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

3.92  ·  Rating Details  ·  772 Ratings  ·  91 Reviews
The greatest obstacle to sound economic policy is not entrenched special interests or rampant lobbying, but the popular misconceptions, irrational beliefs, and personal biases held by ordinary voters. This is economist Bryan Caplan's sobering assessment in this provocative and eye-opening book. Caplan argues that voters continually elect politicians who either share their ...more
Hardcover, 276 pages
Published April 1st 2007 by Princeton University Press
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Sep 03, 2007 Courtney rated it liked it
Since I probably won't finish this book before school starts, I figure I'd put in my review now based on the first few chapters. While I was really excited to see this book come out and feel it's a topic long overdue for a good discussion, I believe Caplan is too smart for his own good.

The premise of the book is that if the average person knows more about economics, our democracy would function better. Caplan contends that systematic anti-foreign, anti-market, pessimistic and make-work biases c
Mike Edwards
Caplan is half right. He explores in some detail why irrationality is inherent to the human condition, and how this necessarily leads voters to make bad decisions. But I have two major problems with the book:

1) Caplan's prime example of how stupid voters are is that voters want to regulate international trade. Certainly free trade is powerful and good, and while I agree with him that protectionist isolation would be very bad, there are reasonable, nuanced, and intelligent reasons that one might
Mike (the Paladin)
Jan 12, 2014 Mike (the Paladin) rated it liked it
Shelves: history, political
Alexis de Tocqueville told us in 1835 that “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.” That's not an exact quote as I've had pointed out to me but it's what the man wrote almost 200 years ago. Or there's: It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public funds (treasury).

Actually to be precise America is not a democracy. We are a Democratic, Constitutional Republic. That said
Aug 16, 2007 Carl rated it it was amazing
Requiring my concentration throughout, this book packs a big payoff in every section. The author presents the economic biases shared by a frighteningly large majority of voters and follows by clearly (although with a lot of empirical evidence) demystifying these biases in a way that makes your brain feel good. Caplan, a Princeton economist, cleaves the difference between the rational way we conduct business in our economic lives and the irrational way we hold political positions on economic issu ...more
Jan 23, 2012 catharine rated it it was amazing
I read this book because ever since Prop 8 passed in California, I have completely lost faith in direct democracy, and started feeling like voting was just opting into a corrupt system of the majority suppressing whatever minority they didn't like. The "We are the 99%" protests rubbed me the same way.

This book confirmed some of my mood, but left me a bit more hopeful.

The author offers an erudite, economist viewpoint that the perception that voting is just like the free market is wrong because
Howard Olsen
Jun 04, 2010 Howard Olsen rated it really liked it
A good look at the harsh reality of political discourse in a democracy. Not only do people lack the time and information to make truly informed decisions, they also suffer from basic analytical fallacies that are readily exploited by politicians on the make. Don't start feeling smug, though. Caplan takes on sacred cows on the Left (protectionism works! globalization = evil!) and on the Right (immigration is bad! deficits = evil) with equal aplomb. As Caplan notes throughout, many economic fallac ...more
Dec 07, 2010 Mike rated it really liked it
This book is all about economics and the amazing differences in beliefs of trained economists and the voting public. The author posits and offers proof that this is why democracies choose bad policies. The book is not about anything other than economics. If you are interested in other, non-economic, irrational beliefs and how they tie in to politics, you won't find it in this book.
Chris Lund
Dec 16, 2014 Chris Lund rated it really liked it
Shelves: economics, politics
I definitely wasn't convinced of the strength of all the arguments in the book, and by the time I got to the end I felt a bit unsatisfied and unresolved, but it was worth the read if for no other reason than it forces you to confront the issue of bad policy decisions in ways that are rarely talked about, and from an angle that is quite different from the typical discussions of these issues. The writing is a level or two above "casual non-fiction reader", and it probably helps to have a bit of an ...more
Jul 31, 2008 Nate rated it liked it
Caplan's general argument is that a majority of voters in democracies (or representative republics) are rationally irrational when it comes to politics. Since the likelihood of one voter's vote being decisive in an election is practically nil, the costs for being wrong (i.e., choosing a candidate whose policies are bad for the nation) are practically nil to the individual voter. This being the case, voters have little incentive to take the time to become informed on political/economic matters. O ...more
Sergei Moska
Aug 30, 2012 Sergei Moska rated it liked it
There's too much here for me to give it less than 3 stars, but Caplan seems to willfully ignore two (related) retorts to this thesis. Two caveats, though. First, I'm not summarizing the (interesting!) argument, so if you haven't read a synopsis of the book, it's possible that none of this will make sense. Second, I'm not writing this with the thought that it "disproves" Caplan. It's just a couple of things that were bugging me.

