- Paperback: 296 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press; Revised edition edition (19 September 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691138737
- ISBN-13: 978-0691138732
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.9 x 23.5 cm
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #4,10,226 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Myth of the Rational Voter – Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies – New Edition Paperback – 19 Sep 2008
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"The best political book this year."--Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times "Caplan thinks that democracy as it is now practiced cannot be salvaged, and his position is based on a simple observation: 'Democracy is a commons, not a market.'"--Louis Menand, The New Yorker "One of the two or three best books on public choice in the last twenty years."--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution "Like a few recent best sellers--Freakonomics, The Tipping Point, The Wisdom of Crowds--The Myth of the Rational Voter unwraps economic theories and applies them to everyday life. Mr. Caplan's thesis, though, lacks any semblance of a compliment: The 'unwisdom of crowds' is closer to his point. He believes that the American public is biased against sensible, empirically proved economic policies about which nearly all economists agree. Voters, he says, are not just ignorant in the sense of having insufficient information. They actually hold wrong-headed and damaging beliefs about how the economy works."--Daniel Casse, The Wall Street Journal "[P]rovocative."--Elsa Dixler, New York Times Book Review "The Myth of the Rational Voter usefully extends the discussion [about democracy] by linking it with 'public choice' theory... Public choice theory faces a dilemma. A rational and self-interested person has no incentive to study political issues, as the chances of his or her determining the outcome are negligible. This has become known as 'rational ignorance'. Caplan maintains that the reality is much worse. He shows that voters are not just ignorant but systematically biased in favor of mistaken views."--Samuel Brittan, Financial Times "Caplan is right to detect a stubborn irrationality in ordinary voters and he correctly points out to his rational choice colleagues that their models are hopelessly unrealistic."--Martin Leet, Australian Review of Public Affairs "Caplan argues convincingly that irrational behaviour is pervasive among many of us today... Caplan's point, however, is that most voters are irrational. And that is worse than being ignorant... Their irrationality comes with a host of misconceptions that drive policy choices."--Fazil Mihlar, The Vancouver Sun "This engaging and provocative volume describes why democracy gives us far less than its promise. Countering existing theories of rationally ignorant voters, Caplan argues persuasively that voters are irrational, registering systematically biased beliefs--and consequently votes--against markets and other sound economy policy metrics... [T]his is a compelling book, offering readers a well-written and well-argued competing theory for why democracy fails and why we should limit what is done through the political process."--M. Steckbeck, Choice "[Caplan] argues that voters' own irrational biases, rather than flaws in the democratic process, compel voters to support policies that are not in their interest. While one may quibble with his specifics, the overall argument is convincing and applicable across a variety of fields...Forces the reader to take a second look at our nation's unshakable faith in the wisdom of the electorate."--Pio Szamel, Harvard Political Review "A brilliant and disturbing analysis of decision making by electorates that--[Caplan] documents--are perversely ignorant and woefully misinformed."--Neil Reynolds, The Globe and Mail "Scintillating... Outstanding."--Gene Epstein, Barron's Magazine "Kudos to Caplan for not wanting to leave well enough alone, but he could have given democracy more credit for diffusing--to the relatively benign act of voting--irrational and reactionary human behaviour that has in the past led to violence and war. In the meantime, it certainly would not hurt for more people to learn about the law of supply and demand."--Adam Fleisher, International Affairs "Caplan's book is a major accomplishment, which breaks new ground in our understanding of democratic politics and opens up a new research territory for further exploration."--Gene Callahan, Independent Review "[Persons] who do not grasp the lessons in Bryan's book cannot understand politics as well as persons who do grasp those lessons. Buy a copy. Read it. Ponder it. Learn."--Don Bourdreaux, Cafe Hayek
From the Back Cover
"Caplan offers readers a delightful mixture of economics, political science, psychology, philosophy, and history to resolve a puzzle that, at one time or another, has intrigued every student of public policy."--N. Gregory Mankiw, Harvard University, former chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers
