Sunday, June 08, 2008

Why you should not vote

Newsweek calls them "Low Info Voters", the people who don't know or apparently care what issues are at stake in an election. They base their preferences on how much they like a candidate or how they feel about an issue.  I know one person who seriously likes one candidate because "he has nice hair".


In a new book I read last week, Bryan Caplan, an associate professor of economics (and blogger) at George Mason University, argues convincingly that the problem is even deeper than it appears. Most political scientists and economists assume that, in general voters in a democracy are rational -- at least over time --favoring policies that improve lives and disfavoring those that cause harm. Caplan disputes this assumption, pointing to four biases, where citizens tend to vote irrationally, for policies that cause greater harm than good.

Many economic policies have effects that are well-known and uncontroversial to anyone who studies the situation carefully.  Experts may disagree on the cost/benefit tradeoffs, but for example all economists (left, right, in-between) understand how lowering the gas tax will tend to make people drive more. Similarly with the following four biases Caplan identifies:

  • Antimarket: rent control, minimum wages, etc.
  • Antiforeign: immigration, trade, etc.
  • Make-work: many people assume that any policy that improves employment is good. But what if the government hired people to run through town breaking windows? This would provide a double-bump to the economy: jobs for those who break the windows and jobs for those who fix them. If you can't explain why this is a bad idea, then you have an irrational make-work bias.
  • Pessimism: people assume the worst, even when things are getting better (as they usually are).

Nobody will argue that the right to vote should be taken away from dumb people; how would you ever define "dumb"? A lot of you probably think I'm too dumb to vote -- and who knows, maybe you're right. But at least let me make an appeal to intelligent people who otherwise feel it their civic duty to go to the polls in every election, voting for everything on the ballot no matter how little informed they are about the candidates or issues.

Simply put: if you don't understand the candidate or the issue, please don't vote. Don't go into the poll booth and "guess". Don't decide your vote based on the sound of a name or the gender of the candidate. You'll do more harm than good.

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