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

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  1,856 ratings  ·  191 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, 288 pages
Published May 6th 2007 by Princeton University Press (first published April 1st 2007)
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Mirkat Yes. Public libraries. They are an awesome resource! You can borrow the book for free, read it, and then return it when you are done with it.

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Writing a book that says voters are misinformed and make bad decisions is not as hard a sell as it might have been in 2007. This may have been a book designed to provoke as much as it is to advance an argument.

Caplan, an economist at George Mason whose most recent book is on the societal benefits of more immigration, has a bone to pick with some of the older economic explanations of voter behavior. Specifically, he attacks Anthony Downs' book “An Economic Theory of Democracy” and more broadly pu
Jul 31, 2007 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
Jason Furman
May 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I was blown away when I read The Myth of the Rational Voter when it came out in 2007. Re-reading it more than a decade later I had much the same feeling. Bryan Caplan argues that voters make systematic errors when they vote about economic issues. The result, he argues, is that expanding voting and the scope of what gets decided by votes results in sub-optimal outcomes. His conclusions are to some degree grounded in a wide literature in politics, economics, social psychology, and other fields but ...more
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
Jan 03, 2021 rated it really liked it
Are voters rational? (Are all humans rational in all aspects of their lives?) Bryan Caplan perfectly illustrates how voters are uninformed, they dont want to be informed, no incentives, and as a consequence they vote and support bad policies.
I enjoy his writing style and have been reading his blog since the 2010s.
Dec 05, 2010 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. ...more
Sep 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Taking on both public choice economics and democratic fundamentalists, economist Bryan Caplan brilliantly demonstrates that people's voting habits are riddled with systematic errors (biases) that result in irrational economic policies (e.g., economic nationalism). He grounds his claims on literature from a wide selection of fields, ranging from politics to economics to psychology. His most interesting conclusion is that irrational beliefs and their attendant voting habits persist because people ...more
Bryan Caplan is becoming one of my favourite economists.
Sergei Moska
Aug 30, 2012 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
Jan 08, 2011 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
Jul 30, 2007 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 08, 2021 rated it did not like it
After reading Caplan's other book on Education, I didn't have high hopes for this one, but even with low expectations I still felt let down. Even though I am staunchly anti-Libertarian, I read this book as an attempt to open my mind to new ideas and because I enjoyed the data presented in Caplan's other book (even if I disagreed with the conclusions he drew from it). However, this book was a mess. The writing style is not engaging, Caplan repeats himself again and again, and so much in it is jus ...more
Oct 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook, sociology
Caplan argues that the average voter is often not only uninformed but systematically biased in their judgement. He heavily draws on data of the Survey of Americans and Economists about the Economy, showing that the "enlightened" public, i.e. those that for example can tell the name of their senator, are in general very close to the opinion of economists. (I'm not sure how strong this argument is, I'd have preferred some data on successful predictions made by the class of economists versus laypeo ...more
Daniel Hageman
"A wise man learns more from a fool, than a fool learns from a wise man. By closing their eyes to fools and folly, the wise men of social science have artificially hobbled the advance of their own learning." ...more
Jan 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2018-2-stars
I am not an "economist," but according to Bryan Caplan, I can be defined as a part of the “enlightened public” because I have a Master’s degree (4.0 GPA in education from UMass Boston). I have also been living under the American poverty line as an American-born citizen for the last three years (not by choice or any lack of effort to obtain a living wage). Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University and touts a Ph.D. from Princeton University (also the publisher of this book, wh ...more
Oct 29, 2021 rated it really liked it
This book's main claim is that voters are not the rational "homo economicus" assumed by simple econ models, but instead have predictable and system biases, which seems clearly true. Honestly, I would guess most economists would agree with this as well.

Where it gets more interesting is in the specifics. Caplan points out that if humans make bad decisions every day of the week, there's no obvious policy implications, and decisions will unavoidably be worse. By contrast, if humans make good decisio
Alexander Velasquez
This book will probably haunt me until the day I die. It will haunt me before I sleep, and it will haunt me when I wake. It is a chilling analysis of why democracy, as we know it in America, does not work. It doesn't work because most people are irrational voters. People are irrational voters because they vote on their preconceived biases about the economy, foreign policy, etc. And their biases are mostly wrong because they're uneducated about these matters, and the educated elites that are educ ...more
Alex Zakharov
May 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Let’s start with the bad news - democracy works! The good news is that luckily for the populace it is marginally subverted by the interest groups and politicians. That’s right kids - the brilliant cover with mesmerized sheep is more charitable to the voters than the brief volume that follows it – at least sheep can accidently stumble upon a good idea... The famous miracle of aggregation that is supposed to cancel out random errors of judgment and thus save democracy from stupid decisions of unin ...more
Mike (the Paladin)
Jan 07, 2014 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
Chris Lund
Dec 05, 2014 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
Howard Olsen
Jun 04, 2010 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
Jan 18, 2022 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, cambridge
I feel like I need to preface this with a disclaimer that I absolutely do not endorse any of the voting policies that this book suggests. I disagreed with a lot of the book and thought there were a lot of flaws and gaping holes in his arguments. But it was interesting and challenged a lot of my viewpoints, even if it didn’t change them. So I'm giving it 1.5 stars on how much I agree, and 4 stars on whether or not it was a book worth reading and thinking about, even if most of my thinking was dis ...more
Jan 26, 2021 rated it liked it
The Myth of the Rational Voter : Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (2007) by Bryan Caplan is an interesting but flawed book that posits interesting models of how people vote and how poorly they understand economics and how this impacts democracies. Caplan is a professor of economics at GMU.

Caplan puts forward a fascinating view about voting, namely that people are well aware that their vote doesn’t really matter and so choosing a politician with foolish policies actually costs very little. To
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
Jurij Fedorov
May 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Very enjoyable and recommendable.


About trade between borders and how voters will want to stop this trade because they don't understand basic economics. Also, he answers the question of the rational consumer. If economics assume that the consumer is rational. Then how come the voter is irrational? Doesn't he pay for a product with his vote? Not really. He pays for the bragging rights and the right to belong to his ingroup. His vote by itself won't make him pay less tax. But telling all his fr
Jul 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
An excellent economics/politics/psychology book. Author presents a coherent model for why people can (rationally) vote stupidly — basically, because it makes them feel good. Also extensively analyzes why people in their role as the electorate can have objectively irrational beliefs without hurting themselves too much, and why policies end up less bad than the electorate would otherwise demand.
Aug 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics
An interesting behavioral economics view of voting. Caplan goes over how voters are systematically biased to oppose social welfare maximizing economic policy and how the self-interested voter hypothesis is misguided.
Michal Lukáč
Oct 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ciprian Bujor
Dec 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A very good book for those naïves who still have faith in human group intelligence and those who think that the existing voting system is representing the real will of the people
Jul 30, 2008 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
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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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