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

By Bryan Caplan | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

BEYOND THE MIRACLE OF AGGREGATION

I am suspicious of all the things that the
average citizen believes.

H. L. Mencken, A Second Mencken Chrestomathy1

What voters don't know would fill a university library. In the last few decades, economists who study politics have revitalized age-old worries about the people's competence to govern by pointing out that— selfishly speaking—voters are not making a mistake. One vote has so small a probability of affecting electoral outcomes that a realistic egoist pays no attention to politics; he chooses to be, in economic jargon, rationally ignorant.2

For those who worship at the temple of democracy, this economic argument adds insult to injury. It is bad enough that voters happen to know so little. It remains bearable, though, as long as the electorate's ignorance is a passing phase. Pundits often blame citizens' apathy on an elections' exceptionally insipid candidates. Deeper thinkers, who notice that the apathy persists year after year, blame voters' ignorance on lack of democracy itself. Robert Kuttner spells out one version of the story:

The essence of political democracy—the franchise—has eroded, as
voting and face-to-face politics give way to campaign-finance plu-
tocracy … [T]here is a direct connection between the domination
of politics by special interest money, paid attack ads, strategies
driven by polling and focus groups—and the desertion of citizens.
… People conclude that politics is something that excludes them.3

Yet the slogan “The solution for the problems of democracy is more democracy” sounds hollow after you digest the idea of rational ignorance. Voter ignorance is a product of natural human selfishness, not a transient cultural aberration. It is hard to see how initiatives, or campaign finance reform, or any of the popular ways to “fix democracy” strengthen voters' incentive to inform themselves.

As the rational ignorance insight spread, it became an intellectual fault line in the social sciences. Economists, along with economically minded political scientists and law professors, are generally on one

-5-

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