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

By Bryan Caplan | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

SYSTEMATICALLY BIASED BELIEFS
ABOUT ECONOMICS

Logical minds, accustomed to being convinced by a chain
of somewhat close reasoning, cannot avoid having re-
course to this mode of persuasion when addressing
crowds, and the inability of their arguments always sur-
prises them.

Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd1

In their modern theoretical work, economists look almost uniformly hostile to the view that people suffer from systematic bias. Nearly every formal model takes for granted that whatever individuals' limitations, on average they get things right. The approach that Gary Becker championed is now the norm:

I find it difficult to believe that most voters are systematically fooled
about the effects of policies like quotas and tariffs that have per-
sisted for a long time. I prefer instead to assume that voters have
unbiased expectations, at least of policies that have persisted. They
may overestimate the dead weight loss from some policies, and un-
derestimate it from others, but on the average they have a correct
perception.2

Journals regularly reject theoretical papers that explicitly take the opposite position on methodological grounds: “You can't assume that.” Papers that covertly introduce systematic bias risk being “outed.”3 In a well-known piece in the Journal of Political Economy, Stephen Coate and Stephen Morris worry that other economists are smuggling in the “unreasonable assumptions” that voters “have biased beliefs about the effects of policies” and “could be persistently fooled.”4 Dani Rodrik similarly laments, “The bad news is that the habit of attributing myopia or irrationality to political actors—whether explicitly or, more often, implicitly—persists.”5 Translation: These eminent social scientists are demanding that their colleagues honor the ban on irrationality in deed as well as word.

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