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

By Bryan Caplan | Go to book overview

Introduction

THE PARADOX OF DEMOCRACY

A supporter once called out, “Governor Stevenson, all
thinking people are for you!” And Adlai Stevenson an-
swered, “That's not enough. I need a majority.”

Scott Simon, “Music Cues: Adlai Stevenson1

IN A DICTATORSHIP, government policy is often appalling, but rarely baffling. The building of the Berlin Wall sparked worldwide outcry, but few wondered, “What are the leaders of East Germany thinking?” That was obvious: they wanted to continue ruling over their subjects, who were inconsiderately fleeing en masse. The Berlin Wall had some drawbacks for the ruling clique. It hurt tourism, making it harder to earn hard currency to import Western luxuries. All things considered, though, the Wall protected the interests of elite party members.

No wonder democracy is such a popular political panacea. The history of dictatorships creates a strong impression that bad policies exist because the interests of rulers and ruled diverge.2 A simple solution is make the rulers and the ruled identical by giving “power to the people.” If the people decide to delegate decisions to full-time politicians, so what? Those who pay the piper—or vote to pay the piper—call the tune.

This optimistic story is, however, often at odds with the facts. Democracies frequently adopt and maintain policies harmful for most people. Protectionism is a classic example. Economists across the political spectrum have pointed out its folly for centuries, but almost every democracy restricts imports. Even when countries negotiate free trade agreements, the subtext is not, “Trade is mutually beneficial,” but, “We'll do you the favor of buying your imports if you do us the favor of buying ours.” Admittedly, this is less appalling than the Berlin Wall, yet it is more baffling. In theory, democracy is a bulwark against socially harmful policies, but in practice it gives them a safe harbor.3

How can this Paradox of Democracy be solved? One answer is that the people's “representatives” have turned the tables on them. Elections might be a weaker deterrent to misconduct than they seem on the surface, making it more important to please special interests than

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