Have you ever wondered why so many people have such bad political views? Why is it we all seem to have that extended family member who thinks they have the answer to every political question (despite dubious credentials)? More than almost any other topic, political opinions are prone to over-confidence.
As professor Bryan Caplan points out in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, the general populace is relatively ignorant of economics. Drawing on the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy, he concludes: “Compared to the experts, laymen are much more skeptical of markets, especially international and labor markets, and much more pessimistic about the past, present, and future of the economy. When laymen see business conspiracies, economists see supply-and-demand. When laymen see ruinous competition from foreigners, economists see the wonder of comparative advantage. When laymen see dangerous downsizing, economists see wealth-enhancing reallocation of labor. When laymen see decline, economists see progress.”
Americans also tend not to be well-informed on the political system or politicians. According to the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, only 26% of respondents could name the three branches of government, and 37% percent could not name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. A poll done by SSRS in 2016 found less than half of the respondents (46%) even knew that states have 2 senators. Very few could actually name their senators (16%). A 2017 survey by Haven Insights found that among people who voted in the last election, only 23% knew their representative’s name.
It’s awfully hard to be informed about what your representative is doing if you don’t know who they are. It’s even more difficult to make an adequate judgment of their performance if you are ignorant of economics and lack knowledge of the political system.
Governance as a Service
I would like to present governance as a service that can be provided by politicians and the many bureaucrats they put in place. There are customers (voters) and a producer (the government). In every other commercial transaction, the customer individually decides what they want to purchase, pays with their own money, has a reasonable expectation that they are getting what they paid for, and usually has many choices between competing products or services. When the government is the producer, however, things are much different. Voters do not each get to pick the product they want, they do not necessarily pay for what they vote for, there is no guarantee politicians will do what they claim, and most races have only 2 candidates with a realistic chance of winning.
Individual Choice vs Majority Rule
Normally, when a customer buys a product the choice is theirs exclusively. It’s essentially like having the 1 and only vote that matters. When that’s the case, the weight we put on that decision tends to be far more than if we are merely 1 vote among thousands or millions. Voting in an election can feel like throwing your opinion into the ocean with countless others. Picking out a particular TV is practically the opposite. You want it, you get it.
The customer buying that TV also pays for it personally. In the political apparatus, it’s possible the voter can end up paying for the service they desire, but often the costs get shifted onto others. Almost always, the price tag is at least dispersed among many people. The voter is not offering to pay in exchange for a service. They are proposing everyone or some particular group pay for a service they personally want.
On the market, we assume the TV will be the TV that’s on the box. It’s a reasonable assumption. Producers will lose their reputation quickly if they defraud customers. In government, it’s not even easy to know whether a politician is performing as advertised. Many different topics are worked on and voted on by politicians, and it’s not always clear what is happening behind the scenes. If it turns out the elected official is actually helping to pass legislation that goes against their promises, the most voters can do is wait until the next election to cast their 1 in a million vote again.
Do you know how there are rows of TVs for sale at shopping centers, and competing stores with even more? That’s definitely not the case with politicians. Usually, voters pick between 2. And they may not even resemble what many voters want. They are some mix of hundreds of political opinions. Almost no one is actually voting for the candidate they really want. They’re forced to choose the one that’s slightly better.
All of this helps to explain why voters have very little incentive to be informed about the service they are “buying”. Additionally, governance is quite a complex product. It demands a level of understanding vastly more in-depth than any other product on the market. Yet, we have seen how the incentive to become informed is almost non-existent. Few rational people would (and do) put forth the immense effort it takes to become knowledgable about these subjects when their vote has almost no influence on the larger system.
The feedback from individual choices on the market encourages consumers to be at least somewhat informed about their purchase. After all, they know their decision matters, they will be paying for that decision, the advertisement more or less lines up with the product, and they can choose between competitors. Perhaps they will sometimes still talk a big game about what they pretend to know about TVs, but when they are at the checkout counter the incentives to behave in a reasonable manner kick in. Those incentives don’t exist with the government as a producer. Everyone can continue voting on things they are utterly ignorant about, and then blame the failures on everybody else.