The Myth of the Rational Voter

For years, I have intermittently written about the problems with governmental elections. Whether it be political crusading, voter registration, popular voting, third parties, controlled schizophrenia, biased pluralism, or compulsory voting, the fact of the matter is that Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations and predictions about American democracy were chillingly accurate. Once mainstream political scientists and economists begin to agree with me yet disagree with mainstream Americans and “activists” alike, then I think serious reflection is in order so as to determine who is really telling the truth here.



An examination into the merits of democracy is long overdue. The author begins by outlining the purpose of his work:


“This book develops an alternative story of how democracy fails. The central idea is that voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational – and vote accordingly…[a] critical premise of this book is that irrationality, like ignorance, is selective…[t]his book has three conjoined themes. The first: Doubts about the rationality of voters are empirically justified. The second: Voter irrationality is precisely what economic theory implies once we adopt introspectively plausible assumptions about human motivation. The third: Voter irrationality is the key to a realistic picture of democracy.”


Rational ignorance has been a mainstay within political science, yet Brian Caplan’s idea of “rational irrationality” sounds less oxymoronic when you understand he is distinguishing it out by emphasizing that such irrationality is selective, which would tentatively explain the formation of the left-right paradigm. He continues:


“The Miracle of Aggregation proves that democracy can work even with a morbidly ignorant electorate. Democracy gives equal say to the wise and the not-so-wise, but the wise determine policy…[t]he Miracle only works if voters do not make systematic errors… [t]o undermine the Miracle of Aggregation, this book focuses on the empirical evidence that voters’ beliefs about economics are systematically mistaken…[t]he reason why I emphasize economics is that it is at the heart of most modern policy disputes. Regulation, taxes, subsidies – they all hinge on beliefs about how policy affects economic outcomes…[b]iased beliefs about economics make democracy worse at what it does most. Understanding these biases is therefore important not just for economists, but for everyone who studies politics.”


Such a Miracle, as Caplan points out, fails to justify democracy simply because the voters are not just economically illiterate, but also prejudiced. It is chiefly due to this reality that there is government failure – no global or elitist conspiracy needed, but rather, willful bigotry lays bare the foolishness of majority rule.

What are these prejudices that render the blessings of democracy inert? According to Caplan, there are four biases by voters about economics that leads them to make systematic errors, thereby undermining the Miracle of Aggregation and thus the viability of democracy itself. They are:

  1. Anti-market bias, defined as “a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of the market mechanism.”
  2. Anti-foreign bias, defined as “a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of interaction with foreigners.”
  3. Make-work bias, defined as “a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of conserving labor.”
  4. Pessimistic bias, defined as “a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the (recent) past, present, and future performance of the economy.”

Obviously, the tendency for voters to underestimate the economic benefits of the market mechanism, interaction with foreigners, conserving labor, the performance of the economy, and to overestimate the severity of economic problems, suggests to my mind that voters are strongly predisposed towards central planning. Although these bigotries leads voters to adopt ideologies like socialism and fascism, they can also discourage them from adopting anything in particular through the fallacious appeal to moderation, so by the end of the day, they become wonderfully tolerant of authoritarianism.

Each of these biases deserves a more thorough examination. Regarding anti-market bias, Caplan says:


“The public has severe doubts about how much it can count on profit-seeking business to produce socially beneficial outcomes. They focus on the motives of business, and neglect the discipline imposed by competition. While economists admit that profit-maximization plus market imperfections can yield bad results, non-economists tend to view successful greed as socially harmful per se.”


In other words, socialists demonize the price system while misconstruing creative destruction as if it were a market failure. Without spontaneous order, dispersed knowledge couldn’t reach those entrepreneurs who can make the best use of it for their own self-interest. Given that the free market is the organic sum of all voluntary human action, then whatever survival capability and quality of life individuals enjoy is only possible because of it, not in spite of it, as the latter case is with Leviathan. Caplan continues:


“Popular metaphors equate foreign trade with racing and warfare, so you might say that antiforeign views are embedded in our language. Perhaps foreigners are sneakier, craftier, or greedier. Whatever the reason, they supposedly have a special power to exploit us.”


