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Stephen DUBNER: Bryan, do you vote in presidential elections?

Bryan CAPLAN: I confess that I do not.

DUBNER: Why not?

CAPLAN: To me, anyone who can actually make it through the system has views that are so repellent to me, and what they say seems to be so contrary to common sense and common decency I just couldn’t bear to really identify with either of them.

Okay, so Bryan Caplan is not what a political pollster would call a “likely voter.” Not by a long shot. This can best be explained by the fact that Caplan is – yes – an economist. He teaches at George Mason University. Caplan has iconoclastic thoughts about a lot of things. He’s the kind of guy who’ll tell you that just about everything you think — about voting, about parenting, about higher education — is wrong.

CAPLAN: Honestly, if I just listen to any speech that any successful politician gives, it just seems like it’s so unfair, and it’s so untruthful. It’s like every sentence, can you fact-check this sentence? Is this sentence actually factually correct? It’s like, no not really. It’s just very unfair, and just appealing to people’s emotions, and I have to say, I really object to it. 

CAPLAN: I almost never actually listen to politicians. I’ll sometimes read transcripts. I find the transcripts less emotionally aversive than actually listening to them say their words. And when I read those transcripts — no matter what the party of the person is — I just think ‘I would give you a C in my economics class.’ This is just not acceptable for a person to be saying, it’s just so wrong.

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Before the last presidential election, in 2008 when Barack Obama beat John McCain, Bryan Caplan published a book called The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.

CAPLAN: The background assumption is this: everyone understands why dictatorships choose bad policies, there’s some awful jerk at the head of a country running it like it’s his own personal piggy bank. The puzzle though is why democracies would choose bad policies in a similar way. So in other words, the question is: everyone can agree that dictatorships choose bad policies; it’s no big intellectual puzzle as to why that would happen. But the idea that democracies, which are run by the people, or by the people elected by the people, would also make mistakes, is the puzzle. So you can think about the right way to read the title is, ‘why even democracies choose bad policies.’

The cover of Caplan’s book shows a flock of sheep, standing up like humans in a sort of military formation, ready to follow… someone. We the Sheeple.

CAPLAN: Right, so I’m really going against two different baseline wisdoms. One is with the public, just the idea that if a majority of Americans think something is a good idea then it’s right. You can see this in almost any presidential debate where someone will say ‘the American public wants this.’ And the last thing the other guy is going to say is, ‘well it’s true the American public does want it, but the American public is mistaken for the following reasons…’  You never want to be the politician saying that. The idea that if something is popular, it’s a good idea is quite widespread in public opinion. At the same time, I also wanted to argue against the view that’s very common in economics and political science, which is that even if there’s a lot of ignorance in the public, you know voters are factually mistaken on a lot of issues, nevertheless it all balances out. So that on average, if the public thinks something is a good idea, then it really is a good idea.

Consider one topic that just about everyone cares about during the upcoming election: unemployment – or, really, employment. This issue is at the core of both the  Obama and Romney campaigns. The argument is over how the Obama White House has done in creating jobs. But as Bryan Caplan points out, not all jobs are created equal. Some of them are what he calls “make-work” jobs, and that feeds a “make-work bias.”

CAPLAN: I mean, make-work bias is the view that you should judge the performance of an economy based on unemployment rather than production, which especially during recession is a totally natural view. But once again, if you step back and realize, well, suppose we had thought this way in the 19th century, someone comes up with new tractors, new fertilizers, new ways of growing food. Someone else says wait a second, this is going to put farmers out of work, we should stop them, we should ban them. You know these innovations that sound good because they create more food may be bad because they’re going to destroy jobs. If we listened to those people we would still be farmers. We would still be hungry because they weren’t growing enough food then. Since we didn’t listen to people like this, we had a huge increase in food production. We did have a large decrease in employment in agriculture, but those people and their descendants just found something else to do. Which again, is so unsatisfying to hear, because at the time you want to say, okay, well tell us specifically what will they do instead of agriculture, which is what mankind’s been doing for thousands of years. And the answer really is when you’re in a period of change it’s very hard to say what it’s going to be. All you can do is say, well, there’s going to be something. The labor’s valuable; someone will figure it out.

DUBNER: Well, Bryan, how much of the rational voter idea is pegged simply to voting your pocketbook? In other words, voting for the candidate whose policies, or at least the policies that he promises, most closely align with your own economic interests?

