Sunday, July 15, 2007

The rationally ignorant voter

The New Yorker had a review of “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics”, by Bryan Caplan. From what I gather (I only read the review), the book follows a pattern established by Gary Becker - apply the arsenal of economic theory to the analysis of social phenomena typically not considered a part of economics. The results are usually perversely entertaining; this one does not disappoint. It looks into voting, and concludes that, far from being surprising, the apparently irrational outcomes of that system are really not an accident, but rather a logical consequence of the mechanism itself.

clipped from
In other words, it isn’t worth my while to spend time and energy acquiring information about candidates and issues, because my vote can’t change the outcome. I would not buy a car or a house without doing due diligence, because I pay a price if I make the wrong choice. But if I had voted for the candidate I did not prefer in every Presidential election since I began voting, it would have made no difference to me (or to anyone else). It would have made no difference if I had not voted at all. This doesn’t mean that I won’t vote, or that, when I do vote, I won’t care about the outcome. It only means that I have no incentive to learn more about the candidates or the issues, because the price of my ignorance is essentially zero. According to this economic model, people aren’t ignorant about politics because they’re stupid; they’re ignorant because they’re rational.
 blog it

clipped from
“Democracy is a commons, not a market.” A commons is an unregulated public resource—in the classic example, in Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), it is literally a commons, a public pasture on which anyone may graze his cattle. It is in the interest of each herdsman to graze as many of his own cattle as he can, since the resource is free, but too many cattle will result in overgrazing and the destruction of the pasture. So the pursuit of individual self-interest leads to a loss for everyone.
Caplan rejects the assumption that voters pay no attention to politics and have no real views. He thinks that voters do have views, and that they are, basically, prejudices. He calls these views “irrational,” because, once they are translated into policy, they make everyone worse off. People not only hold irrational views, he thinks; they like their irrational views.
 blog it



Blogger Martin said...

YOu really ought to read the book... It's a perfect example of what the right-wing freemarketeers (just add mouse ears and suspenders) want to foist on the country... Know your enemy.

The book is full of illogical and contradictory arguments, mangled terms, cultural prejudice, and a whole lot of other weaknesses. It’s also pretty scary when you really think about what he is arguing for. Like a lot of cloistered academics, he’s hermetically sealed inside his own thinking and theories, and totally unhinged from the real world... past and present. I won’t recap the whole list of objections here... but it’s on my site. (

September 21, 2007 8:04 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home