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Lisbon and the Irrational Voter

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Voters are not ignorant, according to Bryan Caplan, they are irrational. Caplan is the author of the provocative “The Myth of the Rational Voter”, a book in which he lays a large part of the blame for poor political outcomes on the shoulders of voters. The voter messes things up because he or she makes choices about issues which they do not understand and about which they hold inbuilt biased opinions. Given the huge amount of discussion about how well or badly voters were informed on the issue, I immediately thought of Lisbon.

If the only problem were that voters are ignorant the so called Miracle of Aggregation would still hold. Suppose 90% of voters knew nothing about the EU or about the Lisbon treaty and the remaining 10% understood the EU institutions, how they work, and the exact nature of the proposed changes. Well, the 90% of voters just don’t know, so some are swayed to vote Yes, some to vote No. Overall they statistically cancel each other out. The remaining 10% of ‘informed’ voters effectively make the choice, and that choice, since these voters understand the policy implications, is the right one. (whether that is yes or No can be debated elsewhere!).

But Caplan calls on an impressive swathe of empirical evidence to show that voters aren’t simply ignorant, they are, he argues, irrational. They have inbuilt biases which predispose them to prefer policies which are anti-foreign, or pro-national, or to policies which are against the free market (Could this be why voters latched on to many of the very right, very left or socialist campaigners during Lisbon?) By bias here he means that they prefer certain policy choices that go against the accepted wisdom in the relevant field of expertise. He focusess on economics, but argues the same applies to other fields too. He cites a number of voter biases in economic and foreign policy and argues that it there are likely other biases, which haven’t yet been tested, which mean that the voters make the wrong choices.

Are the experts right? Well Caplan argues that most lay people on the whole accept the opinions of doctors in medical matters, physicists in nuclear energy, traffic planners, legal advisors and so on. Why then would they not accept the analysis of economists and foreign policy experts?

Caplan would not be surprised by the evidence that voters didn’t understand Lisbon – there is good evidence for this from polls after and since the vote. But he would go further. He would argue that voters are pre-disposed to prefer inward looking, anti-foreign choices.

Not only that, he argues that emprical evidence show that voters take an overly pessimistic view of policy proposals in general. He showed that voters had thought the outcome of previous choices at the time would be worse than they turned out. During Lisbon there was much of the hype about conscription and doomed farming communities. Caplan may have a point.

Some commentators pointed to the large Yes vote for Lisbon among middle class males a sign that this cohort favoured the treaty because they thought it would benefit them. Caplan would take a different view. First, Caplan says his findings show that voters are far less selfish than we might expect. In general they are more in favour of improving the general social welfare than merely their own welfare. (Caplan spends a lot of time demolishing the traditional public choice hypothesis of the Self Interested Voter). The problem is they don’t know which policies are best to bring it about. Second, Caplan would say that his studies show that as a persons level of education increases their views converge with those of the experts. So if middle class males happened to be (statistically speaking) better educated, they would be more likely to agree with the experts. Since most experts were for Lisbon, this is likely why middle class males voted Yes, not because they thought Lisbon would favour them as a cohort.

One of the most controversial aspects of Caplan’s work is the exceptionally dim view he takes of what he calls the median voter. Basically, he says most voters don’t know about issues terribly well and are biased against optimum policies. Therefore it would be WORSE not better if more voters come to the polls. This is because those who currently don’t vote are generally the least educated and knowledgeable about politics. If they voted they would bring down the average choice.

Caplan goes further. Because educated voters make ‘better’ decisions, it would be better if their vote had extra weighting. The result, he argues, would be better for everyone. (Caplan doesn’t go into the ethical or practical difficulties with this approach or the dangers of ending up aiming for philosopher kings and getting dictators). Perhaps next time Lisbon comes round the government will only give the vote to PhDs in European Politics.

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12 Responses to “Lisbon and the Irrational Voter”

  1. # Comment by Malore Sep 26th, 2008 16:09

    Caplan – one-man, one-vote, this aint apartheid South Africa – get with the program.

    He isn’t yapping on about anything new when he argues voters are pre-disposed.The dog on the street could tell you that. Tomaltach give “The Political Brain” by Drew Bryne a go – its a sweet book on the psychology of voters and pre-dispositions.

    But Caplan seems to me like another pissed off lecturer sitting in his campus office with nothing better to do than harp on about the ignorant lower classes not knowing anything and ruining democracy for the enlightened folk. Just because his PhD makes him a better person than the rest of us. Wanker.I’ll never know how these people get book deals.

