Voters are dumb and stubborn

I read a book last fall that was simultaneously enthralling and depressing. The book was called “The Myth of the Rational Voter” by Bryan Caplan and was published in 2007. The central argument of the book is that voters are neither well informed nor rational, and not because they are bad people but because there are no incentives to be either informed or rational.

What do I mean when I say there are no incentives to be informed when it comes to voting? An incentive is something that motivates action. What motivates a person to vote? One plausible-sounding answer is that the person expects to gain from having one candidate win rather than another, and votes for that candidate in an effort to make that a reality. Voters will then gather information about the candidates to make sure they choose the one who benefits them.

This seems like a reasonable explanation for why people vote but it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The fact is that the gains from voting are far too small to justify spending any time at all collecting information about the candidates. Imagine that you stand to gain $10,000 if Candidate A wins instead of Candidate B. In a national election with 100 million voters, your vote has a 1 in 10 million chance of affecting the outcome. What can you expect to gain by voting? Even though the financial return to you is high if Candidate A wins, the probability of your vote affecting the outcome is so low that your expected return to voting is a meager one-tenth of one cent!

Simple arithmetic demonstrates that voters have almost nothing to gain (and nothing to lose) by voting for one candidate over another, or even voting at all. If people care about maximizing their earnings, we would not expect them to spend copious amounts of time researching who is the best candidate because discovering the answer to that question is irrelevant. In other words, voters and non-voters can afford to be ignorant of politics because there is no pay off to becoming educated.

The data on the public’s knowledge of government bear this out. Specifically, Caplan cites the Kaiser Family Foundation’s nation wide poll of Americans about their knowledge of the federal government’s budget in 1995. The respondents were given a list of six budget items (foreign aid, welfare, interest on the federal debt, defense, Social Security, and health) and then asked to name the two largest budgetary items. Forty one percent of respondents named foreign aid as one of the top two programs, even though it only receives 1 percent of the budget. Only 14 percent correctly guessed that Social Security was one of the top two budget items, which accounts for 21 percent of the budget (making it tied with defense for the most expensive federal program in 1995).

People don’t have the incentives to find accurate information about what the government does, so it’s not surprising that their beliefs can stray so far from the facts. But perhaps this has something to do with the difficulty of finding reliable information. Surely, if the public had easy access to the unadulterated truth, their views would conform more closely to reality. Right?

A friend of mine from college named David Faden pointed me to an academic paper that sheds some light on this issue. The paper was written by political scientists Jason Reifler and Brendan Nyhan, who conducted an experiment in 2005 to test how easily a person’s misperceptions about political issues could be corrected.

Reifler and Nyhan had roughly 130 subjects read a speech by George W. Bush from 2004 in which he claimed there was a risk Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Half of the participants read a news article that mentions the Iraq Survey Group’s finding that it had not found evidence Iraq possessed WMD in 2003. That is the group that received the “correction.” The other half did not read that information. The researchers then asked the subjects how strongly they agreed with the statement that Iraq possessed WMD in 2003. What Reifler and Nyhan found was that the correction changed misperceptions, but only among self-identified liberals. Interestingly, conservatives who read the correction believed more strongly that Iraq had WMD than conservatives who did not read the correction.

In a later study, Reifler and Nyhan then tested subjects’ views on whether or not George W. Bush had banned stem cell research. The participants read a news story from 2004 in which John Kerry accused Bush of having banned stem cell research. Once again, half of the participants were given a news story with an additional paragraph, this time stating that Bush’s policy did not limit privately funded stem cell research. Just as in the first experiment, the correction worked more strongly with one ideological group than another. Here, conservatives who read the correction were less likely to believe Bush had banned stem cell research than conservatives who did not, but the correction had no effect on liberals.

After reading this study, I was even more disillusioned about the prospect of a functioning democratic government than I was after reading Caplan’s book. It’s bad enough to think that people have wildly mistaken beliefs about politics. But to know that people won’t change their mind even after their beliefs are shown to be false? I think that means we need to start looking for better ways of making policies than by voting. I plan to expound on some of those ways in future posts.

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12 Responses to “Voters are dumb and stubborn”

  1. Bob Says:

    Andy,

    If one takes these findings (that people are neither rational nor informed while voting) and generalizes them across all supposedly “rational” decision making (e.g., economic), doesn’t that mean that libertarianism is deeply, deeply flawed?

    For example, a common argument I hear for why we shouldn’t regulate pollution from companies is that consumers, who are rational and well-informed, will cease to patronize these companies and, thus, the problem will fix itself. However, if people, at least under certain circumstances (wherein they are not incentivized to be so) are neither rational, nor well-informed, then that wouldn’t happen. The company will go on and continue polluting, as long as they keep, e.g., selling people cheap products.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thank you for the comment, Bob.

