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

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

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

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


The greatest obstacle to sound economic policy is not entrenched special interests or rampant lobbying, but the popular misconceptions, irrational beliefs, and personal biases held by ordinary voters. This is economist Bryan Caplan's sobering assessment in this provocative and eye-opening book. Caplan argues that voters continually elect politicians who either share their biases or else pretend to, resulting in bad policies winning again and again by popular demand.

Boldly calling into question our most basic assumptions about American politics, Caplan contends that democracy fails precisely because it does what voters want. Through an analysis of Americans' voting behavior and opinions on a range of economic issues, he makes the convincing case that noneconomists suffer from four prevailing biases: they underestimate the wisdom of the market mechanism, distrust foreigners, undervalue the benefits of conserving labor, and pessimistically believe the economy is going from bad to worse. Caplan lays out several bold ways to make democratic government work better--for example, urging economic educators to focus on correcting popular misconceptions and recommending that democracies do less and let markets take up the slack.

The Myth of the Rational Voter takes an unflinching look at how people who vote under the influence of false beliefs ultimately end up with government that delivers lousy results. With the upcoming presidential election season drawing nearer, this thought-provoking book is sure to spark a long-overdue reappraisal of our elective system.


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. 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,” 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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