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

By Bryan Caplan | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

FROM IRRATIONALITY TO POLICY

A jaded old statehouse reporter noticed my astonishment
and offered some perspective on the unruly behavior of
the elected representatives. “If you think these guys are
bad,” he said, “you should see their constituents.”

William Greider, Who Will Tell the People?1

IRRATIONAL VOTERS open up novel ways for democracy to fail—counterintuitive to economists, but perhaps common sense to others. For example:
People might blame all their troubles on harmless scapegoats, and rally to politicians who persecute them.2
Irrational voters could “kill the messenger” of bad news, giving politicians an incentive to paper over problems instead of facing them. Histories of the savings-and-loan bailouts often appeal to this mechanism.3
Citizens of a wealthy, well-fed nation may vote for a candidate who warns of imminent starvation unless the Fatherland acquires more Lebensraum.4

There are parallels with a classic philosophical paradox.5 Recall the story of Oedipus. Oedipus wanted to marry Jocasta. Jocasta was Oedipus' mother. But Oedipus did not want to marry his mother: He put out his own eyes when he found he had. Similarly: The median voter wants protection. Protection makes the median voter worse off. But the median voter does not want to be worse off. The efforts of both Oedipus and the median voter backfire due to their false beliefs. For Oedipus, the false belief is that Jocasta is not his mother; for the median voter, the false belief is that protectionism is good for the economy.

Economists have spent more time criticizing the public's misconceptions than precisely explaining how they cause bad policies. They take the connection largely for granted. For Bohm-Bawerk, bad policies virtually imply public confusion: “The legal prohibitions of interest may, of course, be taken as evidence of a strong and widespread

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