The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

By Bryan Caplan | Go to book overview
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The Myth of the Rational Voter was far more successful than I had expected. The real surprise, though, was how reasonable the critics have been. Admittedly, I aimed for broad appeal. From the start, my goal was to transcend disciplinary and ideological boundaries—to find some common ground for people with common sense, and build on it. But I was skeptical that my outreach would be successful. After all, the book does not take a contrarian position in a dry academic debate; it questions the dogmas of the secular religion of democracy, and prods the reader to leave the church.

Apparently, many prominent thinkers were already quietly questioning these dogmas. I half expected the Economist to confess to doubts about voter rationality, but I was shocked when Nicholas Kristof named it “the best political book this year” in the New York Times.1 Most reviews were less enthusiastic, but only a few claimed that voters are rational, or stood up for what I call “popular economic misconceptions.” Although several colleagues at George Mason have criticized my “elitism,” my real mistake was underestimating how fair elite critics would be.

Still, almost every reviewer posed objections—some of which were quite consistent with my thesis, or even implied by it. The Economist was right to joke that “[Caplan's] book is a treat, but he will never win elective office.” I also sympathize with its claim that “Caplan is better at diagnosis than prescription,”2 but I would rephrase the objection. You should not blame the prescription simply because the patient refuses to take his medicine. The Myth of the Rational Voter contains many workable reforms, but due to voter irrationality they are unlikely to be tried.

This does not mean that nothing can be done; the book is not a plea for fatalism. But progress is likely to come slowly, if it comes at all. There is some slack in the democratic system. As the final chapter explains, if you want to push policy in a more sensible direction, you can take advantage of this slack. I know I do: I doubt the voters of Virginia want me to write and lecture against popular misconceptions, but for reasons that remain a mystery, they cut me enough slack to do so.

Another common criticism is that I ignore the symbolic and/or legitimating power of democracy. As Louis Menand writes in the New Yorker,


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