Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote?

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, says no. Or at least, they should be able to vote, but smarter people should have more votes than the stupid people in order to balance them out.

In his new book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter", Caplan argues that American voters are not just ignorant of the major public policy issues facing the nation, they are actually irrational. They simply do not know how to think about politics and make systematic mistakes that reflect no rational choices.

His offers two suggestions: 1) there should be economic competency tests for voters, so they have to demonstrate they understand basic principles of rational choice theory; 2) economic experts should have more votes than the nonexperts, so that elections reflect the will of at least some people who know what they are talking about.

The idea of giving more votes to educated people is not a new one. John Stuart Mill advocated for this idea.

In thinking about this proposal, I am reminded of a passage in W.E.B. Du Bois's collection of essays entitled "Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil" (1919):

"We say easily, for instance, 'The ignorant ought not to vote'. We would say 'No civilized state should have citizens too ignorant to participate in government' and this statement is but a step to the fact: that no state is civilized which has citizens too ignorant to help rule it. Or, in other words, education is not a prerequisite to political control--political control is the cause of popular education."

So perhaps the problems of American democracy are not because of "stupid" voters, but with our political and educational leaders who do little to create the conditions by which the public can engage in rational discussion, debate, and decision making with one another.



At 11:23 AM , Anonymous Eric Stoller said...

Wow. I saw this on

I'm guessing that Professor Caplan is a white guy...hold on, let me fire up the Google...yep.

I love how Caplan, based on your summary, approaches his book from the perspective that the institutional systems in this country must be terrific and that it's the poor and uneducated who should be penalized for their apparent stupidity.

Professor Caplan, please come down from your tower of economic supremacy and think about how your identities/experience affect your views.

Dr. Orosco, thanks for the heads up on a book that probably will not makes its way to my bookshelf ;)

At 2:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Orosco,

I think the answer to your question you vote? If so, you've got your answer.

At 2:30 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Dear Anonymous: The answer to your question (which I take is meant in the spirit of snide insult) is: yes, I do vote, but not because I think it makes any difference in the outcomes. My answer to whether we ought to vote can be found here:

At 2:34 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Eric: I'm not sure whether its white privilege that informs his perspective here or his disciplinary training as an economist. The latter are usually disappointed that most people don't think in terms of rational choice theory. Thanks for you comments!

At 4:31 PM , Blogger chris farrell said...

Dear Joe,
This looks like a neat blog. What classes do you teach? I'm into John Stuart Mill. What a guy. Utilitarianism rocks.
The thing is, if all citizens don't have the right to vote, how do you choose who does have the right? Furthermore, people do generally know what's in their interest in the long run. If you disenfranchise the poor and uneducated, then policies will start to be biased in favor of the rich. So anyway, I think it would be better to make sure everyone has a basic education so that they can have at least the literacy to figure out what is in their interest. Americans seem to be figuring that out recently.

At 10:42 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

That is a hilarious Philosophy Club meeting account.

And I'll second Eric. That guy is nuts. Just for kicks, how do we choose what metrics we use to measure 'smart' in the first place? He's obviously talking about economics, but what if I think we should measure how well one can recite Emerson or Thoreau? Or for that matter, historical knowledge of winning candidates and how the country fared under them?

To be charitable, maybe this Caplan fellow is just assuming that intelligence is solely hereditary, not learned. If that's the case, I'd advise him not to have children. does one take this sort of tripe seriously?

At 12:42 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Chris: Thanks for you comments. I think you are right--the hallmark of a society truly dedicated to democratic governance is a commitment to a robust public education. I think this is what Du Bois is advocating.

At 7:22 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...and I thought this idea was created by myself...I've been saying this for years....we need to have some sort of current events test before we allow everyone to vote. Too many stupid, irrational people have too much say in who is elected in this country.cough red states

At 3:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course people with higher intelligence and education should have more influence and more votes. Exemplified by the movie Idiocracy, smart people think about what's best and plan accordingly. Stupid people don't, and just pop out more kids. This leads to even more stupid people, and in the future, the world will become a garbage dump with idiots at the helm.
Social classes exist because not everyone has what it takes to understand what is best for themselves and for the county. We must leave these decisions up to those who do understand. And to answer the question of how do we decide who gets to vote, we can use school GPA and IQ.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home