Dimwit Voters and Their Biases

The Economist asks whether voters are idiots. One theory has been that, even though the majority of voters know little about the issues, the votes of the more ignorant voters will be spread randomly and the candidate who wins the majority of votes from the better informed will win. The “wisdom of crowds” often does provide wisdom, such as when the audience of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire picks the correct answer 91% of the time. In contrast, Bryan Caplan argues that voting does not provide the best results since ignorant voters do not vote randomly.

Instead, he identifies four biases that prompt voters systematically to demand policies that make them worse off. First, people do not understand how the pursuit of private profits often yields public benefits: they have an anti-market bias. Second, they underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners: they have an anti-foreign bias. Third, they equate prosperity with employment rather than production: Mr Caplan calls this the “make-work bias”. Finally, they tend to think economic conditions are worse than they are, a bias towards pessimism.

It is understandable why The Economist would be interested in this theory as Caplan’s biases fit in well with their editorial bias. While there is some truth to these biases, there are other biases in play, largely because prior to 2006 the Republicans were much better at spreading their message:

Security Bias: Republicans have played politics with the 9/11 attack, using it to push through their pre-9/11 goals and to claim Democrats were weaker on national security, and possibly even unpatriotic.

Values Bias: Republicans, often with the help of churches, portrayed their views as being supportive of family values and more moral, while Democrats were portrayed as sinners.

Free Market Bias: Republicans claimed to be the defenders of the free market while pursuing efforts contrary to true capitalism, including corporate welfare, collusion between businesses and regulators, and the K Street Project.

Anti-Government Bias: The message that “government is the problem, not the solution,” resonates with voters both in situations where it is true and when it is not. Republicans played up running against big government, even when they controlled all three branches of the government.

Republicans were able to take advantage of such biases until 2006 when it became clear to a vast majority that the Republicans were unable to govern. The Economist finds that the problems are easier to diagnose than to cure but part of the cure may come from Democrats better understanding the biases which have led to Republican victories in the past, and concentrate on fighting the Republican misinformation campaigns which capitalize on these biases.

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4 Comments

  1. 1
    Scott says:

    There’s another bias I’m surprised more people haven’t mentioned yet: Name-recognition bias. I’d make the case that the reason that, for example, Hillary Clinton is so popular is not because most people like her, but because there’s the recognition: They remember Bill Clinton. I’d also make the case that any actor, no matter how incompetent, could run for office and beat a fully competent politician.

    This was a pretty obvious bias, I’m really surprised no one else has picked it up (at least in the three articles I’ve read on this book)

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    That’s definately a bias. Even more than in elections it is a huge factor in polls taken well before an election.

    Besides name-recognition bias, I bet there is also a name bias where certian names might pick up more votes.

    I think the reason such biases haven’t been included in discussion of this book is that they don’t fit into ideological or party bias. Such biases could help either party.

    This year (and in some other elections) there is yet another bias very similar to name recognition bias–TV star bias.

  3. 3
    b-psycho says:

    I’d personally argue that the problem isn’t merely that voters are irrational, but that voters don’t realize what it is they’re really voting for.

    Once the scope of politics gets beyond a certain point, the amount of issues dealt with simultaneously far outnumbers the ones that a voter can actually keep up with. You may pick a candidate because of issue A or B, however once they take office they’re dealing with C, D, E, etcetera, and their bent on those may run completely counter to your own interests even if you don’t really think about them that way. Of course, that assumes that their way of dealing with your pet issue actually makes sense…

    Voters end up inherently co-signing a slew of decisions they know nothing about that could screw them in the long run — and that would be part of the reason I don’t bother voting. I already know that anyone with a chance at being elected will be controlled in some way or another by interests that I despise. Either you accept that and become a single-issue voter and the rest of the country could go to hell as long as that one issue goes your way, or you reject the entire setup.

  4. 4
    b-psycho says:

    To add to that, IMO holding as an overarching idea that the problem with politics is “too much representation” as Caplan does should basically disqualify one from being taken seriously on politics. If anything, it’s that once politics goes past being purely local and strictly decentralized, representative democracy as we would understand it gradually becomes a myth.

    Yes, there are some rather ignorant people voting. The people being enabled by them are a much more pressing concern though.

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