November 16, 2007

The Myth of the Rational Voter

In my review of the Chilton Williamson-edited book Immigration and the American Future from Chronicles Press, I started off with a detour:

Economist Bryan Caplan has been getting a lot of good press for his recent book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, which argues that voters should have less power because they make bad decisions compared to experts, such as (to pick a random example) economists.

Thus, Caplan wrote in the online journal of the libertarian Cato Institute:

"Consider the case of immigration policy. Economists are vastly more optimistic about its economic effects than the general public. The Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy asks respondents to say whether ‘too many immigrants’ is a major, minor, or non-reason why the economy is not doing better than it is. 47% of non-economists think it is a major reason; 80% of economists think it is not a reason at all." [The Myth of the Rational Voter, November 6th, 2006]

This is a particularly foolish argument—because, of course, immigration is the single political issue on which the American elite most gets its way over the American people.

And Caplan's belief that “experts” should be deferred to on the wisdom of open borders is even more self-contradictory because the vast majority of economists surveyed are not at all experts on immigration. The true expert economists on immigration, such as labor economist George Borjas of Harvard (described by the New York Times last year as "the pre-eminent scholar in his field") tend to be very dubious indeed about the economic benefits of our current policy—much less about the benefits of more unskilled immigration.

Caplan himself has displayed over the years on his blog little awareness of objective facts about immigration. He does, however, possess a formidable dogmatic faith in the theories of the late Julian Simon about how immigration ought to be benefiting us.

I was reminded of this remarkable imbalance in empirical knowledge between the two sides in the immigration debates while reading Immigration and the American Future, edited by long-time contributor Chilton Williamson, Jr., a fact-crammed collection of 14 essays from Chronicles Press, which is affiliated with Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture of Rockford, Illinois. [ note: Chronicles fans will prefer to buy through the magazine].

In this book Professor Borjas is himself represented by a long interview with VDARE.COM editor Peter Brimelow. The two veteran students of economics share a laugh over how the opinion divide on immigration policy between the rich and the rest can be explained by an old economic concept that Dr. Caplan has overlooked: class self-interest.

Borjas: "Who exactly is lobbying for guest workers? Is it you and me? No, it's employers, right? Why would employers tend to go to Washington and expend their resources lobbying for something that doesn't benefit them?

Brimelow: "It can all be explained in rather crass Marxist terms, can't it? The class analysis works.

Borjas: "Of course! Of course! The Marxist analysis works."

In other words, pro-immigration arguments are so shameless and stupid that they are rehabilitating the reputation of Karl Marx.

[Click here for the rest of my review of Immigration and the American Future]


Anonymous said...

I had hoped that Caplan would eventually wise up. Caplan and Kling seem to grasp the importance of intelligence and you would think a reasonable understanding of the dangers of Third World immigration would follow naturally.

Caplan's next book could have been The Rationalization of the Immigration Myth. But a more likely title for a sequel might be The Really Real Reality of the Altruistic, All-Knowing Elite.

Anonymous said...

The funny thing is that the hard-left in most advanced industrialsed nations afflicted by opn-door immigration ACTUALLY FULLY AGREES WITH THE CAPITALIST BOSSES on the 'neccessity'of open-door immigration.
In fact it's about the only thing they agree on.

Stuart said...

A first time reader of your work would probably be under the impression that economists like Caplan disagree with experts like Borjas on the economics.

This is probably true, but when he's defending free immigration on his blog he uses the numbers Bojas gives.

Anonymous said...

I think that one thing people don't realize is that without the Immigration Issue, most Economists would be considered the most politically incorrect Professors on Earth. Heck, I can remember reading from the Cato Institute how BAD the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was. I couldnt believe it.

I just assumed that most would consider the Libertarians over there to be complete racists. But, if you can apply certain Libertarian ideas to be in favor of Open Borders, then, well, you can't be a complete racist.

Anonymous said...

One of the most annoying tendencies among pro-immigration economists (or journalists repeating their talking points) is to assert immigration increases the size of GDP. Of course it does! Economists understand in other contexts that it's not the size of GDP that matters (would you rather live in India or Switzerland?) but GDP per capita ( Switzerland has a GDP 1/16th the size of India but a GDP per capita 10 times larger). In other words, it's not the size of the economy which matters but the standard of living. Low skilled Third World immigration lowers our GDP per capita and thus the average standard of living, as well increases our income inequality. It makes us more like India than Switzerland, which I think most people understand is sorta a bad thing.

Another tendency of economic analysis of immigration is to put on blinders to the cultural and political implications (which themselves have economic ramifications). For example, libertarians are in general very supportive of the status quo of massive unskilled immigration. But they forget they are importing more than cogs in the economic machine, they are importing voters and future citizens. The vast majority of these new citizens are hostile to free market policies and limited government. Whatever miniscule growth in GDP we experience today is easily offset by the soon to come anti-market and big government policies (as well as the dampening of innovaction and automation). Borjas makes a lot of these points. I remember him quoting a German on their "guest worker" program. The German basically said, "we wanted workers but we got people." Economists do the same, they meditate on the economy but forget about society, at the detriment of both.

Anonymous said...

