The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

By Bryan Caplan | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

EVIDENCE FROM THE SURVEY OF
AMERICANS AND ECONOMISTS
ON THE ECONOMY

It seems, then, that I am asserting that the conventional
wisdom about international trade is dominated by
entirely ignorant men, who have managed to convince
themselves and everyone else who matters that they
have deep insights, but are in fact unaware of the most
basic principles of and facts about the world economy;
and that the disdained academic economists are at least
by comparison fonts of wisdom and common sense.
And that is indeed my claim.

Paul Krugman, Pop Internationalism1

ECONOMISTS from Smith, Bastiat, and Newcomb to Mises, Blinder, and Krugman maintain that the public suffers from systematically biased beliefs about economics. Are they right? We can judge an argument about, say, comparative advantage, on its own merits. But that is not enough to establish the existence ofa systematic bias. Once you know that economic view X is correct, you still have to verify that, by and large, (a) economists believe X, and (b) noneconomists believe notX. Is it really the case, for example, that economists are more upbeat about the effects of international competition than noneconomists?

These are quintessentially empirical questions. Teaching experience carries some weight: Can economists have been misreading their students for centuries? But personal impressions are not good enough. When psychologists and political scientists talk about bias, they back up their claims with hard data. Economists who want to join the discussion have to do the same.

There are numerous surveys of the economic beliefs of both economists and the general public.2 They broadly confirm the “wide divergence” with which Newcomb maintained “all are familiar.” Take the case of free trade versus protection. A long-running survey initiated by J. R. Kearl and coauthors has repeatedly asked economists whether

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