The average voter and other insults

G J Boris Allan

Winston Churchill was a propagandist who knew the power of a stereotype, and one of his famous witticisms is:

The biggest argument against democracy is a five-minute discussion with the average voter.

The source of the quote is not usually given, and so there are many slightly different versions of the same upper-crust, supercilious quip, but all assume there is an average voter with whom one could converse. Churchill was a politician who felt superior to the average voter because he knew he had opinions of value. Of course, less illustrious individuals (such as myself) might feel that five-minute discussions with our political representatives (average or not) could provide a better argument against our present version of democracy and its elective processes.

The average person will probably interpret an “average voter” as being an “ordinary voter”: statisticians, however, know the average voter is some percent female and some percent male, usually more female than male, with an average (fractional) number of children – note that the average voter is not the same as average person, though both the average voter and the average person are transgender (though the former is more female than the latter). This silliness about averages assumes that everybody in a group has exactly the average attributes of that group, so that everybody has the same favourite food, preferred singer, support for capital punishment, or whatever (the “ecological fallacy” in statistics). In essence, an average gives us one point of reference to describe the whole group, where the point of reference could be statistical and precise (say, the average income of a group) or anecdotal and imprecise (say, politicians cannot be trusted) – in either case it could be worthless.

To simplify our use of language we all use stereotypes, and stereotypes rely on forms of averages that are more often anecdotal and are often imprecise – I have just given a stereotype of stereotypes. Stereotypes are much beloved of ideologues, because the content of the language we use about things determines to a large extent how we think about those things (that is, language structures thought). Ideologically-constructed stereotypes, such as “They hate us because we love freedom”, exist to simplify language, in order to economize on thought and to sell an ideological position – in this case, two stereotypes for the price of one, both anecdotes of less than stellar precision.

Churchill was an expert ideologue and propagandist, so there is a difference of intent between ordinary stereotypes such as “Kids today are too cheeky” (the average kid today is too cheeky), and Churchill’s ideological stereotype of the average voter. To state that “Voters are too unintelligent” is an insult to all voters, whereas “the average voter” is always somebody else, because nobody is average – but we can, however, usually think of somebody else who is an average voter, and who fits the bill. Cleverly, Churchill made the point that voters are ignorant, and were not able to comprehend the true importance of political issues, but in doing so he did not insult any particular individual or the electorate at large. Henry Kissinger, however, deliberately insulted many voters, but it did not matter because the voters he insulted were not US American:

I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.

This statement was Kissinger’s justification for his support of the Pinochet regime in Chile after the overthrow of Allende. In 1973, the democratically-elected Chilean president, Salvador Allende, was deposed (and killed) by military forces lead by General Augusto Pinochet, and then there were no Chilean voters about whom the US government need worry, because there was no Chilean democracy. Kissinger was sure that he and Nixon knew what was best for the people of Chile, even though the average Chilean voter (most Chileans?) might not agree. If Kissinger had made a similar elitist comment about US voters, in all likelihood he would have had a difficult time keeping his job, but it was Chile, it was Communism, so who cared? In a later justification, he writes:

At the time, others, including the leaders of Chile's democratic parties, viewed Salvador Allende as a radical Marxist ideologue bent on imposing a Castro-style dictatorship with the aid of Cuban-trained militias and Cuban weapons. This was why the leaders of Chile's democratic parties publicly welcomed – yes, welcomed – Allende's overthrow. (They changed their attitude only after the junta brutally maintained its autocratic rule far longer than was warranted by the invocation of an emergency.)

— Henry Kissinger, “The Pitfalls of Universal Jurisdiction: Risking Judicial Tyranny”, Foreign Affairs (July/August, 2001)

Kissinger did not trust ordinary Chilean people, but trusted Chilean politicians and Chilean military officers, and he knew with certainty the future of Chile with Allende. Did he see the killing of Allende as a trivial incident in changing that future?

Kissinger’s cavalier view of the importance of the opinions of people in countries under US hegemony is similar to Churchill’s view that Indians could not be trusted, and indeed they were blessed to be under the British Raj:

At present the Government of India is responsible to the British Parliament, which is the oldest, the least unwise and most democratic parliament in the world. To transfer that responsibility to this highly artificial and restricted oligarchy of Indian politicians would be a retrograde act. It would be a shameful act.