The first retort is that when he characterizes adherence to politica
Skylar Burris
The Myth of the Rational voter attempts to explain how democracies continue to enact stupid economic policies that are not in the best economic interests of a majority of people. There are two primary reasons: (1) Most voters are ignorant of economics and (2) Even if they are not ignorant of economics, people sometimes value their ideology more than they value prosperity. (Caplan calls this “quasi religion.”)

The book is called The MYTH of the Rational Voter because many have argued that voters
Sep 29, 2015 James rated it it was ok
What's the Churchill line about talking to a voter for 5 minutes and hating democracy? Yeah basically that. But I mean voters are only ever voting. Once elected, MPs can really do whatever they want in congress or parliament. The person who the Dumbies voted in over Smarties does not necessary have to be themselves a Dumbie. More often it means the winning candidate was simply better at pandering to a larger (dumber) audience - which is what liberalised democratic politics has always been about. ...more
Eduardo Santiago
Jan 16, 2011 Eduardo Santiago rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Eduardo by: Dana, 2008-11-13
It's not just ignorance. Not even deliberate (rational) ignorance, or for that matter voter self-interest. It's outright irrationality. Shocked? Me either. But what did surprise me is the resistance that Caplan seems to find to this: it seems economists model people as "rational actors" and are reluctant to change that perception -- or at least to discuss it in mixed company. Elitism is a 4-letter word.

Caplan describes potential fixes, fascinating ones involving markets and education, but that's
Jack Davis
Feb 19, 2011 Jack Davis rated it really liked it
A intellectual book that isn't boring is a rare treat, and Caplan comes through with that in The Myth. Caplan is more than an economist--he discusses psychology, political science, and philosophy in this critique of democracy. His central argument is that voters both lack information (e.g. think foreign aid is a huge part of the budget), and often act irrationally. This combination leads to bad policy outcomes. You don't have to agree with everything he says --(I have a few minor disagreements w ...more
أحمد عكيلة
Dec 19, 2015 أحمد عكيلة rated it really liked it
برغم ان الكتاب أقتصادي لكن الكاتب يتحدث عن انه في الاغلب و في جميع نواحي الحياه الديمقراطيه تخرج عليا بقوانين فاشله فكيف للعوام و الرعاع الذين لا يفهوم شيء في الأقتصاد يخرجون بقوانين ناجحه ؟ يبدا الكتاب او فصل من فصوله بضحد ما يسمى عند مؤيدي الديمقراطيه " معجزة الجموع " وهي ان جموع الناس العاميه التي تريد ان تختار في الانتخابات ستختار بشكل عشوائي بما يأدي ان لا قيمه لأصوتها ( و أصوات العلماء هي التي ستأثر في النتائج )و لكن الكاتب يكشف ان الجموع لا تصوت بعشوائيه و لها طرق في التفكير تختلف عن تلك ...more
Jun 08, 2014 Antony rated it really liked it
This makes the important observation that bad policies are put in place not always because of two faced politicians, but because people don't understand what is truly in their economic interests and demand poor choices (like trade protectionism). But, Professor Caplan, which major political thinker ever argued that the voters were rational? Isn't the entire premise of democracy that *everyone* is flawed and possesses bounded rationality? Open society is about public accountability, and checks an ...more
Jan 07, 2014 Nemo rated it really liked it
A lot of people either love or hate this book, I try to take a less biased approach.
First of all, prepare to drop a lot of your preconceptions from the start, if you do that this will be a much more enjoyable read.
Second, try and check out the writings of the various economists that Caplan references, The Wealth of Nations, Bastiat's various essays and David Ricardo's works can be found online for free.
I will confess, I have always liked statistics, despite all the misuses and abuses they might
Lisa Eves
Dec 04, 2015 Lisa Eves rated it did not like it
Shelves: 3, economics, politics, 2000s
whilst bryan caplan is in general a smug and irritating asshole, it's pretty difficult to disagree with the title.
Jeff Rudisel
Chock full of relevant and obscure and illuminating insights that will knock your socks off!
Jeff Stockett
Jun 15, 2010 Jeff Stockett rated it liked it
Shelves: political
I thought this book was extremely fascinating. He starts out by talking about how very few members of the population understand economics. He then talks about how a small minority can still sway public policy because the assumption is that the irrational and uninformed will essentially vote randomly. So if 99% of voters are irrational then 49.5% will vote one way and 49.5% will vote the other way. The rational 1% can save the day with their vote.

Unfortunately, however, the irrational voters do n
Billie Pritchett
Oct 23, 2015 Billie Pritchett rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics
Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter argues that democracies choose bad policies because democracies' citizens have systematic biases related to economics. The four main biases he identifies are anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias. Here is Caplan in his own words:
[1] anti-market bias [is] a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of the market mechanism...

[2] anti-foreign bias [is] a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of interaction
Oct 27, 2012 Marshall rated it liked it
Really interesting book on the economics of voting. It makes the case that there are systematically biased beliefs among voters who are uneducated about economics, but voting on economic issues: anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias. These biases aren't found among economists and voters who are educated about economics, irrespective of social status. But the interesting, main argument of this book takes this as a premise, and says that it's not just a case of ...more
Oct 22, 2013 Zack rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2013
Synopsis: An explanation of why people consistently vote against their own economic best interests.

