Frédéric Bastiat and Davy Crockett on Misguided Voters and Elections
Bryan Caplan, in The Myth of the Rational Voter, examines why democratic majorities tend to vote for people and policies that slow social progress and economic prosperity. Caplan argues that voters tend to make systematic errors in evaluating public policies choices, due to widespread ignorance and misunderstanding about market economics.
Caplan cites Adam Smith and Frédéric Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms for his discussion of the damage caused when the public is allowed to vote for economic policies. Caplan explains:
In the middle of the 19th century, Frédéric Bastiat, the famous French popularizer of classical economics, titled one of his most famous books Economic Sophisms. “Sophism” is Bastiat’s synonym for “systematic error,” and he assigns sophisms broad consequences: They “are especially harmful, because they mislead public opinion in the field in which public opinion is authoritative–is, indeed, law.” Bastiat attacks dozens of popular protectionist sophisms, for example, but does not bother to criticize any popular free trade sophisms. The reason is not that bad arguments for free trade do not exit, but that–unlike bad arguments for protection–virtually none of them are popular! (Myth of the Rational Voter, p. 12)
Frédéric Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms is available online on the Liberty Fund’s Library of Economics and Liberty website. Also online is a policy study by Caplan drawn from the Myth of the Rational Voter (pdf).
Caplan’s discussion of systematic error in voting responds to “wisdom of crowds” arguments claiming that though individual voters may not know much about the people and policies they vote for, when these votes are collected, a kind of wisdom emerges. At county fairs where crowds guess the weight of an ox or the number of jelly beans in a giant jar, the average of guesses is often amazingly accurate. Advocates for “rational voters” argue that this same “wisdom of crowds” enables democratic majorities to play an ever larger role in open societies. Caplan counters that unlike evaluating jelly beans and livestock, evaluations about trade policy and other public policy issues are tilted toward intervention by popular economic misunderstandings.
Caplan describes and provides empirical support for systematical voter misunderstandings about the economic world:
- Most people don’t understand Adam Smith’s invisible hand where people pursuing self-interest are guided by market processes to serve the interests of others. Caplan calls this antimarket bias.
- Most people don’t appreciate the gains from international trade, where comparative advantage allows gains and both sides to benefit. Caplan calls this antiforeign bias.
- People think in terms of employment rather than production, and Caplan calls this make-work bias.
- People tend to think the economy is in trouble and getting worse. Caplan calls this pessimistic bias.
These economic biases, individually and taken together, lead voters to support antimarket, antiforeign, make-work, and pessimistic policies and the politicians who promote them to voters.
Public Choice Theory and Constitutional Economics
Public Choice economics has long explained that voters don’t have adequate incentives to invest time to understand key public policy debates. Individual votes rarely influence elections, and voters don’t bear the cost of a voting choices the way they do when choosing a book or smartphone or car.
Elections are a much preferred to violent revolution for removing foolish or corrupt kings, Presidents and Congressmen from office. But for selecting just and enlightened men and women as replacements, voting leaves much to be desired.
Voters have limited knowledge about candidates and their policies, and have limited incentives to invest time and effort to inform themselves. The United State Constitution limits the role of voting to elections choosing Representatives every two years. And the democratically-elected Congress was further limited to policy areas listed in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.
Senators were originally chosen by state legislatures every six years, and Presidents voted for every four years. And Presidents were and are still chosen by an Electoral College, insulating elections from popular votes. And the third branch of the federal government, the Judicial branch, is not democratic at all with Supreme Court Justices chosen for life.
Voting was originally limited to choosing for representatives for one half of the Legislative branch, though later the Constitution was amended to direct election of senators. Voting was never intended to give the federal government new powers or “mandates.” Federal powers were limited to those enumerated in the Constitution, and further limited by the Tenth Amendment which reserved all other powers reserved for the states or to the people.
The Bill of Rights Tenth Amendment reads: “The powers not delegated to the
United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
So the systematic errors of public economic opinion that Brian Caplan describes, following Adam Smith and Frédéric Bastiat, were kept from causing economic mischief by Constitutional constraints. Elections and the Electoral College selected Congressmen and Presidents, but political power to interfere with economic freedom was limited by the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The Framers efforts to bottle up popular economic sophisms with Constitutional constraints have largely failed and now federal legislation can reach into most economic activities, taxing and regulating use of property, voluntary contracts, and enacting a wide variety of “make-work” jobs programs.
James Buchanan urged economists to focus more on Constitutional Economics, where establishing the rules of the economic game is a separate process from playing the game.
Perhaps Buchanan’s most important contribution to economics is his distinction between two levels of public choice—the initial level at which a constitution is chosen, and the post-constitutional level. The first is like setting the rules of a game, and the second is like playing the game within the rules. Buchanan has proselytized his fellow economists to think more about the first level instead of acting as political players at the second level. To spread this way of thinking, Buchanan even started a new journal called Constitutional Economics.
For debaters researching the federal election law topic, and looking for ways to connect to Constitutional Economics, Davy Crockett’s “Not Yours to Give” story may be helpful.
The story tells of Congressional legislation to provide charity for people harmed by a fire. A Tennessee farmer explains to Congressman Davy Crockett that though helping the poor is commendable, Congress is limited by the Constitution, whose language does not grant power to provide charity. Perhaps this could be called a good-deed bias, where voters come to believe that governments have the wisdom and authority to provide charity.
Ours to Throw Out…
Throwing confused, corrupt, and disgraced politicians out of office every two, four, and six years is the great task of federal elections, and we should welcome the opportunity to have our vote counted (and blood spared). But where citizens are called upon to vote on candidates with plans for new health care, transportation, trade, education, energy or financial policies. Well, that’s not going to work out well.