Bryan Caplan is irrational

That’s how he knows so much about the American voter, this week at Cato Unbound.  His research (likely to be one of the top books for next year) outlines the claim that voter irrationality is the fundamental force behind bad policy.  Unlike the well-known theories of "rational ignorance," Bryan stresses that the irrationality is willful rather than the result of simple misinformation.  That makes the problem harder to dislodge.

So what are Bryan’s remedies?

Above all, relying less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets.  By and large, we don’t even ask voters whether we should allow unpopular speech or religion, and this "elitist" practice has saved us a world of trouble.  Why not take more issues off the agenda?  Even if the free market does a mediocre job, the relevant question is not whether smart, well-meaning regulation would be better.  The relevant question is whether the kind of regulation that appeals to the majority would be better.

Another way to deal with voter irrationality is institutional reform.  Imagine, for example, if the Council of Economic Advisors, in the spirit of the Supreme Court, had the power to invalidate legislation as "uneconomical."  Similarly, since the data show that well-educated voters hold more sensible policy views, we could emulate pre-1949 Great Britain by giving college graduates an extra vote.

I don’t think those reforms would work, if only because voter irrationality has to be given enough free play so that it doesn’t explode or boil over into a more fundamental revolt.  (Matt Y notes: "Voting and legislatures aren’t a very good mechanism for generating knowledge, but they at least serve as peaceful mechanisms for resolving coflicts of interest, which are simply endemic in the policy arena.")  In addition Bryan is legislating policy or procedural outcomes by fiat, rather than explaining how they might come about through the (irrational) status quo.

My idea?  Voter irrationality often makes American policy, especially foreign policy, more magnanimous than it otherwise would be.  And truly rational voters simply would not show up at the polls, thereby ruining democracy. 

So we need voter irrationality, although we should seek to improve its content. (Note also that many good policies are based on irrational voter views, such as the belief in meritocracy.)  Irrationality is what keeps us going, and that is why Bryan Caplan, like American democracy, is so extremely productive. 

Addendum: Greg Mankiw wants fewer people to vote.  Here is my previous post on whether or not you should vote.


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