Economics in many lessons: The reality of voting

| Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Political disagreements take two major forms. One form is disagreement over ultimate goals or values, such as whether abortion should be legal. The other form is disagreement over the consequences that will be wrought by particular policies.

This latter form of disagreement occurs when people differ not over their preferred goals but in their understanding of how best to ensure that these goals are indeed achieved. Consider the goal of full employment with wages as high as possible. Everyone shares this goal. But people differ over how best to achieve it.

People who know economics understand that this goal is promoted by free trade and undermined by protectionism. In contrast, people who know no economics believe — mistakenly — that this goal is undermined by free trade and promoted by protectionism.

Most political disagreements are of this latter sort. They are disagreements that occur because different people have different slices of knowledge of reality. Only a small handful of people are experts in economics. The same is true for every other branch of knowledge, both theoretical and practical.

The dispersion of knowledge and experience is one of the most important reasons for relying on free markets. Politicians and bureaucrats, despite their pretenses, know next to nothing about the all-important details of the economic affairs that they regulate. This reality means that government regulation is the displacement of expertise by ignorance.

This reality means also that, as voters, each of us is ignorant. Like it or not (and I, for one, do not like it), every election now involves thousands of different issues, almost none of which the voter knows anything about. Each voter, therefore, butts ignorantly into the affairs of countless strangers. In short, voters are ignorant about most of the matters on which they vote.

To say such a thing is to incur the wrath of democracy's gods. “How dare you call voters ignorant!” scream the gods. Yet the gods are wrong. No one thinks me to be wise enough or well-enough informed to march over to my neighbor's home, pistol in hand, to command him to raise the pay of his toddler's baby sitter or to forbid his wife from having her nails manicured by people who I disapprove of.

In our daily lives we naturally recognize that each of us knows far more about our own affairs than we know about the affairs of others. And each of us would unhesitatingly resist the dictates of anyone who presumed to tell us how to go about our own affairs.

Because I'm ignorant of the personal and professional affairs of everyone but myself — and because you're ignorant of the personal and professional affairs of everyone but yourself — each of us is ignorant of the affairs of others.

This reality doesn't change when you and I walk into voting booths. Nothing about those booths makes you better informed about my affairs and desires; nothing about those booths makes me better informed about your affairs and desires.

It's time to recognize that elections are largely about butting ignorantly into other people's affairs.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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