The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan is a excellent, forceful writer, and this book is the audio equivalent of a page-turner. It is quite discomfiting to listen to, since it is a book full of well-argued criticisms of something you’re not meant to criticise: democracy.

As with a lot of Caplan’s writing, the book is packed full of insights that you’d never quite put your finger on but sound obvious once you hear them. For example, there is a great section that neatly demolishes the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis (more below).

One thing that struck me throughout is that in a key respect the book is mis-titled. Caplan argues that voters are uninformed, and are rational to keep themselves uninformed since they have such little chance of personally affecting the outcome of any election — they might as well just vote in a way that makes them feel good. This, he argues, leads them to vote too altruistically, for policies that don’t make sense from the perspective of their own self-interest.

But this picture crucially has a rational voter at the center — one who quite rationally keeps themselves uninformed. So the book should be titled The Myth of the Informed Voter. That’s less catchy, though: no one thought voters were that informed to begin with.

(Note that usually people hold the opposite of Caplan’s two views above: it’s common to think that voters should pay more attention to policy than they do, but that they end up voting in their own self-interest in either case!)

I think the weakness of the book is that Caplan assumes that altruistic voting is in general bad, since it comes with costs that no individual actually wants. To me this sounds like an excellent outcome: democracy imposes a structure where people end up voting altruistically instead of in their own interest — what a great system for producing social benefits and positive externalities!

At least that’s what I told myself to come out of the book with my dogmas intact…

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