CAPLAN: So there are actually two separate issues here. So one of them is how clearly or unclearly people see the world. The other one is how selfishly or unselfishly they vote. A person could be very rational, but totally unselfish. A person could first of all carefully understand the world and then vote on the basis of what he thinks is best for society. A person of course could be the opposite. A person could be very confused but still vote for what he thinks will advance his selfish interests. What I do in the book is — first of all, I clear some rubble away — I go over all the evidence on voter motivation showing that despite what a lot of people think, voters are shockingly unselfish. Your individual interests have very little to do with how you vote, very little to do with your views on particular issues. In general, it’s not true that rich people are Republicans, poor people are Democrats. So there’s a very slight tendency that way, but it’s nothing like the picture people have of the all rich people vote Republican, all poor people vote Democrat.

DUBNER: So that sounds kind of wonderful, yes?

CAPLAN: So far so good. That actually does make democracy sound better. Here’s the problem, though. Even though it does look like people really are voting for what they believe to be good for their society, they actually seem to know very little about that and, in fact, have a lot of very mistaken views about how to advance their interests. And I say that’s actually probably the worst possible case. The worst possible thing is to have people who have good motives but bad understanding because then there’s a lot of agreement and consensus about what we ought to be doing. The problem is just that what we think we ought to be doing is often ineffective or counterproductive.

DUBNER: All right, so in terms of this year’s presidential election, pick a plank, any plank from each candidate’s economic platform. And give me an Obama plank, and give me a Romney plank. And talk about how good that policy is from an economic perspective, and then talk about its viability as a voting appeal.

CAPLAN: I’d be perfectly happy if you wanted to just give me a couple.

DUBNER: Sure, so let’s see. So President Obama has talked a lot about financial inequality, but also access to education let’s say, right? So he has made moves toward, and talked about making more moves toward, making college more affordable in more ways toward more people. Talk to me about that idea as a piece of economic policy and then talk to me about it as a good piece of voter bait.

CAPLAN: All right, so in terms of economic policy, it’s not at all clear that this is a good idea, because we already have an enormously high dropout rate, especially for marginal students. Most of, or at least a lot of the payoff from going to college comes from finishing. And yet, over the last decade or so we’ve had a large rise in the number of people who start going to college, but the fraction that actually finishes has been very flat. So it seems quite likely in a way that this is just going to encourage a lot of people to waste a couple of years of life and get very little show for it. And yet, what I just said is not anything you’d ever want to tell voters. You certainly don’t want to get in front of a national audience and say, you know, I think too many people are going to college. A lot of people aren’t very serious. You know that’s just the fact, a lot of people aren’t meant for college. That sounds terrible.

DUBNER: And therefore, campaigning on the idea of sending more people to college is a great thing to campaign on. 

CAPLAN: That sounds great. And of course, we’re going to pay for more of the stuff sounds good. I mean, who wants to pay for the stuff. Right? And again it’s not just a selfish matter of I don’t want to pay for my kid. No one should have to pay! Wouldn’t that be great if no one had to pay?

DUBNER: All right, let’s take something from Governor Romney’s campaign. Let’s say it’s a tax issue. Let’s say that the Romney camp describes President Obama’s forward-looking tax policy as wanting to raise taxes on the highest earners, whereas Governor Romney would argue, and has argued, that that would be a mistake because it would disincentivize small businesses, and maybe large. And that there comes a certain point at which raising taxes rather than, or at the expense of cutting spending is counterproductive. How does that rank as an economically sound or unsound issue in your view, and how does it rank again, as, again, voter bait?

CAPLAN: That one’s kind of funny, because if you take a look at voters’ views on government spending, they’re literally contradictory. Voters in general favor lower spending overall, but for virtually every category of spending, they want to spend more. So this is the kind of thing where if  you say it right almost anything can be good, if you say it wrong almost anything can be bad. When a politician says we need to cut spending, that is a popular appeal. The only problem is if someone says cut which kind of spending? Oh, let’s cut the waste. Can you identify the waste specifically, is there something that it actually is? You know that’s the problem. I mean, I would say that in general, Republicans try to tap into the general public desire for lower spending. They also try to very carefully tap into the public’s resistance to cutting any particular kind of spending. So even though Republicans know very well that to really cut spending you’ve got to cut entitlements, you know, you’ve got to get Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid under control. Those are really the fast-growing areas of spending. But Republications are very carefully electorally not to name any of those because people are going to say wait, when I said cut spending, I didn’t mean cut any of the spending we like, which are basically all of them, except for foreign aid.

Coming up: my Freakonomics partner Steve Levitt talks about his voting history.

Steven LEVITT: I voted for Obama because I wanted to tell my grandchildren that I voted for Obama. And I thought that he would be the greatest president in history.


LEVITT: I don’t think I’m going to bother voting this election.

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Today on Freakonomics Radio we’re talking with economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter. He is not a huge fan of our current political system.