  2. # Comment by Tomaltach Sep 26th, 2008 19:09

    That book by Drew Bryne sounds interesting. Must keep an eye out for it.

    Few defenders of democracy would deny that it has serious flaws. And I think it is very useful to explore those flaws in a rigorous way. In my opinion Caplan does a good job from his particular angle. Bryne’s book seems to come from a slightly different angle.

    I think democrats ought to support efforts to explore the flaws in democracy. Then we need to think about ways to correct those flaws. Obviously I would be completely against Caplan’s view that we should abandon the notion of one vote per person.

    But there must be other ways of tackling the shortcomings. We know we will never arrive at a perfect version of democracy, but given we know that democracy often lets us down, we owe it to ourselves as democratic citizens to try to see what is wrong and to try to fix it.

  3. # Comment by Malore Sep 27th, 2008 19:09

    Tomaltach, what would you define as “democracy letting us down”? A No Lisbon vote? The people decided – the political elite all across Europe will just have to accept it. Their reaction to the vote has shown they haven’t and the sheer hypocrisy of their “democratic” values has been exposed, especially that yoke Sarkozy.I voted Yes and was hoping for a Yes vote.But if Cowen tries to ram Lisbon down our throats a second time I will be definitely be voting No. As will probably the majority of voters in Ireland.

    Also, I see no reason as to why weighting votes in terms of perceived intelligence or knowledge of issues is a way to sort out the “flaws” of democracy. Sounds like Caplan is re-hashing a bit of Platonic Elitism for a few more book sales.

  4. # Comment by Niall Sep 28th, 2008 13:09

    Malore, why would you oppose a second Lisbon vote? Given that most ‘no’ voters chose to vote they way they did because they felt insufficiently educated on the matter, what course of action do you imagine to be appropriate? The ‘no’ vote did not mark a rejection of the contents of the Lisbon Treaty. It simply reflected the fact that the government failed to educate the masses to the satisfaction of a large part of the electorate.

    Paddy Voter walks into the bank and makes a deposit. The teller, a nice chap by the name of Brian, attempts to sell him a new insurance product.


    Brian: I notice Mr Voter that you’ve yet to take advantage of our new LISBON product.

    Paddy: Oh really, what’s that then?

    Brian: Oh it’s really great, trust me! Will I put you down for it?

    Paddy: But what does it do?

    Brian: Well it protects you against fraud and anti-money laundering and all sorts of complicated stuff. To be honest, I don’t really know myself – I’m new at all this – but the boys upstairs seem to think it’d suit you well. You know, make sure you don’t end up loosing your house and all!

    Paddy: But, sure don’t I already have stuff that protects me for that kind of thing?

    Brian: Yes, but this does it better. And you know, at some point over the next few decades, those products will be taken off the market. This’d be cheaper anyway. Just trust me, it’s better.

    Paddy: How?

    Brian: Well, like I said, I’m not sure of all the details. But can you afford not to protect yourself?

    Paddy: But I thought I was protected already?

    Brian: You are.

    Paddy: Wait a minute. Is this that thing that editor of ‘Super-Honest Insurance Weekly’ Declan Ganley wrote was a “rip-off” and a “con”. I think I remember something about this…

    Brian: Aragh don’t heed him. He works for AIB on the sly.

    Paddy: Really? Look, I’m not really sure…

    Brian: And I hear he eats babies too?

    Paddy: Who?

    Brian: Ganley. He’s a baby eater. Do you really want to be a baby eater?

    Paddy: Right, well ….

    Brian: So, yes or no? Do you want to see babies get eaten?

    Paddy: Look, I’m not really comfortable… Maybe you could send me some informtion?

    Brian: Ah we already sent a flyer weeks ago. People just seem to ignore junk mail. But seriously, yes or no?

    Paddy: Um, well…

    Brian: Come on now, I’ve got other things to be doing. Yes or No?

    Paddy: No. Sorry I just don’t know enough.

    Brian: Bastard!


    Now you can hardly blame Paddy for rejecting Brian’s offer, but the rejection had more to do with the fact that Brian was a fucktard than the product he was trying to sell. There’s a decent chance that if Paddy had been given the information he’d requested, he might have bought the insurance. His rejection of Brian’s rude and uninformative sales-pitch can hardly be taken as an informed rejection of the product. It’s easy to see why the man might be pissed off if somebody from his bank called him up and asked him about this product again, but if the product actually turns out to be of benefit to him, he’d probably soon forget the Brian’s shitty salesmanship.

