Economics, Democracy

How Can a Libertarian Say That? (On Incompetent Voters and Competent Market Agents)

Roughly 35% of my published work responds to problems of voter ignorance and irrationality. I sometimes get pushback from both libertarians and non-libertarians that goes roughly as follows: “Wait, so you think average people aren’t competent to rule? How can you, a self-described bleeding heart libertarian, say that? Aren’t you libertarians committed to the view that people are smart and can run their own lives? That they don’t need government to run their lives for them? How can you say that they’re smart in the market but dumb at politics? Isn’t that a contradictory view of human nature?”

Frankly, these are softball questions.

First, let me make clear that the views I push in The Ethics of Voting, Compulsory Voting: For and AgainstAgainst Democracy, and the dozen related articles and book chapters are neither libertarian nor anti-libertarian. My arguments don’t follow from libertarian premises and don’t lead to libertarian conclusions. You can accept pretty much everything I say in those articles and remain a left-liberal, socialist, conservative American constitutionalist, or neorepublican. These books and articles are not about the issues libertarians and these other people dispute. They are just about civic virtue, voting ethics, compulsory voting, and democracy vs. epistocracy.

That said, I suppose it isn’t surprising that the new wave of democratic skepticism comes from libertarians like Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan, or me. When you read most democratic theory, you see that most authors revere politics and democracy, viewing them as in some way sacred or majestic. Libertarians will have none of that. As a result, I think they’re able to think more clearly about the nature of democracy. For many on the Left and Right, doing democratic theory is like doing theology. For libertarians, it’s just comparative institutional analysis. Libertarians have no inherent emotional draw toward or inherent revulsion to democracy. Asking whether democracy works better than the alternatives has no more emotional resonance than asking whether a hammer works better than a screwdriver for a given purpose. For many on the Left and Right, asking whether democracy is better than the alternatives is like a Christian asking whether Jesus is God, a prophet, a fraud, or a myth.

UPDATE: Another way to put it: Let’s say that libertarians are emotional twerps and everything they write about the market is motivatived reasoning. Nevertheless, for them, there’s no particular bias for or against democracy.

Second, as to the question of voters in democracy vs actors in the market: The incentives are radically different.

When I make a market decision, I decide unilaterally. If I order a candy bar, I get a candy bar. If I order an apple, I get an apple. Further, in general, bear the consequences of my decisions. If I make a bad choice for me, I get punished. If I make a good choice, I get rewarded.

Of course, sometimes the consequences take a long time or are hard to trace. Yes, sometimes there are significant negative externalities. Still, there’s a feedback mechanism. However dumb people might be naturally, markets incentivize them to be smarter.

In politics, my decision counts for basically nothing. If I stay home, vote for X, or vote for not-X, the same thing ends up happening. We all bear the consequences of the majority’s decision, but no one bears the consequences of her individual decision. If I make a bad choice at the polls, I don’t get punished. If I make a good choice, I don’t get rewarded.

The feedback mechanism sucks. However dumb people might naturally be, politics incentivizes them to stay that way, or get dumber.


  • Jameson Graber

    It seems like whenever you say “politics” on this blog you mean voting. Isn’t there more to political participation than that?

    • KevinDC

      He talks about voting a lot, sure. But that’s not all he’s talked about with respect to politics. Recently, for example, he’s been getting a lot of mileage out of Diana Mutz’s concept of deliberative vs participatory citizens. The second group is defined as those who frequently vote but also actively campaign for politicians or issues, attend town hall meetings, set up and participate in political rallies, and so on. His critique of voter behavior also maps on to his critique of participatory citizens in general.

    • geoih

      Yes, there’s all the coercion and violence.

  • Jeff Sylvester

    Wouldn’t the other part of this answer be that politics isn’t just about control over your own life, but control over other people’s lives?

    • Dano

      Yup. And defensively avoiding their control over yours; or at least it’s defense against the side one feels does not share their values at all.

  • CalderonX

    “For many on the Left and Right, doing democratic theory is like doing theology.”

    I’d say you’re being too generous here. Many (particularly on the Left) simply are hypocrites when it comes to the scope of issues that should be decided by democratic votes, and want “inviolable rights for me, and democracy for thee.” You almost never hear people on the left saying issues like abortion, government racial and gender discrimination, freedom to promote communism and socialism, rights of criminal defendants (other than alleged rapists), gay marriage, etc. should be left to the democratic process. This tendency seems less prevalent on the Right, though that may simply be the result of the conservatives not controlling the Supreme Court from 1940 to the early 1980’s.

  • Dano

    Alternatively, or perhaps also: Arguably there’s a certain rationality to certain political decisions and alliances with overall bad results. Engaging in modern politics isn’t actually about fighting ignorance to promote the best possible outcomes for all, it’s reacting to the size and scope of government leading to the fact that if the side with far different values than your own seizes power, the results will appear more negative to you than the problems with the party you’re voting for. So people are successful in their minds for being willing to dig to the bottom of the barrel as long as it favors a ‘big tent’ of people with a serious plan to wrest longlasting control over the levers of political power and put the other side down a peg. Politics teaches people to view others as enemies and even unsavory-but-acceptable allies as if in a great war… markets teach people to find ways to cooperate with the absolute largest number of other people as possible, and that any consideration of race creed ideology or sexuality is usually only an assault on one’s own success, especially in an increasingly globalized world with a planet’s worth of potential patrons, services, and products at everyone’s fingertips.


    Does epistocracy tend toward or require hard paternalism ( Viz., if some do not want epistocratic rules to govern their lives even if it is intended to help them or steer them in a beneficial way (by their own lights) while their own interests are singularly involved (i.e., their behavior
    would seem not to malign anyone’s interests save perhaps their own), does the epistocrat have something akin to a claim of force or compulsion for compliance on those who do not adhere to epistocratic outcomes?

