Last week I did an online debate for Learn Liberty with philosopher Helene Landemore.  The topic: Does democracy work?  Here’s my opening statement.

Democracy clearly works if you set the bar low enough.  Is democracy better than dictatorship?  Of course.  Does democracy allow most people in the First World to live long, comfortable lives?  Sure.  But we now hold most of our social institutions to far higher standards.  If 90% of women survived childbirth, we wouldn’t say “Medicine works.”  We’d expect doctors to use everything they know – and constantly strive to learn more.  And if mothers were dying because doctors stubbornly clung to superstitious treatments, we judge the doctors very harshly indeed.

So what would we conclude if we held democracy to analogous standards?  Do democracies use everything we know?  Do they constantly strive to learn more?  Do they at least avoid acting on sheer superstition?  I say the answer is no across the board.  When we actually measure voters’ policy-relevant beliefs against reasonable proxies for the Truth, voters do poorly.  Democracy’s defenders often insist that these errors will harmlessly balance out, but the facts of the matter is that voter errors are usually systematic.  Voters err alike.

What “reasonable proxies for the Truth” do voters fare poorly against?  They fail against objective statistics.  For example, American voters vastly overestimate the share of the budget that goes to foreign aid and welfare, and vastly underestimate the share that goes to Social Security and health.  They fail against better-informed voters.  Voters who score higher on tests of objective political knowledge favor very different policies than otherwise identical voters who score poorly.  And they fail against expert consensus – even after you adjust for possible biases in the experts’ judgments.

I’m an economist, so I’ve focused a lot of my attention on the public’s economic illiteracy.  Despite popular stereotypes about economists’ failure to agree with each other, there are many contrarian conclusions that economists across the political spectrum share.  Regardless of ideology, for example, economists have a strong tendency to support free trade, oppose price controls, and favor more open immigration.  The main reason is that they actually know surprising, unpopular facts about trade and markets: Specialization and exchange enrich the world, even if one trading partner is better at everything; minimum prices create surpluses; maximum prices create shortages.  Economists are often distressed by how little economics college students learn and remember; but the average college student knows far more economics than the typical voter.

I do think that democracies are very responsive to public opinion.  Given the facts about public opinion, however, responsiveness is greatly overrated.   When the public holds systematically biased  beliefs, politicians who want to win have to pander to popular error.  And that’s precisely what happens in every major election: Pandering.

Couldn’t we solve this problem with better education?  I’d like to believe that, but the facts once again get in the way.  “Educating” people out of their policy beliefs is very hard.  Why?  In large part, because error is, selfishly speaking, free.  If a voter is intellectually lazy, what happens to him? The same thing that happens to people like you who voluntarily attend online debates on “Does Democracy Work!”  This contrast is easy to see when you offer to bet someone about his policy views: Even passionate ideologues usually decline to back up their extravagant claims with cold hard cash.  As I explain in The Myth of the Rational Voter, we shouldn’t think of democracy as a market where people buy the policies they like.  We should instead think of democracy as a common well where people throw their intellectual garbage, heedless of the fact that we all drink the water.

What can be done?  For starters, we need to learn from Alcoholics Anonymous: The first step is admitting that you have a problem.  The fact that most people vote for X doesn’t make X a good idea.  We also need to take a more favorable view of constitutional checks on democracy.  But above all, the evidence is a strong argument for relying less on government and more on markets.  Economists may know a lot of ways for government to improve on market outcomes; but thanks to misguided public opinion, actual government policies tend to make market outcomes worse than they’d be if government left well enough alone.