Viewpoint: Low voter turnout might not be so bad after all

With a federal election slated for later this year, democrats are probably already plotting to increase voter turnout by organizing get-out-the-vote campaigns and figuring out how to best endorse compulsory voting schemes.

Yet, perhaps ironically, democracy would be better served if these democrats called it quits.

It’s neither new nor controversial to remark that voters are bad at voting. Many thinkers have long thought that voters are uninformed, which at the voting booth is a moral offence that ought to get one shooed away.

The complaint about the dimwitted voter dates back at least 24 centuries. It was around this time when the ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote The Republic, which called for society to be run by philosopher-kings because the common citizen, in Plato’s eyes, wasn’t as capable. Roughly two decades before Plato put that thought to page a democratically empowered mob of commoners tried and executed Plato’s mentor, another Greek philosopher named Socrates, whose crimes were to be impious and corrupt the youth.

Though today voters aren’t so intellectually and morally bankrupt as to condemn folk to death for such silly reasons, their quality of mind hasn’t quite improved. 

Over the centuries, for whatever reason, lots of people relaxed and eventually relinquished their embrace of such practices as slavery and insupportable executions. But people’s embrace of other unsound beliefs hasn’t given way so easily.

That many people misunderstand how the economy works is a view that’s been around for some time, too. 

One of the first suggestions that the public misunderstands how the economy works came courtesy of an 18th-century thinker named Adam Smith, a Scotsman who would later be crowned the father of modern economics. In the 1700s Smith shattered conventional wisdom when he argued that freer markets and freer trade make nations richer.

Though modern economists tend to favour freer markets and freer trade for a similar reason, laypeople tend to see things differently.

Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, recently explored the extent to which the public disagrees with economists. In 2007, in his book entitled The Myth of the Rational Voter, Caplan showed that public opinion tends to markedly differ from expert opinion on economic policy.

Caplan found that the benefits of freer markets are underestimated by the public, which, according to his research, misunderstands how markets even work. He also found that the public tends to underestimate the benefits of freer trade and immigration, which, to be sure, are remarkably large.

Caplan concluded that the public falls victim to such delusions because people are irrational, not merely ignorant.

Many years of research in psychology and neuroscience happen to support Caplan’s view. In fact, according to this research, people are not rational. They are, instead, more rationalizing. 

To be rational, people would have to commonly consult with the available evidence to change or refine their prior beliefs. Yet they don’t. Instead people look for ways to rationalize the views they’ve unconsciously formed.

Voters are subject to the same, flawed design because voters are people. And when voters have mistaken beliefs, such as the ones Caplan pointed out, it’s arguably worse, for voters express their opinions by exercising their power to affect other people’s lives. 

So how uninformed and not rational must one be before encouraging him or her to vote becomes a bad idea? It’s possible that democrats have rationally answered this question, but it’s also possible — indeed, probable — that they haven’t because these democrats, too, are not rational.

Then again, if I believe what I’ve written, neither am I.