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The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why…

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (2007)

by Bryan Caplan

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3461148,896 (3.84)9
"Caplan argues that voters continually elect politicians who either share their biases or else pretend to, resulting in bad policies winning again and again by popular demand. Calling into question our most basic assumptions about American politics, Caplan contends that democracy fails precisely because it does what voters want. Through an analysis of American's voting behavior and opinions on a range of economic issues, he makes the case that noneconomists suffer from four prevailing biases: they underestimate the wisdom of the market mechanism, distrust foreigners, undervalue the benefits of conserving labor, and pessimistically believe the economy is going from bad to worse. Caplan lays out several ways to make democratic government work better… (more)



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Shows how were all doomed, democracies don't work.
There's lot of non intuitive nuggets, in this book that I didn't know before.
The only downside is that it reads like a research paper (lots of quoted material, in depth analysis of research performed on the subject). I would have preferred a book full of anecdotes. ( )
  scottkirkwood | Dec 4, 2018 |
whilst bryan caplan is in general a smug and irritating asshole, it's pretty difficult to disagree with the title. ( )
  lisaeves | Nov 1, 2015 |
To Dr. Feulner, A rational man in an irrational society. Best Wishes, Bryan Caplan
  efeulner | Mar 28, 2014 |
Weaves a number of things together in coming up with an interesting theory for why people don't vote rationally. Education/Ignorance, low cost of voting the wrong way, emotion-driven biases against sound economic policies like free trade/markets, labor saving, etc. are the main culprits. Argument well-supported in my view ( )
  pjeanne | Nov 13, 2011 |
The freakonomics of democratic choice

My acquaintance Arnold is a successful independent treasury consultant with an income to match. Arnold even thinks he makes money too easily, and sometimes votes for the Socialist Party, a fringe party with old-fashioned ideas about taking money from “the rich” to distribute it among “the common men”. Still, Arnold uses every trick available to reduce his income tax bill.

The coming national elections here in the Netherlands are all going to be about the latest economic crisis and the sustainability of the welfare state. The event seemed good enough a reason for an upgrade of my knowledge of political economy, and this book delivers. It answers questions about voters’ understanding of economics, how it affects their choices in the voting booth, and how politicians deal with the outcome.

Starting point of the book is that people with PhD’s in economics know best what works for macro-economic management. This seems like a rather bold statement given the current state of the economy, which followed the adoption of classical policies by institutions like the Federal Reserve. Mr. Caplan sees this in broad terms however. He takes efficiency as the sole basis for choice, and then looks at certain biases like an anti-market bias, a pessimistic bias, an anti-foreign bias, and an overvaluation of hard work by the American public (somewhat unfortunately, Mr. Caplan’s book mainly uses examples from the United States, making his book less applicable to the other 94% of us on the globe). Most of these issues are indeed generally accepted and covered in most under-graduate courses in economics. The book also quotes research that people who are generally better informed about society think more like these PhD’s, as are highly educated people, people with high income growth or job security, and males.

Mr. Caplan then uses classical micro-economic reasoning to explain that not only ignorance but also irrationality about what is best for the economy are perfectly rational approaches for voters. The reason is simple: given how little importance an individual vote has in the outcome of elections, the choices of people like Arnold go without costs. Empirical studies have found that people do not vote with their wallet in mind. Voters choose parties that they think have the best policies for the nation. They may also vote for emotional reasons, or to belong to a certain group. There is little need to adjust the mental security blanket offered by an ineffective world view in this matter. People can be irrational as long as the consequences are limited.

The author also looks on how this affects the supply side of policy. Although most issues of public policy have a strong economic component, economists only play a secondary role in determining government politics:

to get ahead in politics, leaders need a blend of naïve populism and realistic cynicism. No wonder the modal politician has a law degree. (…) The electoral process selects people who are professionally trained to plead cases persuasively and sincerely regardless of merit.

And even if a politician knows “the best policy”, they will have to strike a balance between the irrational preferences of the masses and his own ideas. He cannot however fully ignore efficient policies, as the electorate can vote him out of office in the next elections. Vague solutions, with the tough part delegated to agencies can be a solution in this case. ( )
1 vote mercure | Jun 6, 2010 |
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A supporter once called out, "Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!" And Adlai Stevenson answered, "That's not enough, I need a majority." --Scott Simon, "Music Cues, Adlai Stevenson"
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In a dictatorship, government policy is often appalling, but rarely baffling.
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Summer zephyr blows.
Dumb laws grow, as predicted
by Public Choice school.


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