General principles often get lost in political translation. US voters typically oppose free trade – until they go shopping for Chinese electronics. They’re hostile to immigration, but are loyal customers at their Korean corner store. Political theorists put this disconnect down to public ignorance, or a sense of individual powerlessness (especially against giant lobby groups) but American academic Bryan Caplan has another explanation: “Voters are worse than ignorant. They are irrational – and vote accordingly.“
In fact, he believes such voters are “rationally irrational”. In a large democracy, no single ballot paper settles the result, so there’s no point in someone swotting up on the options. As long as voters pay no direct cost for supporting a policy, they’ll call for whichever seems most pleasant or socially respectable. But when there’s a price, the option lightest on the wallet usually wins.
This helps explain why green policies often stall at Westminster, says Mathew Humphrey at Nottingham University. The British tell pollsters that climate change is more important to them than religion, but a recent Times survey found that even greens aren’t willing to fly less. In this way, the fight against global catastrophe is reduced to a clarion call to, um, unplug the mobile-phone charger.
Governments can, of course, impose change and leave it to voters to adjust; Whitehall has launched a big drive for renewable energy that will add thousands to household fuel bills. But for Humphrey, the phenomenon of rational irrationality “makes me pessimistic about the ability of democratic governments to fight climate change”. Caplan is even more pointed: the cover of his latest book depicts the electorate as a flock of sheep.