  5. # Comment by Tomaltach Sep 29th, 2008 09:09

    What do I mean by democracy letting us down? Simple. By that I mean that democracy often gives us policies which make our common welfare worse not better, policies which fail to achieve what are commonly accepted goals.

    I have no time for Caplan’s proposed solutions. But I think he makes a strong case about a particular failing of democracy. His point was about voter irrationality and ignorance. I honestly don’t know why people get so upset when this issue is raised. Who really believes that all or most voters are well informed about political issues? Who really believes they have a good handle on economic fundamentals in order to choose good policies? And if they don’t, can we really expect this doesn’t have an effect on outcomes.

    People now always talk about Market failure. That’s no surprise – it is pretty clear how horrendously markets can give bad outcomes. But equally, there is democratic failure. We see Democracy and government producing bad outcomes all the time. It is right to examine why it fails and to try to fix it.

  6. # Comment by Malore Sep 29th, 2008 18:09

    Niall,I agree that some peeople out there voted No because they knew very little about the issues.However, thats a little patronising to say the people who voted No were not “educated enough” to make “the right choice”,i.e a Yes vote. What annoys me is not the rejection of the Lisbon treaty or the contents of the Lisbon treaty.I think the EU is hugely beneficial to the people of Ireland and I want Ireland to stay fully part of it.It was the reaction afterwards from the political elite using the excuse that the Paddies were uneducated and need to be made like little children to do the right thing….off you go lads and vote again until you get a Yes vote. If the political elite are to ignore the sovereign voice of the people and force us into another vote is that not the greatest crime to democracy as Tomaltach discusses above?

    Anyway Niall as Im sure you will agree,even though they are tools Im pretty sure FF are not going to go to the people with a second Lisbon vote. The question on the ballot sheet will be “do you want Ireland to stay part of the EU”.Which ill be voting yes to.

    Tomaltach I fully agree,not to be dismissive of Caplan’s argument again,but current representative democracy is probably the best of a bad lot of the political systems we have out there.However,you are right that doesnt mean we shouldnt be looking at ways to make it more beneficial to the group that it supposedly serves, i.e the people.

  7. # Comment by Niall Sep 29th, 2008 20:09

    Malore, I don’t reagard it as patronising to say that most ‘no’ voters voted the way they did due to a self-confessed ignorance of the substance of the treaty simply because that is the top reason ‘no’ voters have given when surveys have been carried out.

    A quick look at the other reasons given makes it pretty clear that large chunks of the ‘no’ vote misunderstood the treaty and if one of these reasons happened to be the most popular, my opinion on a treaty re-run might be different. But that is not the case. If I were the Taoiseach, and I was concerned about representing the views of Ireland on the Lisbon treaty, I’d see myself with only one option available. I would have to re-run the referendum after first conducting a proper campaign designed to educate the electorate to the point where very large groups of people felt confident enough to vote based on the contents of the treaty.

  8. # Comment by Malore Sep 30th, 2008 10:09

    Niall would just like to point out that 78% of the No poll in that link above there believed that they had a fair amount of knowledge of the treaty and still voted No,even if some of their reasoning was not at all linked to the Lisbon Treaty.Even taking into account the 2% concerned with the introduction of gay marriage,thats still a whopping 76% who voted No for a reason and we should accept their reasoning. Personally I dont agree with most their reasoning but I accept it.Who knows why the 14% of ‘Other’ voted No for, but our Constitution affords them that privilege. And it is not for you or I to say that the result of that privilege is wrong.

    Again Niall – just like to point out I ain’t against the Lisbon Treaty it was the reaction afterwards that pissed me off.

  9. # Comment by Tomaltach Sep 30th, 2008 10:09

    Malore, I see what you mean by accepting the result. Like you I completely disagree with the reasoning in the No camp, but I accept the result. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t continue the argument. In fact, we still need to recognize the impasse and see what can be done about it. There is certainly a growing expectation in Europe that Ireland will need to pull its weight in getting a resolution to institutional reform. Having said that, I believe that with the current financial and soon economic crisis the Lisbon treaty will be allowed to simmer for longer than we thought.

    Still, I think the notion that European governments didn’t respect the outcome is overblown. True there was frustration and they were disappointed and annoyed. That is totally understandable after the 7/8 year period over which the Lisbon compromise was built. But the reaction was mostly to calm down and give Ireland breathing space to work on a way forward. There was no immediate attempt say to sideline us or eject us. In fact from Britain to France the mantra was that the union must move forward together.

