Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Are voters rationally irrational?

When we met next day, Jim wanted to talk more about Bryan Caplan’s book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter” (previous discussion here and here). He asked: “How original is Caplan’s stuff about voter irrationality?” I suggested that Caplan’s main contribution was in providing evidence that voters have systematically biased beliefs about economics. I mentioned that Caplan’s Cato paper provides a good summary of the U.S. evidence an anti-market bias; an anti-foreign bias; a make-work bias; and a pessimistic bias.

Jim seemed about to say something when I mentioned pessimistic bias, but he didn’t. So I continued by suggesting that Caplan also seemed to be highly original in suggesting voters were susceptible to “rational irrationality”- an almost religious attachment to false beliefs - rather than to “rational ignorance”, or lack of understanding. I mentioned that I didn’t think that “rational irrationality” would provide as good an explanation of voter behaviour as some less extreme concepts such as “bounded rationality”, used by Douglass North, and “DIY economics” – as suggested by David Henderson, former chief economist of the OECD.

Jim commented: “These biases in thinking that Caplan is talking about seem to be like flat earth theories. A few people might retain a kind of religious attachment to the idea that the earth is flat, but most people don’t have too much trouble accepting what they are taught in school about the shape of the earth and how it rotates and revolves. I don’t think voters are not as pig headed as Caplan seems to think they are. The “bounded rationality” idea sounds more interesting. Is this the same as the concept that Simon fellow used to talk about in organisational decision-making ?”

I wondered where Jim had come across Herbert Simon’s ideas as I also tried to remember what Douglass North had written about bounded rationality. I was able to remember that North had explained that ideologies present simplified models of how the world works and that he thought voters had a lot of problems in coming to terms with complex issues. When I refreshed my memory later, I found this:
"The atypical informed constituent may indeed know his or her own interest in making choices about familiar local repeated problems, but even the informed constituent is going to be at sea in making choices about the complex non-repetitive problems of an interdependent political and economic world" (“Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance”, 1990, p51).

“So, what about DIY economics?”, Jim asked. “Is this Henderson character saying that we should just leave economic policy to the experts?” My response was to the effect that I thought Henderson would support efforts to help people who have no formal training in economics to understand economic policy issues. The DIY economics he talks about involves intuitive ideas that can be described as “pre-economic” in that they owe little or nothing to ideas that have ever had wide acceptance among economists. And they cannot be just viewed as fallacies that are popular among ordinary voters because they are held with equal conviction and expressed in much the same language by many political and business leaders. (David Henderson’s paper can be found here.)

Jim said: “That makes sense to me, but I’ve been thinking some more about Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. It reminds me of the meeting I attended when I was a young man where I learned the meaning of “oxymoron”. The meeting was at a government department. Just as I was making a point that seemed important at the time, the old coot who was sitting next to the person chairing the meeting turned to him and said ‘That is an oxymoron’. I can’t remember what I had said to prompt that remark, but if he had not been so old I might have hit him. As it happened I responded by saying that he wasn’t so clever either. Some other people at the meeting thought the incident was funny, but the old coot didn’t seem particularly amused.”

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