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The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies Paperback – August 24, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Caplan thinks that democracy as it is now practiced cannot be salvaged, and his position is based on a simple observation: 'Democracy is a commons, not a market.'"--Louis Menand, The New Yorker
"One of the two or three best books on public choice in the last twenty years."--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
"Like a few recent best sellers--Freakonomics, The Tipping Point, The Wisdom of Crowds--The Myth of the Rational Voter unwraps economic theories and applies them to everyday life. Mr. Caplan's thesis, though, lacks any semblance of a compliment: The 'unwisdom of crowds' is closer to his point. He believes that the American public is biased against sensible, empirically proved economic policies about which nearly all economists agree. Voters, he says, are not just ignorant in the sense of having insufficient information. They actually hold wrong-headed and damaging beliefs about how the economy works."--Daniel Casse, The Wall Street Journal
"[P]rovocative."--Elsa Dixler, New York Times Book Review
"The Myth of the Rational Voter usefully extends the discussion [about democracy] by linking it with 'public choice' theory. . . . Public choice theory faces a dilemma. A rational and self-interested person has no incentive to study political issues, as the chances of his or her determining the outcome are negligible. This has become known as 'rational ignorance'. Caplan maintains that the reality is much worse. He shows that voters are not just ignorant but systematically biased in favor of mistaken views."--Samuel Brittan, Financial Times
"Caplan is right to detect a stubborn irrationality in ordinary voters and he correctly points out to his rational choice colleagues that their models are hopelessly unrealistic."--Martin Leet, Australian Review of Public Affairs
"Caplan argues convincingly that irrational behaviour is pervasive among many of us today. . . . Caplan's point, however, is that most voters are irrational. And that is worse than being ignorant. . . . Their irrationality comes with a host of misconceptions that drive policy choices."--Fazil Mihlar, The Vancouver Sun
"This engaging and provocative volume describes why democracy gives us far less than its promise. Countering existing theories of rationally ignorant voters, Caplan argues persuasively that voters are irrational, registering systematically biased beliefs--and consequently votes--against markets and other sound economy policy metrics. . . . [T]his is a compelling book, offering readers a well-written and well-argued competing theory for why democracy fails and why we should limit what is done through the political process."--M. Steckbeck, Choice
"[Caplan] argues that voters' own irrational biases, rather than flaws in the democratic process, compel voters to support policies that are not in their interest. While one may quibble with his specifics, the overall argument is convincing and applicable across a variety of fields...Forces the reader to take a second look at our nation's unshakable faith in the wisdom of the electorate."--Pio Szamel, Harvard Political Review
"A brilliant and disturbing analysis of decision making by electorates that--[Caplan] documents--are perversely ignorant and woefully misinformed."--Neil Reynolds, The Globe and Mail
"Scintillating. . . . Outstanding."--Gene Epstein, Barron's Magazine
"Kudos to Caplan for not wanting to leave well enough alone, but he could have given democracy more credit for diffusing--to the relatively benign act of voting--irrational and reactionary human behaviour that has in the past led to violence and war. In the meantime, it certainly would not hurt for more people to learn about the law of supply and demand."--Adam Fleisher, International Affairs
"Caplan's book is a major accomplishment, which breaks new ground in our understanding of democratic politics and opens up a new research territory for further exploration."--Gene Callahan, Independent Review
"[Persons] who do not grasp the lessons in Bryan's book cannot understand politics as well as persons who do grasp those lessons. Buy a copy. Read it. Ponder it. Learn."--Don Bourdreaux, Café Hayek
Top Customer Reviews
Here, Caplan directly challenges that view by asserting that voters are not simply ignorant but irrational, and that this is in fact predicted by economic theory. 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, and the chance of an individual casting the deciding vote is 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. Caplan explores four systematic biases voters hold against good economic policy - antimarket bias, antiforeign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias. The fact that systematic bias exists means that the irrational majority does not in fact vote at random, so it's the irrational voters deciding who wins elections rather than the small, informed, rational minority. 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.
For example, a voter might vote for a politician who promises to raise the voter's taxes and give their money to the poor. The voter figures that the chances that their individual vote would make the difference between the candidate winning or losing is extremely small; making the cost of the vote effectively zero. However, the psychic benefit of the vote is positive.
Where the author fails is in the chapter where he measures the policy leanings of an artificial "enlightened voter". How he defines an "enlightened voter" is an average voter with the statistical characteristics of one having a graduate degree in Economics. Based on a sophisticated multivariate-regression-based analysis, the author determines that an "enlightened voter" would be predicted to view potential policies more like... an economist! What a surprise!
Caplan asserts that the voting public would support more reasonable policies if they all had graduate degrees in economics. However, there are plenty of Econ PhD's who put too much faith in government policies solving apparent market failures.
The book is well worth reading, and makes many good points regarding the reasons why voters vote for policies that go against their own best interests, and in aggregate against the health of the overall economy. However, it does not make a convincing case that economists should be running the show.
The book mainly consists of the following themes: 1. the history of people's economic misconceptions; 2. empirical evidence of systematically biased beliefs; 3. the "rational irrationality" framework and why systematically biased beliefs lead to democratic failure; 4. prescription for overcoming democracy's weakness.
I think Caplan succeeds pretty admirably in 1, 2 and 3, but he is relatively terse at 4. But this is understandable: if you take his arguments seriously, then unless every voter (or at least the "median voter") has a Ph.D. in economics (in fact, she needs to be a libertarian economist!), the outcome of democracy will not be efficient. Increasing the electorate's education, etc. level will somewhat mitigate the situation, but as Caplan himself proves, this is hardly enough (education is not sufficient to eradicate all systematically biased beliefs).
As to the book itself, it is quite readable. I knew about his work before reading the book, what surprised me was how he mixed it with the history of economics with his own research, with quotes and all.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Interesting and informative. An economists view of why voters do what they do. It doesn't totally explain why we are facing the choices we have for next November but indicates... Read morePublished 8 days ago by E. Cresswell
A great book. Very insightful, especially in light of the fiasco of the 2016 primaries and Presidential election...Published 13 days ago by Daniel Bongard
I enjoyed the booked thoroughly and recommend it. Sure there are times where going over data may have seemed slow but what was written mattered, and would be later used to make a... Read morePublished 4 months ago by Amazon Customer
This is one of those books where reading the book doesn't teach you much more than what you get from the title, like e.g., "The Tipping Point". Read morePublished 4 months ago by Tim Josling
Too dry for my reading..I put it down and never finished it.Published 8 months ago by Marcia Barclay
Honestly one of the best books I've read on public choice economics. Anyone in favor of initiatives like "rock the vote" will probably not like Caplan's conclusion but his... Read morePublished 8 months ago by Ryan Hayes
The best thing about this book is that it's analysis dose not rely on a particular version of democracy, From first past the post to ballot draw the devastating critique of human... Read morePublished 11 months ago by vincent
An excellent deconstruction of democratic fundamentalism. This book outlines the manner in which poor policies can be generated by an electorate in defiance of rational choice... Read morePublished 12 months ago by Duriel