Parliament House, Canberra, lit up at night

How to Address Democratic Apathy

Sociological research shows that the longest established democracies suffer from the greatest level of democratic apathy. This is because people generally distrust their government.

Bryan Caplan explains that democratic voters are “irrational.” They have bought into the idea that economic progress equals employment. Therefore political campaigns focus on scare tactics, telling people they will lose their jobs to refugees, that the poor are draining their taxes or they pit economic stagnation against some other minority group.

This is what Adam Smith calls “the invisible hand.” That is, business and market interests of individualism prevail over common good and social welfare support and equal opportunity for all groups.

Caplan argues that governments and markets can work together better. He takes the pessimism that the public feels about democracy as a reason to balance the contribution of markets against those of governments. This is flawed. First, because it does not tackle the root causes of democratic pessimism. Second, because market forces have been shown to be largely unwilling to pursue collective good. This is slowly changing, as more companies see the value in supporting social causes, particularly as social media makes corporations more accountable for their practices.

Caplan sees that, due to their pessimism, democratic voters make bad choices on social policy. Sociologists would no doubt offer a different course of action, starting with addressing this discontent. But what practices might we use to address voter disenchantment? Remembering that applied social scientists are constrained by real world conditions, overthrowing the government may not be a sound strategy without a clear systemic approach to change.

How else might we help to make the public more empowered about the democratic process?

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