The Myth of the Rational Voter

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Bryan Caplan is an econ prof at George Mason University, and co-writes the nifty EconLog blog with Arnold Kling. He recently authored this book; when it became available at UNH's library, it was a no-brainer to pick up.

Speaking of no-brainer… the book fleshes out the notion hinted at by Robert Heinlein, speaking as Lazarus Long:

Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How's that again? I missed something.
That's not bad for a punchy summary of the book. But note that the title mentions rationality. Bryan's making a very specific, and not particularly judgmental, assertion in that regard: that the voting public makes systematic errors when making decisions that affect public policy. They have biases that invariably pull the polity away from optimality. He illustrates this with examples from economics, where the average voter holds numerous beliefs seriously at odds with mainstream thought.

The book is refreshingly clear of jargon, and its prose is clear, direct, and persuasive. There is a little bit of my least-favorite symptom of academic writing: a slow-motion debate with other peoples' books; these book-discussions can bounce back and forth over decades. ("People! That's why we have blogs now!") But I can live with that.

I was especially impressed with Bryan's ability to read my mind as I was processing through his argument. For example: around page 185, I was quoting Churchill to myself: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." But by page 190, Bryan takes up Churchill and describes why he doesn't find that slogan particularly enlightening. Scary!

But recommended. If you'd like a low-cost taste of Bryan's thesis (and lack access to a decent library), the book is excerpted in the current issue of Reason, and cleverly illustrated on the cover. It's not available at the website as I type, but will be someday.

Last Modified 2024-02-02 5:01 AM EDT