Ballot-Box Myths

by Don Boudreaux on January 6, 2008

in Myths and Fallacies, Politics

No one peels away the saccharine layers of romantic myths that surround democracy better and more reliably than my GMU colleague (and EconLog’s) Bryan Caplan.

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The other Eric January 6, 2008 at 11:41 pm

A long time ago H. L. Menken wrote,
"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

WesJohnson January 6, 2008 at 11:47 pm

Well, maybe his book is better, but this article is fluff. Caplan is cherry picking a few sentiments that are expressed from time to time and inflating them to "myths" which apparently everyone is laboring under the delusion of, all for the purpose of valiantly attacking the so called myths.

For example, I don't think anyone is skipping merrily to the polls, unconcerned with who to vote for, since "voters' errors balance out." I am sure Caplan can cite someone who made that argument once, but that doesn't make it a "myth."

I also think his argument against the first "myth," that people vote for their self interest, particularly bizarre for an economist to make. Disputing that people are voting in their own interest is like disputing that people are trying to maximize their utility. The person voting is the one deciding what the best way to cast their vote is.

Oh but I guess Caplan can tell what people's self interest REALLY is, since they obviously don't know.

"The country is not divided into two camps: the poor, who vote Democrat, and the rich, who vote Republican. "

Gee, what an insight. Who would have guessed? Could not a poor person think their self interest lies in a lower tax pro growth policy that might ultimately benefit them and their children more than a short term welfare fix? Might not a wealthy person have a lower marginal utility for their income and so might not mind higher taxes to pay for some program they have a fondness for?

How on earth does the idea that some rich people are liberal and some poor people are conservative support the notion that its a myth that people vote their self interest?

The argument against "myth" number one is further flawed by the confusion of people's positions on particular issues with how they vote. I guess he means to say that since people hold views which (he claims) are contrary to their self interest, they must vote against their self interest also.

I tried to make sense of his examples that I guess are meant to show that people hold views contrary to their self interest, but I honestly don't understand them

"The elderly heavily support Social Security and Medicare, but so does almost everyone else." Who is holding views contrary to their own interest? Obviously not the elderly, but "everyone else?" Couldn't a non-elderly person think it was in their self interest to support SS and Medicare, since it could benefit them in their old age, or benefit older relatives now?

"Men are actually slightly more pro-choice than women." I would think you could make a better argument that that view is perfectly in line with men's self interest. But again, who is Caplan to decide what all men's self interest with respect to abortion is or should be?

I could go on about the other four "myths," but it's just not in my self interest to continue.

G January 7, 2008 at 12:18 am


I believe Byran was referring to the more general use of the term "self interest", which usually excludes things like altruistic behavior. Using the economic (especially praxeological) definition of the term, I'd agree that his statements would be absurd. But as most people would read it, I don't think they are absurd at all.

Martin Brock January 7, 2008 at 12:47 am

Democracy is not the theory that common people know what they want. It's the theory that uncommon people don't know.

Wes Johnson January 7, 2008 at 11:07 am

I believe Byran was referring to the more general use of the term "self

He may have been, but its still incoherent. His examples, at best,
support only the most superficial understanding of 'self interest'

But that just underlines my larger point. No one is out there trying
to perpetuate the 'myth' that voters are voting their narrow superficial
self interest.

Its a straw man.

Ed January 7, 2008 at 10:09 pm

Perhaps he explains this more fully and correctly in his book but he is wrong about this as he states it in the Post:

"1. People vote their self-interest.

In fact, there is only the tiniest correlation between income and party. The country is not divided into two camps: the poor, who vote Democrat, and the rich, who vote Republican. If you consider your own experiences, this is hardly surprising: Are your rich friends really Republicans and your poor friends Democrats?

Self-interest is also a bad predictor of views about specific issues. Yes, the elderly heavily support Social Security and Medicare, but so does almost everyone else. The old bumper sticker says, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament," but men are actually slightly more pro-choice than women. And so on. Pollsters have found a few exceptions where self-interest really matters, such as smoking restrictions, which smokers obviously tend to oppose. But overall, where voters stand has little to do with where they sit."

Huh? As an economist, he should know well that "self-interest" does not equal maximizing cash "income". Self-interest is equal to maximizing "wealth" but only in the broadest sense of the economic term "wealth" meaning overall personal well-being not raw numbers of dollars in a bank account.

Lets consider citizens in a hypothetical general election voting for Huckabee vs. Edwards. The average citizen may well realize correctly that Huckabee has proposed tax cuts, like Bush's before him, that will skew far if not entirely in favor of the wealthy and not the average earner citizen. Conversely, they may understand that Edwards tax policy would directly favor the poor and middle class in which the average citizen voter resides. However, many such average income earner citizens will happily still vote for Huckabee over John Edwards whose tax cuts would more directly benefit them. Why? The pro-Huckabee voters may identify with his religious beliefs and statements that he will take America back for Christ. In a truly economic sense, the voters value Huckabee's religious beliefs more than tax cuts. Perhaps they lose $1000 cash under Huckabee's tax system. But they may gain $100,000 in 'value' for their religious fervor and sense of well-being by having what they believe is a good Christian in the White House.

Thus, there is little doubt that self-interest is an excellent predictor of voting behavior. Now this is not to say that there are not uninformed people, who might mistakenly vote what they think is their self-interest but would not be if they had more information. Perhaps Huckabee is a lying jerk and really loves Satan? But that is a question of information not an attempt to vote for other than self-interest. That information issue exists in all transactions, including purely monetary ones having nothing to do with politics yet we would not renounce the free market would we?

The fact that certain people might put a high value on items that we think are silly (like religious fervor and having a good Christian leader) does not mean they are not voting in their own rational self-interest. Their sense of 'wealth' would be severely diminished if they thought they had voted for good tax policy over Jesus. This is no different than someone trading cash for what they think will be a comfortable and long-lasting sofa which might or might not fall apart in two weeks.

I mean, how does the fact the elderly and non elderly equally support social security and medicare shows a lack of self-interest?? I am not elderly but I am very happy I do not have to try to find my parents private health insurance because they are completely uninsurable. A young couple (with dead elderly parents) deciding not to have kids might rationally believe that social security and medicare is a very good safety net for them given their lack of children and thus that they must support it now in the thought that they are therefore more likely to get it later. One can certainly argue whether these views are based on accurate facts or not but again, these people certainly believe they are acting in their own self-interest.

One final thought. By definition, I am quite confident that people are incapable of electing to vote against their self-interest. If someone votes 'for the good of the country' even though they think they will 'lose out,' that is still voting in their self-interest! The person values what they think is the good of the country more than they value their own good. That is not selfless, it is indeed selfish! The person acts so that the feel better by doing what is 'right' and thus have acted in their own self-interest.

An excellent book that touches on the support for much of this is, I believe, out of print but well worth picking up:

WesJohnson January 8, 2008 at 12:56 pm

You said it Ed.

I found the whole article shockingly meaningless, and I am surprised that it was printed in a newspaper and linked to here, even if it was written by a fellow GMU economist.

Maybe Caplan says it better in his book, but I am sure note going to waste my time and money finding out.

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