Xenophobia has been a nearly universal hallmark feature of humanity, as suspicion is routinely aimed not so much at those whose behavior is criminal, but whose appearance is unlike our own. The hope of multiculturalism had once been that by coming to terms with the variety of skin colors, fashions, and hairstyles, mankind could evolve to the point where pluralism would be the norm, yet this goal has been hijacked by the social justice equality freaks for their own sensationalistic victim-playing. Moving on from anti-foreign bias, Caplan describes make-work bias:


“The public often literally believes that labor is better to use than conserve. Saving labor, producing more goods with fewer man-hours, is widely perceived not as progress, but as a danger…[w]here noneconomists see the destruction of jobs, economists see the essence of economic growth – the production of more with less.”


Simply put, voters believe that unnecessary busy work is valuable, even when there is existing technology that can improve productivity by several degrees of magnitude. While propagandized fears about technological obsolesce by documentarians like Peter Joseph reinforce anti-market bias, the sheer hatred of technological innovation is what is truly at the root of make-work bias, and it is the foundation for both the corporate fascist oligopolies as well as the socialist public fool system. Caplan detailed pessimistic bias thusly:


“Pessimism about the economy exhibits the same structure. You may be pessimistic about symptoms, overblowing the severity of everything from the deficit to affirmative action. But you can also be pessimistic overall, seeing negative trends in living standards, wages, and inequality. Public opinion is marked by pessimism in both of its forms. Economists constantly advise the public not to lose sleep over the latest economic threat in the news. But they also make a habit of explaining how far mankind has come in the last hundred years, pointing out massive gains we take for granted.”


If anything, this specific bias acts as the driving force behind doom porn. For all of the shrieks about socio-economic collapse, so many “predictions” have come and gone, yet Americans can still use Federal Reserve Notes for trade. Caplan observes that:


“Antimarket bias, antiforeign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias are the most prominent specimens. Indeed, they are so prominent that one can hardly teach economics without bumping into them. Students of economics are not a blank slate for their teachers to write on. They arrive with strong prejudices. They underestimate the benefits of markets. They underestimate the benefits of dealing with foreigners. They underestimate the benefits of conserving labor. They underestimate the performance of the economy, and overestimate its problems.”


Whether they be voters specifically or the public generally, Americans seem to be culturally filled with anti-economic prejudice, and this is reflected in the makeup of American democracy as it is practiced today.

Politically, how are those who falsely imagine themselves to be our rulers able to seize and maintain their grip on coercive power? Caplain said:


“The electorate’s blind spots open loopholes for politicians, bureaucrats, and the media to exploit. But if the public was working against its own interests in the first place, the welfare effect of ‘exploitation’ is ambiguous. Faith in leaders is the clearest example. Its dangers are obvious – picture a charismatic sociopath, or a ‘rally round the flag’ effect that reelects an incompetent incumbent. But political faith also allows leaders – if they are so inclined – to circumvent their supporters’ misconceptions. Faith creates slack, and slack in the right hands leads to better outcomes. All you need are leaders who are somewhat well intentioned and less irrational than their followers.”


Therefore, a Machiavellian approach to democracy by a legislator, sheriff, or judge can truly set the stage for establishing a democratic Prince, of sorts. If such a Prince can be molded by his public relations staff to pander most effectively to the prejudices of his electoral base, then his ability to wield power as a ruler within a democracy can be performed virtually unchallenged – so long as his actions are portrayed as being within the realm of constitutional limitations, statutory codes, and administrative rules, even if in truth, they are not.

Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies is a more detailed look into the phenomenon of democratic failure. As Caplan aptly put it:


“The analogy between voting and shopping is false: Democracy is a commons, not a market. Individual voters do not ‘buy’ policies with votes. Rather they toss their vote into a big common pool. The social outcome depends on the pool’s average content…[d]emocracy lets the individual enjoy the psychological benefits at no cost to himself…[d]emocracy overemphasizes citizens’ psychological payoffs at the expense of their material standard of living.”


No wonder Caplan became an anarchist – I think many people would opt to live within a culture where they would rather buy things individually rather than cast their bet into a gambling pool and then see how good their luck happens to turn out this week. Once I had watched Caplan’s 2009 lecture at the Metropolitan State College of Denver’s School of Business, I realized that this was a book I was willing to move up my own queue of books to review, and thankfully, my decision was not disappointing. If you care about the evolution of human liberty, then you owe it to yourself to truly comprehend the implications of democracy, both good and bad, in order to determine whether you think that the very best humanity can do is to live amongst many rulers and their concomitant special interest cronies.

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