    If one takes these findings (that people are neither rational nor informed while voting) and generalizes them across all supposedly “rational” decision making (e.g., economic), doesn’t that mean that libertarianism is deeply, deeply flawed?

    It would be a problem for libertarians if they wanted voters to have more power. I don’t know many libertarians who want that. I don’t want that. I think the government should be less powerful and that fewer things should be voted on.

    For example, a common argument I hear for why we shouldn’t regulate pollution from companies is that consumers, who are rational and well-informed, will cease to patronize these companies and, thus, the problem will fix itself.

    Consumers operate under very different incentives than voters. If I vote for a bad candidate, nothing bad happens to me. If I purchase bad food, I might get sick.

    I have heard a few libertarians make the argument you say they do about how consumers will internalize the costs of pollution by refusing to buy from polluting companies. I don’t think that argument is very good and I don’t think many libertarians make it, and as far as I know no respected libertarian makes it. Just to humor me, could you cite a famous libertarian who thinks we can rely on consumer altruism to solve pollution?

    I do not think there is an obvious solution to the problem of air pollution. I grant you that the fact that motorists impose costs on other people by driving is an argument for taxing it, if taxing it leads to a more efficient outcome.

    We must remember that in the same way that pollution imposes costs on other people, so too does government regulation. When I hear that there is some activity that produces externalities (costs born by someone other than the participants in a trade), my reaction is not to stop the activity, but to ask “Is there a solution that produces fewer total costs?” Sometimes there isn’t.

    David Friedman is a famous anarcho-capitalist and my favorite libertarian to read. He has written a great summary of Ronald Coase’s theory of externalities (such as pollution) which you can find here.

    This is my favorite paragraph from the article, which also describes my own view of government:

    David Friedman: Economists, then and (to some degree) now, tend to jump from the observation that the market produces an inefficient result in some situation to the conclusion that the government ought to intervene to fix the problem. Part of what Coase showed was that, for some problems, there is no legal rule, no form of regulation, that will generate a fully efficient solution. He thus anticipated public choice economists, such as James Buchanan, in arguing that the real choice was not between an inefficient market and an efficient government solution but rather among a variety of inefficient alternatives, private and governmental. In Coase’s words: “All solutions have costs and there is no reason to suppose that government regulation is called for simply because the problem is not well handled by the market or the firm.”

  3. Stephanie Says:

    Andy! Excellent post again…

    To respond to your question, my class meets three days a week for 4 hours at a time. It’s not a full semester of work but it’s pretty condensed. Graduate classes often occur on this condensed schedule to assist with students who have full-time jobs….

  4. Bob Says:

    Andy,

    Thanks for responding to my comment. I hope you don’t mind, but I enjoy discussing these issues with a reasonable person such as yourself–with the disclaimer that I have a leftist (let’s say, pro regulation, I suppose) bias.

    So it sounds like the only way to remain reasonable is to clearly identify the optimization capabilities of various “market forces” (e.g., incentives).

    Just to be clear, though, doesn’t that mean that, if it turns out that these incentives (in the particular application area — voters, commercial consumers, or whatever) are not as strong as previously believed, or don’t exist at all, the ideology completely fails?

    So the belief can not be that the free market forces will absolutely (or even probably) provide a better solution than regulation in all areas, but, rather, IF the market forces (e.g., incentives) can be empirically verified to exist and be strong enough to be useful (in the application area), THEN we should perhaps think about privatized solutions. To believe otherwise seems to be to hold a metaphysical (and irrational) doctrine on the magical free market.

    Now, you mention such terms as “anarcho-capitalism,” so perhaps that is the metaphysical position I am arguing against here? (and not, say, libertarianism as a whole). That would be fine. However, in that case, what exactly is political libertarianism, then, aside from a basis on freedom/liberty (i.e., the “stardard”/non-political usage of the word libertarian)?

  5. Andy Hallman Says:

    Just to be clear, though, doesn’t that mean that, if it turns out that these incentives (in the particular application area — voters, commercial consumers, or whatever) are not as strong as previously believed, or don’t exist at all, the ideology completely fails?

    I wouldn’t go that far, but I will acknowledge that if it can be shown that consumers make very bad decisions, and that they would make better decisions if the market were regulated, that is an argument for regulation.

    What I will say in defense of free markets is that the feeling of autonomy plays an important part in my life satisfaction, and I think it does in other people’s as well. This feeling is stronger if I get to decide the things that affect me rather than if someone in Washington, D.C. decides them.

    IF the market forces (e.g., incentives) can be empirically verified to exist…

    Is there really any debate that incentives exist?

    …we should perhaps think about privatized solutions.

    Yes, that is ultimately my solution, but we can do things to create better incentives even within the government. It is not simply government vs. the market.

    Now, you mention such terms as “anarcho-capitalism,” so perhaps that is the metaphysical position I am arguing against here?

