Jim's Reviews > The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan
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's review
Nov 29, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: economics, politics

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 notes that higher educational attainment is the primary determinant of "rational" voting (not specifically economics education, though) and that voters are not apt to be self-interested in their choices(in other words, they will choose candidates who espouse policies they believe to be best for society, irrespective of whether they believe those policies make them personally better off). Caplan's argument, though concise, is methodical, empirical and thorough, though he makes liberal use of citations rather than presenting every supporting study in the book.

Ultimately, Caplan concludes that the combination of several systemic biases among the voting populace and the tendency of voters not to be self-interested actually results in a political class that does not generally act in society's best interests, which we all pretty much suspect. Of course, Caplan believes, along wit most economists, that markets are better suited to serve society's interests than is government, even a democratically elected one, so his conclusions are likely annoy all but economic libertarians. Which is fair, but it's worth reading the book even if you're inclined to disagree, because he explores every objection along the way, and doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room for convenient arguments. His main opponents, in his view, are those who take the approach that the electorate is "rational" in some sense, and he draws quite a bit on behavorial economists like Thaler. However, I suspect that Caplan takes Thaler's points even further than Thaler would like, claiming that while biases might occur in markets, they also occur in government, where they can do more damage due to the concentrated power government wields. It was also enjoyably written for the layman, with very little jargon and no need to understand any higher math.

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