch-22 argument overlooks some crucial facts. First, even I admit that there is some slack in the political system. Politicians and bureaucrats have to pay close attention to public opinion, but they can deviate a bit without instantly losing their jobs. Second, irrationality does not imply that persuasion is impossible. What irrationality implies is that facts and logic matter less than they should – and other stuff – like rhetoric – might make a difference. If emotion affects people’s beliefs, then persuasion can work by changing how people feel.
Thus, voter irrationality does not imply that political reform is hopeless. It does suggest, however, that political reform is usually difficult. To sharply change policy, you have to change what people think. And that’s notoriously hard to do.
Still, it’s hard to see why my theory is particularly pessimistic about the prospects for political reform. After all, what semi-plausible theory of politics implies that changing the world is easy?