The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan

The Myth of the Rational VoterIn honor of the election, and considering how busy I have been, a reprint of an earlier, very short review I wrote (somewhat edited):

Many people have noted that democracy seems not to work—policies are implemented that often are not in the best interest of voters, and when voters are surveyed they routinely lack even the most basic civic knowledge. The way people have typically dealt with this problem is to say that voters are uninformed, and that if they simply had more access to good information, they would use that information to make better choices. But even so, the tiny informed minority will sway elections because the uninformed majority will vote at random, splitting 50/50 and cancelling itself out.

Here, Bryan Caplan directly challenges that view by asserting that voters are not simply ignorant but irrational. Voting is not like shopping—it is more like making use of a commons, because the costs of a “bad” vote are borne by the public at large, due to the chance of an individual casting the deciding vote being so tiny. Therefore, people will vote for what makes them feel good without bothering to find out whether it really is good—it simply doesn’t matter. Expressive voting brings private benefits without much private cost, and the expressive votes turn out not to cancel each other out because rather than voting randomly, the public has systematic biases that skew expressive votes toward certain policies. Caplan explores four systematic biases voters hold against good economic policy: antimarket bias, antiforeign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias. Voters get what they want, it’s just that what they want is actually bad for them—and they don’t care!

Caplan makes a persuasive case for viewing the average voter as irrational rather than simply ignorant, though admittedly I am sympathetic to this idea to begin with. I wish he had been able to include more recommendations in his conclusion, but this should be a promising area for further research. Highly recommended for anyone who wonders “why democracies choose bad policies.” Unfortunately, the answer is that it’s pretty much inevitable.

3 comments to The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan

  • So are the voters in the end actually rational? Additional investment in information would not bring additional (private) benefits.

    Maybe the only irrational thing they do is bother to vote. Except that since they do it, they must think it’s beneficial, so they are, in fact, rational.

    This is all very entertaining stuff.

  • Voting is irrational, in expected value terms, if you limit that to financial value. So it is rational to vote if the consumption (expressive) value you get from it is greater than or equal to the opportunity cost. And it is also rational not to expend any effort on becoming more informed—this is why most people address the problem of “rational ignorance” instead.

    The part where irrationality comes in is in the expression itself—voters are expressing irrational preferences, whether it be “I’d like to have a beer with him” or “I’m a protectionist because I love America.”

    I admit it: I was irrational enough that I voted this election. But I won’t encourage others to do the same.

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