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Op-eds

29 October 2010October 29, 2010

If you don't know, please don't vote

Metro Toronto, p. 30

If you don't know, please don't vote

Crucial midterm elections will take place next Tuesday in the United States. The Republicans could regain political control in Washington and block President Barack Obama’s projects. Bryan Caplan, economics professor at George Mason University, has some advice for the millions of voters who plan to cast ballots on election day: If you don’t understand basic economics, why not just stay home?

In his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Caplan says it’s wrong to think that politicians don’t listen to the people. On the contrary, politicians do listen, and that’s the problem. Voters are riddled with biases, according to Caplan. Especially when it comes to the economy.

Several polls carried out in the U.S. have revealed that half of voters don’t know the name of their senator or representative. A good portion of the population thinks that foreign aid represents 24 per cent of the federal budget.

The correct answer? One per cent.

“Many people have backward ideas about economics, having never studied the subject. And their opinions are generally the opposite of what an economics course would teach,” Caplan once told me when I interviewed him for a business magazine.

For example, people who have not studied economics usually think protectionism is a good thing. “Instead of saying, ‘I don’t know, I never studied that,’ they state with conviction: ‘Foreigners are stealing our jobs! We have to do something, regardless of what economists say!’”

The average voter exhibits numerous biases in economic matters, according to Caplan’s research. Among other things, people tend to underestimate the advantages of market mechanisms, or the benefits of immigration and free trade. They also like to blame scapegoats for economic problems – speculators, oil companies, Wal-Mart, the Chinese...

The end result: In order to cater to voters, politicians enact laws that persecute those scapegoats, or erect protectionist barriers (taxes and tariffs) to limit free trade. Policies that, according to Caplan, impoverish the economy as a whole.

The professor, who does not shy away from controversy, is consistent with his recommendations: Encouraging people to vote is a bad idea, he says.

“Those who abstain from voting are, on average, less educated and less informed. If all of those people voted, the average voter would be even more ignorant of economic matters.” Politicians would adjust their electoral platforms to cater to those voters, proposing even worse policies. “If you think politicians currently aim for the lowest common denominator among voters, you ain’t seen nothing yet. That denominator can get even lower.”

Voting is a civic duty, they say. But for some, could the opposite be true?

David Descôteaux is an Associate Researcher at the Montreal Economic Institute.


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