Thoughts: My apologies to anyone who had to listen to me talk about this book in the week after I'd finished reading it. I did go on about it, rather, didn't I?

So, I have no formal training in economics. And, I couldn't always follow the thread of his logic. And sometimes I had to suspend judgement as I was reading, thinking to myself—"okay, I'm pretty sure I disagree with you on this point here, b
Dec 31, 2010 Rachael rated it really liked it
Caplan produces much food for thought when he points out that voters have systematic irrational biases that affect their thinking about public policy. He explores what this means for democracy and politics more generally. Some examples of the biases he points out includes a trend toward pessimism (odd considering the world has pretty much done nothing but grown more prosperous for two centuries now), the anti foreign bias, anti market bias, etc. He doesn't explore where these biases come from, b ...more
Jul 17, 2012 Jim rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics, economics
This was a fairly quick read- only 200 pages with a fair number of charts, tables and other data presentations, so it was pretty easy going. The argument is interesting- Caplan essentially claims that voters are systemically biased against policies that pretty much all economists, of whatever political stripe, agree are best (the most obvious example being free trade, which economists have known for centuries makes society better off, but still gets a bad rap from the majority of voters). He not ...more
Oct 19, 2010 Patrick rated it really liked it

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 majo
Max D'onofrio
Aug 25, 2014 Max D'onofrio rated it really liked it
Though maybe it's because Caplan agrees with my own philosophy that too often politicians do what constituents ask and not what is best for them, I found this book week written and thoughtful. It explains some of the basic economic principles that many economists agree on as fundamental and shows how average Americans just don't get it. Though I may not agree with all of his solutions, he raises some very good arguments about the state of government today the though process of modern voters.
Feb 26, 2008 Nicole rated it really liked it
Caplan begins by outlining current theories of voter behavior that emphasize voter rationality + voter ignorance, and lays out persuasive objections to this view. First, he describes and provides empirical evidence for four systematic biases of the general public. He refers to these as antimarket bias, antiforeign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias. He explains that once you take into account the fact that voting is unlike shopping and more like a commons, it makes perfect economic sense ...more
Aleksey Bilogur
Jan 31, 2015 Aleksey Bilogur rated it really liked it
A well-written academic study as-a-book and a copiously sourced attack on the premises of democratic right to rule that should chill the blood of any politically involved reader for all the right reasons. I nonetheless disagree that the consequences of the conclusions he draws are as dire as he thinks they are.

In the end I think Winston Churchill summarized it best:

"No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government exce
Mar 20, 2011 Libby rated it it was ok
I stopped reading this long ago too. I find the premise to be an interesting and believable idea, but found the nitty-gritty study data and statistics too tiresome and I wasn't really THAT interested in them. Probably would be more interesting for someone who studies Econ. I didn't bother to finish reading it, though I did peruse the graphs and charts and some of the data analysis.

Basically the idea is that people vote for bad policies because they don't understand very basic economic principals
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Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He received his B.S. in economics from University of California, Berkeley and his Ph.D. from Princeton University. His professional work has been devoted to the philosophies of libertarianism and free-market capitalism and anarchism. (He is the author of the Anarchist Theory FAQ.) He has published in American ...more
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“Market fundamentalism is a harsh accusation. Christian fundamentalists are notorious for their strict biblical literalism, their unlimited willingness to ignore or twist the facts of geology and biology to match their prejudices. For the analogy to be apt, the typical economist would have to believe in the superiority of markets virtually without exception, regardless of the evidence, and dissenters would have to fear excommunication. From this standpoint, the charge of “market fundamentalism” is silly, failing even as a caricature. If you ask the typical economist to name areas where markets work poorly, he gives you a list on the spot: Public goods, externalities, monopoly, imperfect information, and so on. More importantly, almost everything on the list can be traced back to other economists. Market failure is not a concept that has been forced upon a reluctant economics profession from the outside. It is an internal outgrowth of economists’ self-criticism. After stating that markets usually work well, economists feel an urge to identify important counterexamples. Far from facing excommunication for sin against the sanctity of the market, discoverers of novel market failures reap professional rewards. Flip through the leading journals. A high fraction of their articles present theoretical or empirical evidence of market failure.” 0 likes
“True market fundamentalists in the economics profession are few and far between. Not only are they absent from the center of the profession; they are rare at the “right-wing” extreme. Milton Friedman, a legendary libertarian, makes numerous exceptions, on everything from money to welfare to antitrust: Our principles offer no hard and fast line how far it is appropriate to use government to accomplish jointly what is difficult or impossible for us to accomplish separately through strictly voluntary exchange. In any particular case of proposed intervention, we must make up a balance sheet, listing separately the advantages and disadvantages.” 0 likes
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