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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
Caplan, an associate professor of economics, believes that empirical proof of voter irrationality is the key to a realistic picture of democracy and, thus, how to approach and improve it. Focusing on how voters are systematically mistaken in their grasp of economics-according to Caplan, the No. 1 area of concern among voters in most election years-he effectively refutes the "miracle" of aggregation, showing that an uninformed populace will often vote against measures that benefit the majority. Drawing extensively from the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy, Caplan discusses how rational consumers often make irrational voters, why it's in politicians' interest to foment that irrationality, what economists make of the (non) existence of systematic bias and how social science's "misguided insistence that every model be a 'story without fools,' " has led them to miss the crucial questions in politics, "where folly is central." Readers unfamiliar with economic theory and its attendant jargon may find themselves occasionally (but only momentarily) lost; otherwise the text is highly readable and Caplan's arguments are impressively original, shedding new light on an age-old political economy conundrum.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"The best political book this year."--Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times
"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
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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.
Caplan talks like an economist when describing this phenomenon. He claims that irrationality is IN DEMAND and is essentially costless, so we get a lot of it.
Caplan provides two lines of evidence to support his thesis. First, Caplan cites the fact that people make SYSTEMATIC errors (not just random errors) which suggests something more than simple ignorance is at fault. Second, Caplan provides anecdotal evidence of groups of people who are perfectly rational when it comes to their profession or something that affects their well-being, but who revert to irrational belief as soon as there are no consequences for doing so.
Caplan's thesis is interesting insofar as it directly contradicts the "rational ignorance" hypothesis put forth by public choice theorists like James Buchanan etc. Whereas Buchanan states that voters are ignorant because it's not worth the expense or effort to acquire more information, Caplan claims that voters are outright irrational and enjoy entertaining absurd or vehement opinions.
This book is good but it has several drawbacks, as follows. 1) The book does not include enough evidence to support its main contention; it includes some empirical evidence but that evidence is not definitive. 2) The last few chapters of the book are filled with meandering thoughts which are less interesting and are not fully supported. It seems like Caplan ran out of material (he laid out his full thesis in the first half of the book) and so filled in the rest of the book with filler.
Overall, though, I give the book 5 stars because it has a novel hypothesis which is reasonably well argued.
The book was written long before the era of Donald Trump, but it is striking how much of the analysis can be applied to explain his electoral success.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Well written almost airtight case in favor of voter irrationality as an approach to political economy.Read more