The Myth of the Rational Voter, part II

by on April 25, 2007 at 6:30 am in Economics | Permalink

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.

1 tom s. April 25, 2007 at 8:04 am

Does this mean you think voters less rational than consumers? That would be odd.

2 Guyren Howe April 25, 2007 at 8:47 am

I’ve long felt that the main benefit of democracy is not “representing the will of the people”, since this is mostly meaningless. Rather, it is to make it as difficult as possible for the psychotic personalities we call “politicians” to interfere in our lives.

If this thesis is correct, we should perhaps be making *more* public decisions through democratic processes.

3 Tom April 25, 2007 at 9:41 am

“Bryan shows that education is the best predictor of what makes a person think like an economist.”

I wonder if all education is equally weighted in this. I would guess the English, Communication, or Education majors would not think much more like an economist than a HS graduate. Some majors may even provide a step backward.

4 tom s. April 25, 2007 at 10:21 am

Josh – I guess I miswrote.

I didn’t mean it would be odd for voters to be irrational.

Our hosts generally have great faith in the rationality of us in the populace, at least when it comes to our consumer behaviour (see AT’s recent posts on the sub-prime market for example), yet seem to be sceptical of our rationality when it comes to our voting behaviour. It seems to me that this is a contradiction (and therefore “odd”).

5 Anderson April 25, 2007 at 10:41 am

Consumers can be irrational too

Of course we can. Seen any advertisements lately?

Our hosts generally have great faith in the rationality of us in the populace, at least when it comes to our consumer behaviour (see AT’s recent posts on the sub-prime market for example), yet seem to be sceptical of our rationality when it comes to our voting behaviour.

The mistake is to trust in the rationality of consumers.

6 Bernard Guerrero April 25, 2007 at 11:13 am

Possibly of interest given the topic: Tom Sawyer and the Construction of Value

7 Noah Yetter April 25, 2007 at 11:53 am

Does this mean you think voters less rational than consumers? That would be odd.

Why would that be odd? Every economist thinks that. It’s self-evident.

8 tom s. April 25, 2007 at 3:03 pm

sourcreamus – it sounds like you are arguing that there is a lack of information when people vote, not a surplus of irrationality, which is different.

Noah – ditto, I think. Obviously voters are a subset of consumers, so it would be odd to think of them acting rationally in one sphere and irrationally in another. This seems a different claim from the idea that we act with different amounts of information and different amounts of feedback.

9 josh April 25, 2007 at 3:43 pm

“Does this mean you think voters less rational than consumers? That would be odd.”

I’m confused, did you say this backwards?

10 tom s. April 25, 2007 at 4:16 pm

– but Bernard Guerrero’s comment makes sense.

11 jonm April 25, 2007 at 5:43 pm

“I’m not convinced, for instance, that most people make very rational decisions about marriage. Or status goods, or giving to charity.”

Well, there’s a teaser. I’d be interested to hear Tyler’s views on these, especially the last.

12 Alex Tabarrok April 25, 2007 at 8:19 pm

Read the book to find out why its rational for voters act more irrationally than consumers.

Alex

13 Phoebe April 25, 2007 at 8:47 pm

tom s. is right that it’s odd to call voters irrational while believing in their rationality as consumers. the claim is poorly constructed. it should read “it is rational for agents to behave with extreme carelessness when it comes to voting”.

14 sourcreamus April 26, 2007 at 4:30 pm

Having one irrational belief does not mean that the person must have irrational beliefs about everything. Believing in a JFK conspiracy does not mean that one has to believe in leprechauns.
The lack of punishment for irrationality in voters means that they have no incentives to gain information. Lack of information is probably a bigger problem than Caplan thinks but lack of incentives is a much bigger one.

15 Saij May 2, 2007 at 11:09 am

“I wonder if all education is equally weighted in this. I would guess the English, Communication, or Education majors would not think much more like an economist than a HS graduate. Some majors may even provide a step backward.”

Like Marketing Majors …

I fully agree that voters (and consumers, and individuals) are irrational in so far as they don’t think through their decisions far enough. They ARE rational in the short term (based on their beliefs of what is going to happen), but if they had a longer view, they would likely back different choices.

It’s like chess. How far down the line you can see changes what kinds of moves you’re likely to make. Average people (ie, basically all of us) don’t have the capability of seeing far enough down the road, nor of taking into account enough factors, that would allow us to make what would seem (from a purely objective viewer who had all the info) to be a rational choice.

That goes for voters and politicians alike. There is no escaping it. It’s human nature. And neither degrading nor upgrading the level of democracy in a system is likely to make dramatic differences in the level of the overall irrationality in the system.

16 Riskable May 29, 2007 at 2:58 pm

From reading the post and the comments I have a few things to say regarding “economist thinking” and “education”.

What makes an economist’s “way of thinking” any better than that of say, a school teacher’s? When was the last time economists all agreed on something? Supply-side economics seems to be rather popular with politicians these days and yet the past ten years of government-supported laissez-faire capitalism hasn’t “trickled down” much at all to the middle class or the poor. In fact, the gap between the rich and the poor is greater than ever.

So please, if you’re going to reference “an economist’s way of thinking” let us know which economist to use as a frame of reference (e.g. Friedrich Von Hayek or John Maynard Keynes).

Also, just because someone has “been educated” does not mean they are better informed regarding politics. The educated still rely on the quality of the educator. Then there’s the fact that your “education” resides in history, politics resides in the present, and political decisions are measured in the future. An “educated” person could very well be poorly or misinformed regarding any given issue.

We live in an age of subtleties and specialties. The best a voter can do is to vote for the guy who they think will defer to the expertise of others when making decisions, asking questions, or drafting legislation. The politician we should all fear most is the one who always believes he knows best. The voters we should fear are of a similar caliber.

-Riskable
http://riskable.com
“A closed mind cannot open another.”

17 clearthought June 25, 2007 at 1:29 pm

The irrationality of the voters deals much with education. Not only do the news media and the overall spirit of the times play large roles in how the electorate views politics, but its education, or lack thereof, does also. I hope to get my hands on this book soon so I can look at the irrational electorate from a market perspective. Indeed I just blogged about it.

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