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Voter Apathy

  • July 23rd, 2007

The New Yorker has just reviewed an heretical piece from an economist I had not previously heard of. It appears he is saying that democracy is dumb, and we’d do better to have less of it. His prescription could lead to elite tyranny, but there is still an important warning in the message.

When I sat on the Justice and Electoral Select Committee I asked officials for evidence that low voter turnouts were bad for democracy. They could never produce any.

In Switzerland and the United States, two of the world’s most vigorous and genuine democracies, typically fewer than 50% of the voters turn out. Our turn out is still high by international comparison.

Other parties meekly supported Labour/Green grabs for more tax money to get their voters to vote. They thought my query was odd, and very brave, telling me it was obvious that we should be embarrassed if lots of people did not vote.

I think it’s just politicians’ vanity. I had that view recorded in a Select Committee report. Most MPs think what they do is so important that it’s self evident that everyone should be paying attention, and itching to vote. Other MPs thought it outrageous when I said that voter apathy is a sign of contentment.

I urged: “Leave them alone. Political junkies can try to win their attention. They’ll get out and vote soon enough when they get sick of a government”. 

This was to them a very risky thing to say. No one else was prepared to be quoted publicly doubting the value of spending to get recalcitrant voters to the polls.

Democracy is a brilliant way to get rid of people past their use-by date, but very poor at most other political functions. For other purposes (like selecting worthwhile leaders) systems must work in spite of democracy not because of it.

The key thing is to preserve those elements of our democracy that ensure the people can “toss the bastards out” no questions asked, in the courts or anywhere else, when they’ve had enough.


  • Eric Crampton
  • July 23rd, 2007
  • 3:12 pm

Stephen here is referring to a write-up of Bryan Caplan’s new book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. Bryan was one of my profs at George Mason and was on my dissertation committee; I’m a huge fan of his “rational irrationality” model of politics.

In short, Donald Wittman launched a pretty hefty critique of public choice economics about 10 years ago in which he argued that public choice conclusions rely on implicit assumptions which we’d be unwilling to make about the workings of normal markets. For example, he argued that public choice conclusions seem to require assumptions of extreme voter stupidity rather than just rational ignorance.

Bryan Caplan’s taken the ball and run with it, showing not only that voters are systematically biased about how the economy works but also why we can model voters as indulging in biased beliefs at the ballot box but not at the Countdown. At the ballot box, each one of us has so small a chance of changing the election outcome that we can safely vote for anything that makes us feel good. In normal markets, we bear the consequences of our choices, so we tend to behave sensibly. Caplan shows that compared to economists, voters are biased against foreigners, business, markets, and are pessimistic. Moreover, these biases are not explained by economists’ “privileged position” in tenured sinecures; indeed, when you control for income, job security, and other relevant characteristics, the differences in beliefs rarely change much and sometimes magnify the differences rather than diminish them! That’s the one-paragraph version of Caplan’s argument; it’s well worth reading either his book ($18 or so via Amazon) or the articles on which it was based, available at . Alternatively, take my third year public choice class at Canterbury, where Caplan’s been on the reading list since I started teaching the course in 2004.

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