Caplan hasn't grasped the nature of the bell curve (half of people have an IQ below 100). For instance, look at his comments on eugenics and immigration:

"But the deeper lesson is that even if Pearson's judgment on this point were correct, his policy recommendation would be counter-productive on his own terms. Yes, admitting geniuses leads to greater achievement; but admitting non-geniuses achieves the same effect, by encouraging native citizens to switch to brainier work."

The guy really thinks importing "brawns" is as good as importing "brains" because, you see, native brawns will magically transform themselves into brains. Of course on some level this occurs, some very smart people are under utilizing their smarts and might be pushed into utilizing their smarts if their pay was undermined. But to posit this effect is a close substitute to importing brains outright is lunacy. Example: We allow in 10 doctors or 10 construction workers. MAYBE letting in the 10 construction workers gives us 1 or 2 more doctors by pushing the smartest construction workers upwards, but it's not going to come close to 10.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece.

Two things that especially make me want to throw spitballs at Caplan:

1) He thinks he's entitled to judge who's being "rational" and who isn't being "rational." Talk about having faith in your god-given abilities!

2) His conviction that what's "rational" (in some expert-decided sense) should determine huge policy decisions. How about ... I dunno, "What we prefer"? Or "how we'd like to live our lives"?

Not that clear thinking shouldn't be employed and consulted. But, let's face it, what "clear thinking" is, as well as what it takes into account -- do we direct our clear thinking over there, or over there? -- is almost always up for debate. Where "what we want" and "how we'd prefer to live" is often perfectly apparent.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 3:56AM

Youve hit the nail right on the head there. The elites use immigration to drive up house prices, reduce labour costs, destroy welfare systems etc etc and the one group who you would expect to stand up and say "No!" are completely AWOL. In fact of course they actually defend the process, so much so that Walmart, Rupert Murdoch et al dont have to lift a finger to defend these policies at all. Their 'enemies' do it for them. The sheer brilliance of it takes my breath away, I just cant think of a similar historical example. The liberal/left just cant seem to see how they've been utterly out manouvered.

I find now that I dont know what the terms left and right really mean anymore.

Anonymous said...

At least, I thought Caplan took intelligence seriously. But here he is claiming that poverty would be eliminated globally if everyone just got with Adam Smith's program:

In the face of all this evidence, Clark [author of A Farewell to Alms] throws up his hands and says that economists don't know how to create growth. Give me a break. If voters and politicians around the world since 1800 had just done what Adam Smith told them to do in The Wealth of Nations, poverty would already be a thing of the past. Economists have known how to create growth for centuries. The problem is that, all too often, non-economists choose not to listen.

If only Africa would start listening to Bryan Caplan!

3. How Important Is Labor Quality? Clark repeatedly dismisses competing theories by pointing out the imperfect predictions of their most simple-minded formulations. But he goes a lot easier on his own story. Why are rich countries so much richer than poor countries, according to Clark? Because they have lower-quality workers.

>Obvious objection: If that's the problem, why does moving these low-quality workers to the West quickly raise their wages from $1/day to $40/day? Yes, that's below average for the West, but it's in the same ballpark. If that isn't iron-clad proof that institutions/policy matter a lot, what is?

I'm tempted to read this statement as an admission that unlimited immigration is harmful, but I know Caplan better than that. So gee, I don't know. It's a big mystery, but if I were to venture a guess, it's because the West still possesses a high quality workforce by global standards along with a minimum wage. If Caplan had his way that would quickly change.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about the Marxist thing, Steve. You know the neo-cons feel a warm, fuzzy chemical-hit slamming you and Watson. "They said conservatives were racist! I am not so! Just look!"

They enjoy the "not seeing race" thing. All the high-level Iraq architects and policy-makers, profiteers or not, really believed Iraq (median IQ 91(?)) would "re-build" like Japan (median IQ 107) or Germany (107 again?) The uncomfortable truth is the best modernization scheme for Iraq was Saddam Hussein's 70s pseudo-Stalinism. That kinda worked. Look it up.

So much alliteration should not accompany such messed-up conjectures. Poetry should stay the domain of the palpably not true.

Anonymous said...

In our democracy when the majority of the populace agrees with a notion that the management class agrees with, then the notion is declared as self-evident and natural. Anyone who disagrees with the populace is labelled radical, extremist, hater, and crazy.

When the management class does not agree with the populace it declares the populace as crass, uneducated, and ignorant on the topic. Anyone who disagrees with the populace in this case is labelled progressive,liberal, and enlightened.

In either case the management class gets its way. What the management class fails to mention to the public, and what is a major failing of our democracy is that the opinions of the management class are essentially for sale. The older our democracy becomes, the more courrupt it becomes, and the more everything becomes for sale.

In other words our management class has become very good at selling their corruption as morally right, and at labelling all real opposition as morally corrupt. Unfortunately civilizations tend to collapse with this type trend.

Anonymous said...

Dewey and Lippmann hashed this out in the 1920's. As we can see, the judgment of the "expert" Lippmanns and Caplans of the world serves their interest, not ours.

Anonymous said...

In other words, pro-immigration arguments are so shameless and stupid that they are rehabilitating the reputation of Karl Marx.