— Winston Churchill, 1931

And he continued in the same vein. Of course, the British Parliament was not as wonderful as Churchill claimed, and Indian politicians were not all as venal as claimed, but it was the Indians who were insulted not his fellows. In addition, not only did both Kissinger and Churchill want to maintain their country’s hegemony, but also both feared the spectre of Communism – they needed the Communist threat (or similar) to justify withholding people’s rights.

It takes somebody who is not a politician to be rude about the average voter in one’s own country, unless that politician does not have to be reelected:

It is fairly easy to figure out what the average voter believes.

— Bryan Caplan, “The myth of the rational voter”, CATO Unbound, 6 November 2006.
[Perhaps, more accurately, “what voters believe, on average”?]

The central idea is that voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational – and they vote accordingly.

— Bryan Caplan, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies”, CATO Policy Analysis Series (594), 29 May 2007.

These ideas also appear in Caplan’s 2007 book of a similar name.

An avowedly elitist economist, affiliated with a libertarian organization (CATO) that is not in the mainstream of economics, Caplan is in a Churchill-like “kettle, pot, black” position. If it were true that there were such things as average voters and average economists (and all economists in agreement) then perhaps other statements issued as truths might make sense:

People do not grasp the “invisible hand” of the market and its ability to harmonize private greed and the public interest. I call this anti-market bias.

If voters base their policy preferences on deeply mistaken models of the economy, government is likely to perform its bread and butter function poorly.

It takes hours of patient instruction to show students the light of comparative advantage. After the final exam, there is a distressing rate of recidivism.

— Bryan Caplan, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies”, CATO Policy Analysis Series (594), 29 May 2007.
[Perhaps Caplan should consider why his students ignore his teachings once they are no longer being tested on his lectures?]

It is easy to stereotype an average voter (or an average economist), and just as easy to refer to “mistaken” models of the economy without saying why those models are mistaken. The existence (and consequences) of the “invisible hand” are often in dispute.

Caplan tries to dress up his ideas with statistical-like notions – distributions, regressions, and so forth – but, in essence, he is saying the same thing as Churchill and Kissinger (making the same elitist simplifications), and falling into the ecological fallacy. Suppose, on average, voters trust neither politicians (60% distrust) nor economists (60% distrust) – does this mean that 60% of individual voters distrust both politicians and economists? Look at this totally imaginary Trust table:

5% 35% 40%
35% 25% 60%
Total 40% 60% 100%

Of those who distrust politicians, a majority still trust economists; of those who distrust economists, a majority still trusts politicians; and only 25% of the total distrust both politicians and economists. In correlational terms, there is a negative correlation between trusting politicians and trusting economists for people in this group. If there were, say, three groups with average trust levels of 60%, 65%, and 70% (for both politicians and economists), there would be a perfect positive ecological correlation between trusting politicians and trusting economists, whereas correlation at the individual level might be negative in one or more of the groups.

Caplan is at one with Churchill in his opinion of the average voter, but he lacks Churchill political acumen where economics is concerned. Talking about people’s ignorance of economics, Churchill said:

One may even be pardoned for doubting whether institutions based on suffrage could possibly arrive decisions upon the intricate propositions of modern business and finance. ... In fact, it would probably safe to say that nothing that is popular and likely to gather a large number of votes will do what is wanted and win the prize which all desire.

You cannot cure cancer by a majority. What is wanted is a remedy. How to get it? That is the grim question, and neither the electors nor their representatives are competent to answer it.

— Winston Churchill, “Parliamentary government and the economic problem”, in Thoughts and Adventures, 1932 (reprinted 1990). [This was the Romanes lecture at the University of Oxford, 19 June 1930.]

Churchill did not trust the average economist, so at various places and times he suggested that economic advice should come from an politically independent source. He suggested an appointed panel of economists (perhaps a sub-Parliament) who would debate things such as the “invisible hand”.

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