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"Gov is not Great"

July 30, 2007

“Gov is not Great: How democratic fundamentalism poisons everything”. This should have been the title of Bryan Caplan’s recent book. Instead it’s called “The Myth of the Rational Voter, Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies”. This is a scholarly book, fairly technical, masquerading as econ-pulp. Caplan launches in a polemic with the status-quo in current abstract fields related to economics and politics among others (Public Choice is the technical word). Apparently, all these years the cloistered social scientists in their ivory towers had been talking about us common folks behind our backs. Of course, “hopelessly ignorant” is their standard assumption, but, wait ’till you hear this, they actually think we are “rational”! Now I don’t know if this is an insult or a compliment, in any case Caplan sets out to prove that we actually are “irrational”.

The logic of his arguments is compelling: “irrationality” is cheap like the air that we breathe, so we consume a lot of it. Although, “all-you-can-eat” buffets come to mind and people do limit themselves generally speaking. So one hopes that most people have a certain degree of self-discipline in how much irrational political beliefs they are willing to consume.

To put the thesis briefly, current thought says that “rational voters shop for politician’s platforms”, while Caplan holds that “rational politicians shop for voter’s irrational beliefs”.

One of these irrational beliefs is a mystical veneration of the democratic process, while Caplan would like to insulate several political choices from a “tyranny of the irrational majority” of Tocquevillian memory, in favor of more subtle market solutions for instance.

This position has attracted on Caplan the easy invective of “elitist”, when in fact he’s simply replacing the tyranny of government action with the equanimity and fairness of the market.

In conclusion, although I enjoyed the book, I was puzzled as to why Caplan chose to use the word “voter” and the word “democracy” and proceeded to stake out a blatant provocation, saying that we need less democracy because voters can’t be trusted, when in fact his real goal is to shift policies from the dirigistic and centralized government power (whether democratic or not) to the much more “democratic” process of market decisions. Why does he want to attract the ire of the democratic fundamentalists upon himself when in fact he is even more democratic than they are. This is a mystery to me.

From → Economics, Government

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