CAPLAN: If you’re a successful politician, you know you don’t succeed by figuring out what’s really going on in the world and trying to explain it to people. You need to find out what people want to hear and then tell it to them. Successful politicians instinctively are trying to read people, trying to read their faces, what does this person want me to say to him, and that’s how they win. Economists often look down on politicians and sort of mock them for being incompetent. I have a very different view. I think they’re extremely competent, it’s just they’re competent in a skill that economists don’t appreciate. They are people who win these incredibly competitive races to get a job that thousands of people would love to have, maybe millions of people would love to have. They have some incredible skills, it’s just their skills are not figuring out what’s really going on, or deciphering the best research around. Their skill is finding out what the public wants to hear and saying it to them in a way that’s emotionally compelling. 

DUBNER: So what bothers you more, that electoral candidates give the people what the people want — or seem to want — or that people who seem to want what they seem to want?

CAPLAN: That’s a very good question. Because ultimately the source of the problem is that people are so confused in their views of how the economy and other things work, which means that a politician who wants to win has to actually say these things. People have often said that politics has been the religion of the 20th century, and I think there’s a lot to that. In the same way that people get attached to a religion, they get att
ached to a political party. And once you’re part of it, you don’t want to hear someone talking about the horrible things that your religion or your party did in the past. You don’t want to go and say the people who now run it might be morally questionable, or hypocritical, or just wrong. Instead, you want to find a sense of community with a bunch of like-minded people. You all tell each other how wonderful you are and try to defeat your Satanic enemies who for some strange reason continue to dispute the truth that you have obtained.

People are always talking about the dispiritingly low voter turnout rate in the U.S. — it’s less than 60 percent for a Presidential election. But after hearing Bryan Caplan talk for a while, you may ask yourself a different but equally dispiriting question: why is voter turnout even that high? I asked my Freakonomics friend and co-author Steve Levitt about this recently. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago.

DUBNER: So Levitt, how can you in your life, when you wander around, tell the difference between a smart person and a not-so-smart person?

LEVITT: Well, one good indicator of a person who’s not so smart is if they vote in a presidential election because they think their vote might actually decide which candidate wins.

DUBNER: Well that sounds anti-American doesn’t it? That’s a terrible heresy you’re saying aloud.

LEVITT: Well, you know us, Dubner, we try to tell the truth. And the fact is that there has never been and there never will be a vote cast in a presidential election that could possibly be decisive. And one thing we see for sure, and we saw it in the Gore versus Bush election is that if it’s even within thousands of votes it’s not the votes themselves that decide the election, because nobody can figure out how many votes were cast. It’s the courts that always decide, the judges that always decide. It’s virtually impossible that any vote you cast in a national election could ever actually be decisive. 

DUBNER: But don’t you think that people pretty much know that by now, people are aware of the difference between electoral versus popular vote. And you know, if you live in a state like I do, New York, or you do, Illinois, it’s kind of a foregone conclusion. So let’s assume that most people kind of think about that and know that, what drives them to do it anyway? I mean, people complain about low voter turnout, it sounds like you’re saying it’s strange it’s even as high as it is, around fifty percent.

LEVITT: Yeah, so I think you’re right that most people understand that their vote doesn’t really matter for the election, which is exactly why I said it’s only the not-so-smart people who vote because they’re actually going to influence the election. I think the reason most people vote, and the reason I occasionally vote is that it’s fun. It’s fun to vote, it’s expressive, and it’s a way to say the kind of person you are, and it’s a way to be able to say when something goes wrong when the opponent wins, “well I voted against that fool.” Or when something goes right when you voted for a guy to tell your grandchildren, “well I voted for that president.” So there’s nothing wrong with voting. I think you can tell whether someone’s smart or not so smart by their reasons for voting. 

DUBNER: Why did you vote for Obama for president in 2008?

LEVITT: So I voted for Obama because I wanted to tell my grandchildren that I voted for Obama. And I thought that he would be the greatest president in history.


LEVITT: I don’t think I’m going to bother voting this election.

DUBNER: So Levitt, some places around the world have essentially mandatory voting. Australia for one, I don’t really know too many of the details about it. But as a citizen you must vote. And there are different incentives for voting, and penalties for not voting. Do you like that idea for here?

LEVITT: I think it’s totally backward. Why would you want people who aren’t interested in voting, why would you want to compel them? These are either people who are uninterested in voting, uninformed, indifferent between the candidates. Those are exactly the wrong people to try to get to vote. If anything I think you want to go in the other direction and find ways to let people who care a lot vote repeatedly. That’s really more in the spirit of trying to get to the right answer. That way you get the people who have the strongest convictions acting most aggressively to express those convictions.

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