The Myth of the Rational Voter: Lecture by Bryan Caplan

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Image result for the myth of the rational voterFollowing the results of November’s presidential election, I decided to read up on the social science on voter rationality. The first was Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance. The second was economist Bryan Caplan’s Princeton-published The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. Caplan argues that voters are not merely ignorant about economic policy; they are systematically biased in a way that puts them at complete odds with the economic profession. These biases include:

  • Anti-market bias: the public drastically underestimates the benefits of markets.
  • Anti-foreign bias: the public drastically underestimates the benefits of interactions with foreigners.
  • Make-work bias: the public equates prosperity with employment rather than production.
  • Pessimistic bias: the public is overly prone to think economic conditions are worse than they are.

For me, the evidence from surveys regarding the opinions of the public vs. economists was the most illuminating. People overwhelmingly support protectionism. Not only that, “solid majorities of noneconomists think it should be government’s responsibility to “keep prices under control”” (pg. 51). Other examples include:

  • Far fewer economists are concerned about “excessive taxation” than the public.[ref]Most academic economists are moderate Democrats: “Controlling for individuals’ party identification and ideology makes the lay-expert belief gap a little larger. Ideologically moderate, politically independent economists are totally at odds with ideologically moderate, politically independent noneconomists. How can this be? Economics only looks conservative compared to other social sciences, like sociology, where leftism reigns supreme. Compared to the general public, the typical economist is left of center. Furthermore, contrary to critics of the economics profession, economists do not reliably hold right-wing positions. They accept a mix of “far right” and “far left” views. Economists are more optimistic than very conservative Republicans about downsizing or excessive profits—and more optimistic about immigration and welfare than very liberal Democrats” (pg. 82).[/ref]
  • Far fewer economists are concerned about the deficit being “too high” than the public.
  • Few economists think foreign aid spending is “too high”, while a large number of the public does (foreign aid actually takes up about 1% of the federal budget).
  • Few economists think their are “too many immigrants”, while this is a concern for the public.

The list goes on. You can see a lecture by Caplan on his book below.