Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Rational Irrationality of Voters

Bryan Caplan has an excellent Election-Day article at Cato Unbound on “The Myth of the Rational Voter.” I applaud the fact that Bryan does not rely solely on rational ignorance (the notion that people remain ignorant about policy because the personal costs of becoming informed outweigh the personal benefits), but instead highlights the phenomenon of rational irrationality (the notion that people have a taste for certain kinds of beliefs, whether those beliefs are true or not). Here’s the best part:
But why are there some areas – like politics and religion – where irrationality seems especially pronounced? My answer is that irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap. If you underestimate the costs of excessive drinking, you can ruin your life. In contrast, if you underestimate the benefits of immigration, or the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, what happens to you? In all probability, the same thing that would have happened to you if you knew the whole truth.

In a sense, then, there is a method to the average voter's madness. Even when his views are completely wrong, he gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price. No wonder he buys in bulk.
One quibble I have with Bryan’s approach is his willingness to rely on the opinion of “experts” to judge when the voters are wrong. Bryan defends reliance on experts against charges of bias related to (say) the experts’ income or socio-economic background by observing that even when we control for those factors, expert opinion still diverges from voter opinion. But I think there’s a real source of bias that cannot be factored out so easily: the tendency of experts to exaggerate the importance of their own field. When I blogged about this phenomenon before, I dubbed it “psychological rent-seeking.” People want to believe what they’re doing is important and worthy of support.

Probably the best example is education; teachers and others in the field constantly tout the importance of education, the need to increase funding and boost teacher salaries, etc. And despite the self-serving quality of their recommendations, they are probably sincere in their beliefs. Yet if these people are regarded as the experts, a bias is introduced into our identification of correct beliefs. Now, I feel sure that Bryan wouldn’t regard teachers as the experts on education, but his expert-friendly position could surely be taken that way. If a teacher isn’t an expert on education, who is? A bureaucrat at the Department of Education? He, too, is probably afflicted by psychological (and well as standard-issue) rent-seeking.

The same problem emerges if we treat doctors or public health advocates as the experts on health policy, or environmental scientists as the experts on environmental policy, or trial lawyers as the experts on tort law.

Bryan focuses on economics as an area in which voters are particularly likely to be wrong, and he shows this by contrasting the opinions of voters and professional economists. I find the argument compelling – but then again, I’m an economist. Besides, as I argued in the post linked earlier, economists may be less vulnerable to psychological rent-seeking because their training imbues them with an awareness of trade-offs and a tendency to balance competing goals (since nearly any goal is subject to diminishing returns at some point). Thus, Bryan may be biasing the case in his favor by choosing an area in which the experts are less susceptible to the sort of bias we should be concerned about.

Arguably, one aspect of voters’ irrationality is their credulity about the claims of supposedly public-minded experts. As Bryan’s colleague Don Boudreaux points out, a candidate’s being “pro-teacher” is quite different from the candidate’s being “pro-education.” Similarly, “pro-union” does not necessarily mean “pro-worker.” Yet voters will often conflate the two. Although I agree with Bryan’s overall perspective, I wonder if his deference to the opinions of experts might exacerbate a prominent source of voter error.

1 comment:

Eric Crampton said...

The survey on which Bryan relies asks economists and the public their opinion on matters of positive economics. There aren't any questions that look remotely like "how important is it that universities hire more economists". Similarly, he draws on evidence from a survey of toxicologists and the public about toxicity and dose. I don't see any way that economist or toxicologist self-serving bias might enter into answers on either survey -- the questions just weren't getting at things that might induce it.