The Only Trustworthy Pollster is the Market

by Don Boudreaux on December 15, 2009

in Myths and Fallacies, Politics, Reality Is Not Optional

My friend Greg Rehmke just alerted me to this mid-November report appearing in the New York Times on ‘green energy.’  Note especially this passage:

The low sign-up rate [for 'green energy' programs] raises a question: If large majorities of Americans favor increased government support for clean energy, as polls suggest, why are so many people reluctant to back such programs when it comes to paying extra themselves?

There is, of course, absolutely no mystery here.  Words are cheap.  Fantasizing is free.  Proclamations are abundant because proclaiming can be done at virtually no cost.

Polls permit each polled person to express his or her “wants” free of charge.

And what is an election if not a poll?  No one voter bears any personal, material consequence of voting one way rather than another (or rather than not voting at all).

Note that I am not saying that the results of each election do not impact each voter (and each non-voter) materially.  Clearly, elections do have material impacts on voters and non-voters alike.  But at the relevant moment of decision — in the voting booth, when deciding whether to vote for candidate Jones or candidate Smith, or choosing whether to vote for or against that proposed new tax or that proposal to legalize medical marijuana — each voter gets to express his or her “want” or opinion without material consequence.

This important point bears repeating: Because no one voter’s vote will determine the outcome of the election, what will happen to any given voter as a result of the election will happen to that voter regardless of how, or whether or not, that voter votes.  So from the perspective of each voter — the decision-maker in the voting booth — he or she gets to express his or her desires and opinions free of charge, utterly without material consequence.

When we get to act without material consequences, there is no need to think clearly or to behave prudently.  We can each be, as Bryan Caplan puts it, “rationally irrational.”  That is, it’s rational to be irrational if the costs of behaving irrationally are near-zero and if we get some personal benefit from behaving in that way.  (The benefit could be in the form of feeling good about having expressed a certain viewpoint, or in the form of simply avoiding the cost — the requisite mental burden and time — of thinking seriously about the issues at hand.)

The above few paragraphs explain one of the several reasons for rejecting the myth that elections reveal in any sufficiently meaningful way “the will of the people.”

This essay of mine from the mid-1990s takes another stab at this explanation; it’s entitled “The Market: The Only Trustworthy Pollster.”

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