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Who will save us from the voters?

Do voters vote for the right things – and for the leaders who deliver the right things? Traditional thinking would suggest that the answer is yes: democracy is a good thing because voters do, by and large, all things considered, vote sensibly. In other words, they are rational beings who vote in their own self-interest. And if that self-interest is the same for voters from all regions and of all ethnic backgrounds, then the country as a whole votes well.

An economist studying the voting patterns of independent Kenya might have good reason to question this assertion. It could be argued that voters, election after election, have voted for leaders who denude them through larceny and retard them through incompetence. We consistently put the wrong people into office. The test of that is the average person’s standard of living, which has hardly changed in real terms for 40-odd years.

So how do we explain this phenomenon? Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University set out to investigate whether voters make rational choices. He has written a book, ‘The Myth of the Rational Voter’, which questions ‘the wisdom of crowds’. Professor Caplan asserts that individual errors of judgement are not cancelled out – they are compounded. “Like moths to the flame”, says the professor, “voters gravitate to the same mistakes”.

Professor Caplan conducted his study by comparing the general American public’s views on economic questions with those of economists and highly educated non-economists. The latter two groups tend to share similar views: the more educated you are, the more likely you are to think like an economist, apparently. But those views are not shared by the great mass of voters, who consistently believe in irrational things.

The Economist magazine highlighted Professor Caplan’s book recently, and focused on four biases that make voters systematically demand policies that make them worse off. The first is an anti-market bias: voters fail to understand how free markets make them better off; second, voters have an anti-foreign bias, which makes them suspicious of immigration and trade; third, they have a ‘make-work’ bias – they equate prosperity with employment rather than production, and consistently vote for ‘job-creation’; lastly they have a bias for pessimism – they consistently think economic conditions are worse than they are.

Sound familiar? We can certainly detect irrational biases in the voters of this country. We believe in government rather than markets, for one thing: the average voter keeps imagining that governments deliver growth and jobs, not the free workings of markets. This makes us yearn for things like price control and government-controlled enterprises, both of which have delivered very little.

As far as hate biases go, we have a surplus. Foreigners, certainly; but also people from other tribes and regions. We revel in dumb stereotypes and ignorant ideas about tribe and race. We equate self-interest with tribal, not national, interest – and so we vote for chieftains and chauvinists. We want jobs in our backyard, not where it makes economic sense to locate them.

Economic pessimism? Oh yes, please! We wallow in it. Economic conditions in Kenya today are an order of magnitude better than they were 10 years ago – but you would be hard placed to gather that from ordinary conversation. We dwell on what hasn’t happened rather than what has. It is almost impossible to get an ordinary Kenyan businessperson to tell you that ‘things are very good’.

These biases have serious consequences. If we believe in silly things, we are more likely to vote for the silly people who promise to deliver them. That is why an election platform that promises tribal supremacy, jobs for the homeboys, government largesse and protectionism will get you into office. All those things cause immense damage to the economy. But we vote for them.

What is to be done? For one thing, you now understand why education is the only thing that will save us. These flawed opinions are caused by narrow-mindedness and smallness of vision. Reading, understanding and openness of mind are needed. In the long run, only getting our average education level up will bring salvation.

What about the here and now? To save us from the common man, Professor Caplan suggests that those who know better need to stand up and say so. Rather than pander to prejudice and ignorance, or wring their hands helplessly, people who have a ‘better’ understanding need to step up and demonstrate it. Bigotry needs to be exposed as weak thinking; chauvinism needs to be shown to be the garbage that it is. In our conversations, discussions and outpourings, we must put forward logical argument and debunk narrow vision.

We also need options. Kenya’s politicians have learned to dance to the voters’ tune rather than lead them out of ignorance. They are busy embedding prejudice rather than shedding it. Kenya’s intellectual wheels have spun in one place for too long. To move forward, more people with bigger hearts and open minds need to offer themselves and explain themselves. They may never succeed, but they must try.

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