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Friday, March 7, 2008

Are the Voters Qualified to Pick a President?

The big political buzz is over whether John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are qualified to be president. The voters are expected to decide, but are they qualified to do that? Don’t bet on it.

How would voters know who is up to this job? They might try to make a judgment on the basis of character. But that won’t get them far since most of what they know about the candidates’ characters is the result of the theatrics we call campaigning. Voters get their impressions through the careful efforts of image consultants and media experts who make liberal use of focus groups. (This is nothing new. In the 1840 election, William Henry Harrison was portrayed as a common man familiar with the interiors of log cabins, when in fact he was the son of Virginia’s aristocracy.)

Considering that political platforms consist of unkeepable promises, no candidate should score high in the character category anyway.

But character isn’t the only criterion people use. Competence is another one. Here the theory of representative government really runs into trouble. A president today is expected to “run the economy.” How would voters know if a candidate–any candidate–is competent to do that? Does being a senator, governor, successful business person, or an effective campaigner demonstrate one’s capacity to manage a $15 trillion economy that is really part of a global economy?

To answer that question, the voters would have to know something about economics. Uh-oh.

Most voters know nothing about how markets work–or even that they work–and how government actions tend to sabotage them. As I’ve noted before, Bryan Caplan’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, well documents the widespread ignorance about economic principles. Public-opinion surveys unfailingly demonstrate that most people believe, as articles of faith, that 1) profitable market exchange is a zero-sum activity (one person’s gain is another person’s loss), 2) foreigners bearing goods and services are threats, 3) job preservation is good and job destruction bad, and 4) bad economic news counts more than good economic news. The inconsequential nature of a single vote and the costlessness of casting a feel-good vote guarantee that most individuals will have no incentive to examine their economic biases before voting. (The more highly educated a person is, the less likely he or she is to have these biases.)

Here’s the problem for democratic theory: If most people hold these demonstrably incorrect views, how can they be qualified to elect a president? They have no way to sort destructive or impossible promises from reasonable ones.

As long as presidents have the power to meddle in the economy (which means meddle with us) and are expected to do so, voters ignorant of economics are unlikely to make good decisions. Incompetent voters assure incompetent candidates and officer holders.

Economic Promises

Most of the promises candidates make are about economic matters. Two candidates today promise to obstruct trade across the Mexican and Canadian borders because consumers’ freedom to accept the best offer allegedly has eliminated manufacturing jobs in Ohio. (The candidates of course are not candid enough to blame consumer freedom, but that’s what they mean. Long before NAFTA, Ohio’s manufacturing jobs were jeopardized by free trade and capital improvement within the United States, not to mention onerous government intervention.) Further, we hear candidates promise to make health care, college education, housing, and virtually everything else universal and affordable. And we’re told that more taxes and government spending are the keys to prosperity.

If voters don’t understand markets, economic incentives, and the perverse dynamics of government interference, how can they judge those promises?

The answer is they can’t. Enthusiasts of representative democracy explicitly assume the existence of informed voters. But being truly informed means more than regularly watching the news, reading a newspaper, and browsing the candidates’ websites. It requires more than caring. As long as our economic activities are under the thumb of government, being informed means understanding basic economics–grasping, for starters, the contents of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, Leonard Read’s I, Pencil, and Frederic Bastiat’s What Is Seen and What Is Unseen.

In other words, a truly informed person must understand that no one can be qualified to be president because no one can do what a president is expected and empowered to do.

Until that sort of informed person predominates, I will continue to shudder at get out the vote campaigns.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.