Here’s my April, 2007 op-ed on voter irrationality that never found a home.


to the people” – war protestors have been saying it for decades.   The more you study public opinion, though,
the more peculiar this slogan seems.  When
fighting started in Iraq,
the American public backed the war by three-to-one.  So in all honesty, isn’t it “the
people” who got us where we are today?

some support stemmed from our leaders’ deceptive advertising.  But we can still fault the public for being gullible;
this is hardly the first time our leaders have bent the truth to enter a
war.  In any case, leaders don’t have to
lie to get the public behind them.  Almost
every war begins with strong public
support.  Public opinion researchers call
this the “rally-round-the-flag” effect.  Strange as it sounds, simply entering a war makes the war popular – for a while.

am I to second-guess public opinion? 
Fortunately, I don’t have to. 
Another well-established pattern is that, given time, the public
second-guesses itself.  The rally-round-the-flag effect doesn’t last
forever.  As political scientist John
Mueller documents, after a year or so of foreseeable troubles, public support
for wars steadily drops.  The remarkable
fact about the Iraq
war is that it already unpopular, even though, by the standards of Korea or Vietnam, casualties
remain low.

think about the incentives that the public gives its leaders.  The rally-round-the-flag effect means that,
for any semi-plausible war, decision-makers can count on a burst of popular
support.  It also means that Doubting
Thomases who express reservations at the outset of a conflict are risking their
careers.  In short, public opinion gives
leaders an incentive to start wars, cross their fingers, and hope things work
out – and skeptics an incentive to keep their criticism to themselves until it
is too late to do much good.

gets worse.  If you give the public a year,
some casualties, and some scandals – all of which are practically inevitable –
public support drops off.  But this hardly
compensates for earlier bad incentives. 
Before the majority grows disillusioned, the politicians who planned the
war have frequently been reelected.  Yes,
the swing in public opinion gives opponents – and even friends – of the current
regime incentives to reverse course.  But
public opinion gives them these incentives whether or not continued support for
the war has become the lesser evil.  Would-be
critics who were cowed by public opinion during the early phase of the war now
have an incentive to pander – to paint withdrawal as a virtual free lunch.

the incentives that politicians face, we should be grateful that fiascos like
the Iraq
war are so rare.  Leaders could  be a lot less
responsible without forfeiting public support. 
If the public greeted plans for war with hard questions instead of flag-waving,
politicians would be a lot more cautious – and we would be a lot less likely to
get in over our heads.

the eyes of some observers, admittedly, the main thing to be cautious of is
caution itself.  Dangerous times call for
decisive action.  As Kennedy advisor Dean
Acheson once told a skeptical professor: “You think the President should
be warned. You’re wrong.  The President
should be given confidence.”

If the
rally-round-the-flag effect lasted forever, the Achesons of the world might be
right.  I’m skeptical, but it’s
possible.  Given the way that public
opinion works, though, intelligent hawks ought to think again.  Last year, Rumsfeld warned against the dangers of
giving the enemy the false impression that Americans cannot stomach a tough
fight.”  The study of public opinion
suggests that this is exactly the impression the Iraq War is likely to

Next time around, intelligent hawks need to ask
themselves: “
Does it really serve the national interest to take
advantage of the rally-round-the-flag effect to start a war, if public opinion
will reverse long before the war can be won?”  It’s a democracy, after all; once public
opinion reverses, policy will not be far behind.

During the 2008
election, candidates are sure to tell us a great deal about “what the
American people want.”  Every
candidate proudly claims to have a hand on the pulse of the nation.  But in truth, it is pretty easy to find out
what Americans want.  A vast quantity of
high-quality public opinion data on virtually every political topic is only a
mouse click away.  If the candidates
cared about good policy half as much as they care about getting elected, they
would ask a different – and harder  – question:
“Do the policies that the American people want actually make sense? 

Bryan Caplan is an Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason
University, and the
author of
Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton
University Press).