Bryan Caplan's book is one of the two or three best books on public choice in the last twenty years, do buy it; Greg Mankiw agrees. I am in accord with Bryan's major arguments, namely that voters are irrational (as distinct from merely underinformed) and that this explains the quality of American government. Nonetheless it is interesting to outline residual points of disagreement...
1. Bryan shows that education is the best predictor of what makes a person think like an economist. This will create problems for his next book, which is a critique of education. He also urges professors to teach better; he is again putting his faith in education.
2. I’m amazed that the public is as rational and smart as it is. Few people demand that our leaders resort, say, to the tools of superstition, even though many people believe in astrology. Our political irrationality is highly selective and self-serving in a "feel good about ourselves" way, rather than indiscriminate. I don’t understand what, in Bryan’s theory, prevents voters from satiating in irrationality, with truly dire social consequences. He writes of "a demand for irrationality" in stripped down Beckerian fashion, but the model in the back of his mind has a great more structure in it than the book lets on. The sheep on the cover, for instance, do not play a formal role in the model of the book, even though conformism both eggs on and constrains real world political irrationality.
3. Voters are less irrational in many northern European countries. I don’t agree with their socialistic view of the world, but in epistemically procedural terms they are making a much greater effort to get at the truth and put that truth into their vote. What accounts for such a difference?
4. Bryan comes dangerously close to agreeing with me on broad matters of politics. I think public opinion, for better or worse, is often a constraint on what is possible; that is why Henry Farrell described my view as "big government libertarianism." Bryan sees opinion as a variable to be manipulated, but he could equally well consider it as a constraint. His proposal to take more matters out of democratic hands begs the question of how this could be possible, given current public opinion.
5. Bryan underrates the irrationality of many private decisions. He views "decisiveness" as the most important quality in predicting the quality of an individual choice. I think that even if our elections were up to one decisive voter, that voter would still choose lots of batty policies or politicians. I view pride and self-image as the most important features in predicting the quality of an individual choice. When our pride is at stake, we often self-deceive and make bad and irrational choices, even when we are purely decisive. I’m not convinced, for instance, that most people make very rational decisions about marriage. Or status goods, or giving to charity. In these cases people often "look the other way" when they should be exercising their critical judgment.
Here is the book’s introduction. Note that my criticisms, even if they are correct, do not puncture the major theses of the book.