    Furthermore, does epistocracy incorporate a claim that there are those who, in virtue of their relative political , ought decide for those in certain ways against their will even when they harm no one else?

  • bozimmerman

    The Hayekian knowledge problem would also be worth mentioning in this context.

    Unrelated point: Some might retort: So What? Why is smarter incentive-aligned decision making more important than the control and certainty of the state? IOW, when you leave ethics out of ANY libertarian analysis, you miss the entire point, IMHO.

    • Swami

      I concur. There are two fundamental problems facing all societies:
      1). The Problem of Cooperation, and
      2). The Knowledge Problem (ala Hayek)

      Democracy gets mixed scores at best on both.

    • j_m_h

      I tried to suggest that a while back but didn’t see any response so not sure Jason agrees.

  • j_m_h

    I still think you’re opting to swing at the softball question you want to answer and not really the more hardball questions that are present.

    I certainly would not dispute that our participation as individuals in politics/voting and markets are identical in terms of what that participation directly returns to each of as individuals. My vote to elect a candidate (if I actually voted) is not like spending a dollar to buy a good/service. That alone does not mean politics does not provide a direct result on the individual or that it doesn’t provide a similar incentive to change behavior. Similarly, the private cost-benefit structure and incentives from a private purchase is not alone enough to say that the individual’s participation in markets is completely different from that of politics via voting.

    Your consumer decisions, on your own, have ZERO influence on the complex of goods and services produced in “the market” or on the allocation of productive resources. Those type of aggregate outcomes are the results of everyone interacting, and the social institution of the market mediates all those wants. At this level markets and politics/voting are very similar in terms of the relationship any individual to the resulting outcome.

    As such I seems that the same complaints or suggestions about being fully informed before making a choice in voting does apply in the market setting as in both cases it’s the collective choices made by participants that determine the quality of the resulting state and not any single individuals choice. The incentives you say allow the market to work on it’s own simply do not operate at the system level so are not a good counter to the question of why the epistocracic approach doesn’t apply to markets/consumer choice as well as politics/voting.

    Exactly how this fits into the question of democracy versus epistocracy as the government process is that one of the biggest incentives towards political participation and voting is likely to be a dissatisfaction with the market output complex as experienced by the individuals.

    • CJColucci

      Interesting point. I can think of a number of people who would do a better job than I do of making market transactions on my behalf. So can most of us, if we are at all honest with ourselves. Yet I — and most of the rest of us — would find a market epistocracy irksome, if not worse. Outisde of some fairly narrow limits, we wouldn’t accept it.

  • Pajser

    “In politics, my decision counts for basically nothing. If I stay home, vote for X, or vote for not-X, the same thing ends up happening. ”

    By voting you, among other things, increase the probability of victory of your candidate. Many consumers decisions are also about increasing probability. When one dresses suit and tie, he increases probability that he will leave better impression on date, job interview etc. When he buys a gun, he increases probability that he will defend himself, in event which is uncertain by itself.

    ” Libertarians have no inherent emotional draw toward or inherent revulsion to democracy. Asking whether democracy works better than the alternatives has no more emotional resonance than asking whether a hammer works better than a screwdriver for a given purpose.”

    I think libertarians have emotions on the stake. I believe, their basic political emotion is anti-egalitarianism, i.e. elitism. The socialists are exactly opposite, they are egalitarian. Both sides make theories to justify their intuition too. Democracy is egalitarian distribution of power, and that’s why libertarians unusually frequently criticize democracy, and on the left, even Stalinists try to prove that their society is “real democracy” because, say, “Bolshevik party, through victory in revolution, demonstrated that it represents will of the working class” or something like that. The fascists are more radically anti-egalitarian and they uniformly reject democracy.

  • SimpleMachine88

    I’m not sure if this is true.

    One of the reasons I’m a libertarian is that I believe people have the right to make their own choices, whether or not they are actually good. For the same reason, states derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, however unwise that mass may be. And I do regard these as self-evident truths, not quibbleables.

    I think you’re describing self-imagined utilitarians.

    • Pajser

      Generally, it is not even true that voting is attempt to find some objective truth that can be judged by experts. For instance, if members of chess club vote to paint the walls in red, it cannot be assumed that they search the answer on the question “which color is objectively best for chess club.” They might have lots of objective or subjective reasons, related to chess or not, and they might have no reason at all. Some other chess club might chose green in same situation and they would be equally right.

  • Well, yeah, it’s dumb to even pay attention to politics as a voting contest, because a large percentage of the population is always guaranteed to lose, and you as an individual are never guaranteed to win all your positions. The only way everyone could have a chance of winning the greatest possible number of times always is in a true private voluntary free market economy.

  • Counsellor

    Has anyone raised the point that the “incompetences” of one group may offset those of another?

    • CJColucci

      It has occurred to me that voter ignorance is so comprehensive that it can have no causal force. Voters are ignorant about policy, but they don’t vote on policy. Voters are ignorant of basic facts of life — for example, enormous numbers of voters think unemployment and crime are up and the stock market is down over the last eight years. Voters are also ignorant about what the candidates say they believe or intend to do, and are even more ignorant about whether the candidates mean what they say or have the capacity to do it. I don’t see the causal mechanism that transmits this comprehensive ignorance into the bad policies the ignorant voters would endorse — as opposed to the bad policies we get from the governing process and the clash of concrete interests.

      • j_m_h

        I think a few of us have pointed out the existing policy is not determined by the voters and that those actually defining the policies tend to be rather well informed.

        I’m not sure how getting to a more informed voter set really solves the problem either but somehow Jason believes it will.