In an article in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, a former Princeton colleague, Gary Bass, discusses the controversy over a recent book by economist Bryan Caplan entitled "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics." In the article Bass recounts the basic thesis, and controversy arising from, Caplan's book. According to Bass, Caplan contends that democratic voters systematically make bad decisions - in this case, in the economic policy domain. As Bass summarizes, "Caplan's own evidence for the systematic folly of voters comes from a 1996 survey comparing the views of Ph.D. economists and the general public. To the exasperation of libertarian-minded Caplan, most Americans do not think like economists. They are biased against free markets and against trade with foreigners." Bass proceeds to relate a similar argument made by Scott L. Althaus, a political scientist: Althaus "finds that if the public were better informed, it would overcome its ingrained biases and make different political decisions. According to his studies, such a public would be more progressive on social issues like abortion and gay rights, more ideologically conservative [!!] in preferring markets to government intervention and less isolationist but more dovish in foreign policy."
Let's pause for a moment to bask in the unbiased views of these academic experts. Objectively, we are told by these experts, it is irrational and unjustified to harbor views that are critical of free markets, to disapprove of abortion and gay marriage, and to believe that a polity should disapprove of military adventurism. These positions are wholly without bias of any kind. For the economist, there are no philosophic or moral assumptions at play in the belief that growth and the production of more stuff is the object and aim of an economy (Here's some classic ironic juxtaposition: check out another article in this same issue, on the near-unmanageable quantity of throw away plastic our free market economy is producing. Guess what part of the solution is - egads, government intervention!! But, that can't be right, right?). An economy informed by an acknowledgement of the need for a moral and social ecology - in which sustainability, a view to the good life of future generations, and the payment of true costs for economic production are accounted for - would reject the unidimensional view that economics is about the pursuit of growth. Objectively, we are informed that educated voters would automatically conclude that abortion and gay marriage are unquestionable political goods, since above all individual autonomy and personal preference are the basic objects of political life. That abortion may involve the disposal of a human life, or that a polity's special acknowledgement of the good of heterosexual marriage may have something to do with the support for families and future generations, doesn't seem to have any relevance to such unbiased stances. If anyone is looking for more evidence of the near total moral bankruptcy of today's universities, and their complicity in our "absentee economy" populated by "itinerant vandals" (in Wendell Berry's inimitable words), one needs look no further.
Gary Bass gamely seeks to discourage the view that democracy is solely about efficiency (and above all, economic efficiency), but in the end, he is too invested in the predominant modes of liberal and individualist thought. His critique boils down to the line, "Caplan's view of democracy is about efficiency, not legitimacy." Caplan argues for a return to Millian multiple voting by educated elites, and governance by non-elected economic experts (i.e., free marketeers). It's not the fact of anti-democracy that bothers Bass, so much as the appearance. At the end of the day, Bass agrees with Caplan's policy stances; he merely disagrees with the means. Thus, he suggests that political elites ought not to seek to cut off the hoi polloi from the political process altogether, but rather to guide public opinion to embrace elite policy preferences. Democracy is about efficiency and legitimacy. Why choose?
The thought never crosses the mind of any of these academic elites that the people may be right: that what the populace seeks to endorse is reasonable stability in their lives and their communities, the creation and sustaining of a moral ecology, the chance to pass one's cultural inheritance from one generation to the next, the knowledge that one's children will not be asked to die for the country in wars of imperialism or to secure a steady flow of petroleum, and that one can live and die in communities where one's life will be remembered and honored. Democracy, thus stated, is neither about efficiency nor legitimacy, its aim is not economic growth or individual autonomy, but about living well within moral and humane limits. That such a thought doesn't remotely occur to our academic leaders is all the more reason why it would be better to be governed by the first 100 names in the Cedar Rapids phone book than by members of the faculty at Princeton or George Mason Universities.