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

By Bryan Caplan | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

IRRATIONALITY AND THE SUPPLY
SIDE OF POLITICS

First, even if there were no political groups trying to
influence him, the typical citizen would in political
matters tend to yield to extra-rational or irrational
prejudice and impulse….
Second, however, the weaker the logical element in the
processes of the public mind and the more complete
the absence of rational criticism the greater are the
opportunities for groups with an ax to grind.

Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism,
and Democracy1

MY JAUNDICED VIEW of the average voter is the most distinctive feature of my political economy, but it is not the only distinctive feature. Competing for the affection of irrational voters calls for different tactics and talents than competing for the affection of rational voters.2 Voter irrationality reshapes the whole political landscape, from leadership and delegation to propaganda and lobbying.


The Rationality of Politicians

The successful politician instinctively feels what the vot-
ers feel, regardless of what facts and logic say. His guiding
principle is neither efficiency nor equity but electability—
about which he knows a good deal.

Alan Blinder, Hard Heads, Soft Hearts3

What happens if fully rational politicians compete for the support of irrational voters—specifically, voters with irrational beliefs about the effects of various policies? It is a recipe for mendacity. If politicians understand the benefits of free trade, but the public is dogmatically protectionist, honest politicians do not get far. Every serious contender must not only keep his economic understanding to himself,

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