"Why democracies so often make a hash out of economic policy is one of the great questions of political economy. Bryan Caplan suggests some provocative, and highly original, answers. This book may make you smile or it may make you scowl, but it will definitely not make you bored."--Alan S. Blinder, Princeton University
"The Myth of the Rational Voter discredits the fashionable view that democratic politics necessarily prevents socially harmful policies. Voters lack incentives to become well informed about political controversies, Bryan Caplan shows, and their policy choices tend to be based on deeply, persistently, and systematically mistaken models of reality. Caplan's findings lead inexorably to the conclusion that democratic governance can be improved only through reforms based on realistic assumptions about human cognition. Anyone concerned about political efficiency should read this elegant book carefully."--Timur Kuran, author of Islam and Mammon
"Bryan Caplan blends economics, political science, and psychology in an arresting and informative polemic that is witty, crisp, cogent, provocative, and timely. You may or may not agree with his assessment of our democracy, but you will be entertained, challenged, and perhaps angered, but also enlightened."--Scott Keeter, Pew Research Center
"The argument Caplan offers is basically right and is extremely important. I suspect this book will stir up a certain amount of controversy. The argument challenges conventional public choice in that it radically undermines the notion of substantively rational voting. At the same time, it is in the same skeptical tradition as public-choice orthodoxy, challenging the claims of democratic enthusiasts. It is a book that deserves to be taken very seriously."--Geoffrey Brennan, coauthor of The Economy of Esteem
"Poorly informed voters are a big problem in democracy, and Caplan makes the interesting argument that this is not necessarily a problem that can be easily fixed--it may be fundamental to the system. Caplan thinks that voting itself is the problem."--Andrew Gelman, Columbia UniversitySee all Product description
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Caplan talks like an economist when describing this phenomenon. He claims that irrationality is IN DEMAND and is essentially costless, so we get a lot of it.
Caplan provides two lines of evidence to support his thesis. First, Caplan cites the fact that people make SYSTEMATIC errors (not just random errors) which suggests something more than simple ignorance is at fault. Second, Caplan provides anecdotal evidence of groups of people who are perfectly rational when it comes to their profession or something that affects their well-being, but who revert to irrational belief as soon as there are no consequences for doing so.
Caplan's thesis is interesting insofar as it directly contradicts the "rational ignorance" hypothesis put forth by public choice theorists like James Buchanan etc. Whereas Buchanan states that voters are ignorant because it's not worth the expense or effort to acquire more information, Caplan claims that voters are outright irrational and enjoy entertaining absurd or vehement opinions.
This book is good but it has several drawbacks, as follows. 1) The book does not include enough evidence to support its main contention; it includes some empirical evidence but that evidence is not definitive. 2) The last few chapters of the book are filled with meandering thoughts which are less interesting and are not fully supported. It seems like Caplan ran out of material (he laid out his full thesis in the first half of the book) and so filled in the rest of the book with filler.
Overall, though, I give the book 5 stars because it has a novel hypothesis which is reasonably well argued.
This argument has several implications. I'll mention five of them: (i) State capture is not the main culprit of the many problems of democracy. The answer is elsewhere, in the misconceptions and systematic ignorance of the people, (ii) the most damaging (and pervasive) trait of politicians is demagoguery, (iii) people tend to hate markets, to deny progress, to misunderstand creative-destruction, and to blame foreign trade for almost all bad outcomes, (iv) "voters have a visceral dislike for candidates who seem intellectual, let alone try to make the electorate do arithmetic", and (v) economists are tragic heroes who dare say what nobody wants to hear. They may sound callous, but are never hypocritical.
This is a good book. Some would say it is too simplistic. Others may suggest it suffers from academic elitism. But all in all the book is compelling. Not as a general theory of democratic failure, but as an eloquent defense of sensible politicians and economists who try to promote good policies against the false beliefs and erroneous misconceptions of the masses.