The Myth of the Rational Voter – Bryan Caplan (2007)

The Myth of the Rational Voter

The Myth of the Rational Voter gives you a pretty good idea of the contents from the title… Caplan is an economist at George Mason University, and his book argues that in most cases voters can afford to be irrational in their policy preferences because there’s so little personal cost. (As opposed to consumer behavior where you face the consequences of your actions fairly directly). Your one vote will very rarely make a big difference, so essentially you can vote based on your beliefs without influencing the outcome.

He’s arguing against the notion that voters act in their self-interest, in part because they are often confused about what would actually be in their self-interest; and it’s not that they are ignorant of the facts, it’s more that they’re confident in their systematically biased beliefs (and have little incentive to challenge their own beliefs).

Caplan’s argument runs on the basis of some of what he states to be economic ‘truths’ which are not well grasped by much of the general populace, leading to systematic bias in belief: antimarket bias, antiforeign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias. He claims (and I think it’s generally true) that economists are in agreement that these biases are errors (acknowledging lots of exceptions). By voting based on these biases, voters favor policies that may not work well at all.

So, as his subtitle (‘Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies’) indicates, he’s arguing that politicians are in a bind; they must give the voters what they want, but the voters often want poor policies. If they implement poor policies, they’ll probably lose their jobs sooner or later, so politicians find ways to implement other policies sometimes (and break promises) without making all the voters mad.

It’s an interesting argument, and one that mostly makes sense to me. Now it may be that democracy is still the best solution available, but it does raise some questions worth asking (such as what other biased beliefs do most people hold?).

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  • Jim  On August 16, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Does he give any examples of what he considers “bad policies” that have been implemented due to the irrational voters?

    My opinion is “a” voter can be quite irrational, but “voters” – 125 million+ in the U.S. – reach quite rational conclusions in most cases. Are there exceptions? Certainly. But it is a rare occurence, which is why our country has lasted as long as it has and as successfully as it has.

  • Curt  On August 17, 2007 at 9:33 am

    Caplan is actually not very specific about the ‘bad policies,’ but here’s what I imagine he has in mind from his section on the economic biases.

    1. Anti-market bias leads to greater reliance on government action/regulation rather than attempting to use markets where appropriate.
    2. Anti-foreign bias leads to ‘too much’ protectionism, tariffs, resistance to open trade, immigration restrictions.
    3. Make-work bias leads to government action to prevent change in the economy – bail-outs of various kinds.

    I agree with you that there is a certain amount of ‘cancelling out’ of offsetting bias when you take the whole population of voters into account. And sooner or later voters tend to realize that certain policies are just not working well – I’d venture to say that welfare reform in the 1990s was a case of that.

    Here are a couple interesting cases where the politician goes against the desires of supporters (ones I’ve thought of, not in the book):
    1. Clinton fighting for NAFTA – many Democratic voters were opposed.
    2. Bush’s views on immigration – most of the base seems to disagree with him here.

  • Jim  On August 20, 2007 at 9:18 am

    I have thought this post through and come to the following conclusions:

    1. His argument re voters has some validity.

    2. A republican style of government with representatives was established in the U.S. to offset this. All it requires is politicians whose primary interest is the country, and they will correct bias’ that gets through the voting system.

    3. The real problem is with our “lifetime” representatives whose goals become very personal and take precedence over the countries needs, and therefore they pander to the voters allowing negative policies.

    4. Maybe term limits is not such a bad idea!

    5. He should write another book titled:

    “Why republican governments choose bad policies”

    That would be much more to the point!

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