Religions thrive when disestablished. ~The Economist

Most of my post is not about this quote, but it was a strange statement and deserved some brief comment.  Some religions thrive when disestablished, while many disestablished religions simply fade away.  Just consider the examples of the Episcopalians, the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians…the list could probably go on.  Religions may or may not do reasonably well under pluralistic, disestablished conditions.  If you take the diversity of religions as evidence of the “thriving” of Religion, disestablishment can only contribute to such “thriving.”  Yet there is no guarantee that the previously established religion will thrive at all.  Indeed, it might weaken and collapse.  It is certain to suffer losses to increased competition and the loss of incentives and state supports, so to speak, that kept its membership at a certain level.  Saying “religions thrive when disestablished” is a bit like saying “monopolies thrive when they are broken up.”   

Now, on to the main subject.  Lexington this week is talking about Bryan Caplan’s “The Myth of the Rational Voter.”  I have my own problems with Caplan’s argument, which tends to identify rationality with a tendency to agree with economists on policy questions.  My view is that this is about as desirable as having voters follow the recommendations of the foreign policy establishment on foreign policy questions.  The ignorance of voters is extremely frustrating and it is at the heart of why mass democracy is a very poor type of regime.  However, foreign and trade policies offer perfect examples of how deference to the expertise of technocrats does not yield the best or wisest policies, but simply yields the policies preferred by the technocrats and the interests they represent.  These happen to be policies that prove to be fairly unpopular with large parts of the population, and they are also policies that appear to the reasonably well-informed voter to be foolish and irrational in their own right.   

I suppose I would like to publish a book in which I argue that voters are irrational unless they agree with the foreign policy prescriptions of Byzantine historians (who better than a student of Byzantium, after all, to guide the foreign affairs of the state with advice on diplomacy and war?), but for some reason I think people might see a flaw in this sort of thinking.  There is no way for someone to disagree with the expert without demonstrating his supposed “irrationality.”  The game is rigged, which is just the way experts like it.   

When Caplan talks about voter “irrationality,” he mostly means voter ignorance and perhaps voter prejudice.  His complaint is not really that voters are actually irrational, but that they do not have a sufficiently solid grasp on complex systems, particularly when it comes to economics.  Because of voter “ignorance” about alleged benefits, say, of free trade or immigration, they are said to have an “anti-foreign bias,” but what this bias actually represents is very often an entirely different set of priorities and values that cannot be tabulated by the economist.  If economic growth were the only good and the only concern of voters with respect to trade or immigration policy, Caplan might have a point about this “bias.”  However, the picture is often complicated by many factors, political, legal and cultural, that are not connected to economic questions at all.  It is the mistake of economists (and the libertarians who love them) to think that voters are hopelessly confused about these matters simply because they come to significantly different conclusions about policy.  Voters may be misinformed about the economics of trade and immigration, and they may not, but many of them are opposed to certain trade or immigration policies for reasons that go beyond the merely economic.