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The Unwashed Masses

By Matthew Yglesias

"The Unwashed Masses"


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I found Bryan Caplan’s essay worrying about voter ignorance a little bit puzzling. I agree with many of his analytical claims, but I can’t be persuaded to share his worry that the ignorant masses are using democracy to implement poor policy against the wishes of wiser elites/experts. Strangely, he takes immigration as his main example. If I were trying to devise an example of a policy area in which an elite consensus had shown a consistent ability to override contrary sentiment, I would have picked, well, immigration where the public’s consistent preference for dramatically more restrictionist policies have been consistently (and, in my view, rightly) frustrated.

Indeed, the striking thing about American democracy is how little impact public sentiment actually has on the course of things. The way democracy works, in essence, is that the voters get to choose between two teams of competing elites. Thus, public opinion serves as a tie-breaker on issues where the elite is seriously divided. Faced with an elite consensus, it becomes very hard to raise money, get favorable press coverage, hire talented staff, or do anything else. On some topics, the effect of this is (I think) beneficial, and on other topics it’s rather pernicious. The curious question, in my mind, is how it is that exponents of elite consensus views manage to feel so embattled in a political arena that, looked at objectively, they completely dominate. Try suggesting that there’s no single “right answer” to questions of monetary policy and that within a range of non-ruinous policies there’s simply the competing interests of net creditors and net debtors and that recent Fed policy is unduly tilted in favor of the interests of net creditors and see how far you get with that.

UPDATE: Sorry, due to a typo that last sentence used to say “recent Fed policy is unduly tilted in favor of the interests of net debtors” when I meant to make the opposite charge as reflected in the current text.

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