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 Against, Against 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, I 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.