Donald Boudreaux: Dumb individuals, brilliant voters?
The democratic ethos is offended if the intelligence and wisdom of ordinary men and women are questioned. And, this offense is made more acute if those questioning the decision-making skills of ordinary people are perceived to come from society’s elite ranks. The People are regarded as knowledgeable and prudent stewards of their own affairs.
Yet, observation quickly reveals the hypocrisy of many of those who most blaringly trumpet their respect for, and deference to, the choices of ordinary men and women.
Consider progressives. Since Teddy Roosevelt occupied the White House, they have fought to give more and more power to government. This struggle included, of course, efforts — largely successful — to remove from the U.S. government many of the constraints that the Constitution’s framers put on it. Progressives fancy that as long as voters, by majority rule, ultimately choose those who do the governing, there is no power that isn’t safe to trust to the state.
But, if The People have so very much wisdom when choosing those who exercise government power, what need is there to begin with for most of this power? Surely people who with unfailing sagacity select the U.S. president and members of Congress do not need to be told by those same officials how much water their toilet tanks may hold or how much money to save for retirement. Individuals who wisely reject unqualified candidates who offer their services on city councils and in state senates also will wisely reject unqualified candidates who offer their services as electricians and hair-braiders.
And, yet, progressives are champs at discovering ever-greater numbers of instances in which ordinary men and women allegedly cannot or will not make smart decisions for themselves. What progressives fail to do, though, is credibly explain why the same individuals who are uninformed, impetuous and foolish when choosing privately somehow are filled, when casting political ballots, with the brilliance of Einstein, the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon.
Conservative populists are no better. Suspicious of book learning and disdainful of abstract thought and analysis, these populists have great faith that “leaders” who speak the language of the masses are selfless servants of the masses.
Yet, the masses almost never recognize that much of what their populist leaders do is to override the choices made by each individual in the mass.
An example is President Trump’s tariffs. Chinese producers don’t force their offerings on Walmart. Walmart voluntarily buys goods from the Chinese. It then offers these goods for sale to its American customers because these Americans eagerly buy these Chinese-made goods.
If I — a college professor — were to approach a Walmart shopper and, pointing at the Chinese-made goods in his shopping cart, call him dumb and narrow-minded for spending his money as he does, I would rightly be accused of elitist arrogance. But, when a politician such as Donald Trump does effectively the same thing, that shopper — along with hordes of other folks — somehow hears that politician’s words as praise for his intelligence and as an acknowledgment of his dignity.
And, while I would — again rightly — be imprisoned for thievery were I to steal from this shopper those Chinese-made goods, when populist politicians do effectively the same thing, they are praised by Fox News pundits, and by the shopper himself, as being singularly in touch with ordinary Americans.
Donald Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.