No question about it. I've been a conservative since I was a teenager, but few things have done more to turn me off to conservatism than the support of big business for open borders.

The argument when I was a teenager, when the first Shrub was president, was that "a rising tide lifts all boats," which meant that cutting taxes would lead to a strong economy which would benefit everyone by raising wages. Today the argument has turned into "a rising tide swamps all the small boats." The rich get richer. They move every job they possibly can oversaes. And when they can't move the jobs overseas they bring the overseas to the job.

From my point of view, the grand contradiction is this: one day the Chamber of Commerce argues that our economy is growing so fast that we need to import people to fill the new jobs. The very next day they'll argue that we shouldn't raise the minimum wage because it will hurt job growth!!!

Now tell me: if we're already creating millions of jobs that no Americans are available to fill, why would slowing job growth to, say, the rate of increase of the American population be a problem?

It is the immense irony that it's not the Democrats or the Communists who have turned me into a supporter of higher minimum wages and an opponent of tax cuts - it's the Republican Party & the Chamber of Commerce crowd.

mnuez said...

I'm not sure that I understand why we can't just admit that on this issue (as well as on a great many others) Karl Marx was right.

Of course he may have been wrong on the most major of his beliefs - that Communism would occur after the dictatorship of the proletariat, rather than that the dictatorship would hold on to power for as long as it possibly could (ala O'Brien's explanation in 1984), but he still could have been RIGHT and even morally acceptable or laudable on a whole host of other issues. With this being one of them.

The simple fact is that the economy DOES improve with outsourcing, free trade and massive immigration. Whatever amount of money is LOST by working-class and middle-class Americans is FAR MORE than compensated for by the improved profit margin of the wealthiest few percent of Americans - with the highest profit increases being enjoyed by the wealthiest fraction of one percent. According to the recent Forbes 400, the wealth of the wealthiest 400 Americans INCREASED over this past ONE year by some 23.2%. That’s a 290 BILLION DOLLAR INCREASE in their wealth – which makes up for a lot of decreased earnings by millions of OTHER Americans.

The fact is that if simple PRODUCTIVITY is your goal, you’re best off letting the wealthy do what they will, with everyone else be damned. (Though there are obvious arguments for certain few limitations on their power such as disallowing competition through monopolies, etc., but overall, this principle is true more often than it’s false.)

So, sure, massive immigration, legal or otherwise, is bad for the checkbook of the average American but the ECONOMY may not suffer for it at all. The rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer but the GNP will not be negatively affected – not for a little while at least (consumer confidence and similar factors will be rather irrelevant when foreign markets are taken into account, the lack of any substantial ability for American competition however may EVENTUALLY hurt the GNP).

So what’s wrong with class war?


P.S. Regarding the oft-repeated "positive state" of the economy read (and feel free to comment on): Time to Invest in Guillotines

Regarding Caplan’s dishonest methods of convincing the masses of his views read: the economist and you

His pseudo-intellectual defenders are head-butted here: The Conversation Continues

His more honest explanation for his elitist policies are quoted and commented on here: Yes, Bryan Caplan IS a cold-blooded asshole


Oh, and for the record, if your interest is in the economic productivity and earning-power of foreign citizens (wherever they reside) rather than of Americans, none of the above applies. Obviously massive immigration, outsourcing, free trade and all the rest are (monetarily, at least) beneficial to the non-Americans who receive those higher paying jobs and higher-quality goods. Study after study has indicated that, in time, their overall happiness will likely DECREASE, but at least they’ll be wearing designer jeans and jumping off the Golden Gate. That’s gotta count for something.

Anonymous said...

So, sure, massive immigration, legal or otherwise, is bad for the checkbook of the average American but the ECONOMY may not suffer for it at all. The rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer but the GNP will not be negatively affected

Oh, and for the record, if your interest is in the economic productivity and earning-power of foreign citizens (wherever they reside) rather than of Americans, none of the above applies. Obviously massive immigration, outsourcing, free trade and all the rest are (monetarily, at least) beneficial to the non-Americans who receive those higher paying jobs and higher-quality goods.

Not only are wealth and earnings being shifted to the rich. In the past, at least, one could hope that when American gazillionaires went to their eternal reward they would at least leave a chunk of their earthly reward to charities for Americans.

Increasingly, however, they are leaving it to charities for leftist Americans, "charities" for rich Americans (like Harvard), or charities for non-Americans (Gates, Buffett, and a massive number of charities focused on helping illegals.) Working class Americans with their crappy schools and neighborhoods transforming into the Third World now get nothing.

Republican kleptocrats like Dick Armey, Grover Norquist, Dennis Hastert, and George W Bush have made "class warfare" politically salient again.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the Democrats like immigration because it means votes and the Republicans because it means cheap labor. If it weren't for the two-party system we could make a third-party populist party.

Anonymous said...

The funny thing is that the hard-left ... ACTUALLY FULLY AGREES WITH THE CAPITALIST BOSSES on the 'neccessity'of open-door immigration.

comrade lenin was evil but he was not stupid. lenin said of the business class "they will sell us the rope to hang them with". lenin was right.