    And if a minister here or there in Europe made openly critical remarks I think we need to behave like mature adults and take it on the chin. For a start much of their criticism is probably well placed – about the terrible campaign and the comments by McCreevy etc not having read the treaty. Instead of taking the ball and going home crying we need to ignore all the remarks and work even harder on our diplomacy with other member states.

    I see where you are coming from about our constitution. In fact, I differ in interpretation. I think the constitution is clear about who should handler our international affairs – the oireachtas. Just like the handle health, education, war and peace. True the supreme court took the view that for certain provisions (regarding sovereignty, but which are not clearly defined) the people need to be consulted. But the practice of putting all EU treaties to the people derives from political convention not constitutional imperative. Probably some chapters of Lisbon would require a referendum under the Crotty judgement, but probably not most of it. And only the supreme court can have the last word.

    Having said all of that, I think now that the treaty has been put to the people it would be politically impossible to decide after the fact that they need not be consulted and to ratify some or all of the treaty in the oireachtas. So in effect, the people are going to have to be convinced before the current reforms are passed.

    It should be remember that many of the No camp didn’t argue for a straight No. They argued to “say No for a better Yes”. That is, go back and renegotiate. But for many on the left at least, they might end up regretting what they asked for. The complexion of EU governments is now far more to the right than when the original constitutional treaty was drawn up. And it will get even more to the right. The conservatives are likely to win the next election in the UK and the anti-EU extreme right in Austria has just won 29% of the vote. The Tories talk about pulling out of the social chapter and paring the EU back to a bare minimum trading block. So in this context, opening up the reform talks again is almost certain to cede more social gains than it can possibly hope to win. It reminds me of the quote from Oscar Wilde ‘when the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers”.

  10. # Comment by Malore Sep 30th, 2008 11:09

    Lads I’ll leave at this because I think you’re missing my point. Tomaltach,the government decided that the people needed a referendum on Lisbon so it got one.The people made a decision for whatever plethora of reasons.

    The post-Lisbon reaction.France and Holland rejected the EU Constitution in 2005.Do you honestly believe every French and Dutch voter had an intimate knowledge of the contents of the EU Constitution?Were the French and Dutch asked to vote again because of perceived ignorance? No.The possibility wasn’t even discussed.The possibility of a second Lisbon vote in Ireland being openly touted by EU diplomats is a disgrace to the idea of all member states being equal.

    Tomaltach we(the people) should not take critical remarks from EU diplomats “on the chin”.Yes, criticise the Irish politicians who did a woeful job of campaigning in favour of Lisbon – but not the people. It is that type of attitude that leads politicians, Irish and European, to believe that they can talk down to us like little children.

    3 options for the government lads, as Im sure you’ll agree:

    1. A second Lisbon vote: I have a fair bit confidence in saying that baby would be dead in the water.
    2. Get as much of it as possible through the Oireachtas, and hope the Supreme Court passes the rest.
    3. A new ballot:”Do you want Ireland to continue to be part of the EU which would require Ireland to incorporate the Lisbon Treaty into Irish legislation”? Yes or No.

    Im going with nuclear option 3.

  11. # Comment by FutureTaoiseach Sep 30th, 2008 21:09

    If Caplan is right on the middle classes, then that suggests they are unduly influenced by groupthink within their class, and that this may be clouding their judgement. I am working-class but did a great deal of research into this Treaty and read it from end to end. And if given another opportunity, I will vote no again in the absence of optouts/changes to reflect my concerns, which relate primarily to the power the Charter of Fundamental Rights will give the ECJ to meddle in our affairs on a wide range of human rights issues, from asylum and immigration, to industrial relations, to freedom of the media and speech, to artistic freedom to scientific ethics. It’s none of Brussels/Luxembourg’s business and that court has already overreached itself in recent months with rulings striking down our laws on marriages of convenience, to forcing Austrian universities to allow in more foreign students, to ordering EU member states to revoke a freeze on Al Qaida bank accounts. It is behaving like a Supreme Court and the Charter, with a largely vague terminology, will only make it worse.

  12. # Comment by Malore Oct 1st, 2008 11:10

    Yeah I heard about that bank freeze one alright Future Taoiseach.Apparently OBL set up a Bank of Ireland Easy Saver account in College Green.He was looking to get a decent 8% interest on his €50 monthly instalment.