    No. I guess it wasn’t really necessary for me to point out David Friedman is an anarcho-capitalist, although that is how he describes himself. An anarcho-capitalist is someone who believes a society without government is both possible and desirable. Friedman argues for this position mostly on utilitarian grounds, although most anarcho-capitalists argue for it by appealing to natural rights theory.

    That would be fine. However, in that case, what exactly is political libertarianism, then, aside from a basis on freedom/liberty (i.e., the “stardard”/non-political usage of the word libertarian)?

    One narrow definition of a libertarian is someone who thinks that liberty is the only thing of value. Another definition of a libertarian is someone who thinks property rights are the only rights we have.

    I don’t believe either of those statements. For simplicity, I call myself a libertarian because I value liberty more than the average person and because I have reservations about state power in general. I subscribe to a looser definition of libertarian which is someone who wants the state to play less of a role in human affairs than it currently does.

  6. Bob Says:

    “What I will say in defense of free markets is that the feeling of autonomy plays an important part in my life satisfaction, and I think it does in other people’s as well. This feeling is stronger if I get to decide the things that affect me rather than if someone in Washington, D.C. decides them.”

    But in a free market, YOU don’t necessarily get to decide–corporations decide a lot of things. How is corporations deciding better than the government? At least we elect some of the people in government…

  7. Andy Hallman Says:

    But in a free market, YOU don’t necessarily get to decide–corporations decide a lot of things.

    I am sovereign over my property in a free market.

    In a democracy, other people decide how much freedom I have, and the only consolation I’m given is that I have a 1 in 10 million chance of having any effect on what the policies are. Even then, the person I vote for can just as easily renege on all his promises. Add to that the fact that the other 100 million voters who have power over me have no reason to care about how accurate their beliefs are. I think that’s a pretty bad system for making decisions.

  8. Bob Says:

    “I am sovereign over my property in a free market.”

    In what fantasy world? http://minigiggles.com/2010/05/24/libertarians/

  9. Andy Hallman Says:

    Bob links to a humorous story of a libertarian trying to square his anti-government philosophy with how he behaves in real life – a life in which he heavily relies on the government. The implication is that libertarians are either hypocrites or are out of touch with reality, or perhaps both.

    I take it Bob is accusing me of painting an unrealistic, or more to the point, false, picture of a “free market.” I don’t think that’s quite right, but I realize that I left myself open to criticism, so I’ll give an example of what I mean.

    In the state of Iowa, adults are given sovereignty over their marriage decisions. They can marry whomever they want from either sex. I think it’s fair to say there is a “free market” for marriage partners in Iowa.

    People in California do not enjoy this same level of sovereignty. In that state, the majority of voters took it upon themselves to decide who counts as an acceptable marriage partner. Granted, Californians are not told whom to marry, but the majority has narrowed the range of acceptable marriage partners for them, and therefore I feel it is safe to say they do not enjoy the same freedom as people in Iowa.

    Maybe Bob would counter that people in Iowa still cannot have multiple spouses at once, nor can they marry children, and in that way the government limits their range of choices. That is true. If Iowa did legalize such marriages, Iowans would enjoy greater freedom. Whether that freedom comes with downsides is a question we can debate, but that Iowa would be a freer state would be hard to deny.

    If Bob is objecting to my use of “sovereign,” I’m willing to back off from that and say people enjoy “more sovereignty” in a free market. Or is the objection the use of “free market?”

  10. Prediction markets « Andy Hallman's Blog Says:

    […] Andy Hallman's Blog Analysis of political issues and whatever else comes to mind. « Voters are dumb and stubborn […]

  11. Bob Says:

    I see I left this without responding to your concerns; sorry about that. It would appear that you have an idea of what a “free market” is and can point to examples where some people have more or less liberty than they might have had otherwise.

    Ergo, the “free market” is an ideal, rather than a definitely achievable state.

    That’s fine, as long as you are willing to admit that the corporatism we currently “enjoy” in America is not a free market. This may require you to agree with the claim that monopolies, trusts, etc., which may occur in a free market, create a new market (and a society) that is not free.

    Also, my apologies for the random link. I think at the time I thought it was funny, but I can see how it could be construed as an argument or a red herring.

  12. Andy Hallman Says:

    Ergo, the “free market” is an ideal, rather than a definitely achievable state.

    Yes, I guess so. But couldn’t we say the same about other ideals such as democracy? Is there any truly democratic country? The US has the electoral college.

    That’s fine, as long as you are willing to admit that the corporatism we currently “enjoy” in America is not a free market. This may require you to agree with the claim that monopolies, trusts, etc., which may occur in a free market, create a new market (and a society) that is not free.

    I could go along with the idea that even an idealized “free market” would be lacking in many important respects.

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