This story is clearly comforting, but is it correct? In The Myth of the Rational Voter , my forthcoming book with Princeton University Press, I review a large body of evidence and conclude that the answer is definitely no. Like moths to the flame, voters gravitate to the same mistakes. There is convincing evidence that the public holds systematically biased beliefs about toxicology and cancer.
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This story is clearly comforting, but is it correct? In The Myth of the Rational Voter , my forthcoming book with Princeton University Press, I review a large body of evidence and conclude that the answer is definitely no. Like moths to the flame, voters gravitate to the same mistakes. There is convincing evidence that the public holds systematically biased beliefs about toxicology and cancer. For their debate to make sense, both sides have to claim knowledge about a what the average voter believes, and b which belief is true.
It is fairly easy to figure out what the average voter believes. High-quality surveys abound. The most straightforward is to compare voter beliefs to known fact. We can ask voters to tell us the fraction of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid, and compare their average answer to the actual number. Studies that use this approach find that the average voter has some truly bizarre beliefs. The main drawback of this approach is that many interesting questions are too complex to resolve with an almanac.
But there is another mirror to hold up to public opinion. We can track down people who are unusually likely to know the right answer, see what they think, then check whether the public agrees. Who might these unusually-likely-to-know people be?
The most obvious candidates are experts. Is this an infallible test? No; experts have been wrong before. But it is hard to get around the strong presumption that if experts and laymen disagree, the experts are probably right, and the laymen are probably wrong. More importantly, if you have some specific reason to doubt the objectivity of the experts, you can control for it.
This was precisely the approach that I used to analyze the best available data set on economic beliefs, the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy.
The overarching finding: Economists and the public hold radically different beliefs about the economy. When laymen see business conspiracies, economists see supply-and-demand. When laymen see ruinous competition from foreigners, economists see the wonder of comparative advantage. When laymen see dangerous downsizing, economists see wealth-enhancing reallocation of labor. Controlling for income, income growth, job security, gender, and race only mildly reduces the size of the lay-expert belief gap.
And, since the typical economist is actually a moderate Democrat, controlling for party identification and ideology makes the lay-expert belief gap get a little bigger. From one perspective, we should have expected these findings all along.
Economists preserve this tradition to this day when they teach undergraduates, write for popular audiences, or talk amongst themselves.
In recent decades, however, economic research has built on the contrary assumption that the beliefs of the average voter are true. Political scientists have often criticized economists for assuming that voters are selfish. Before we can infer that the policies that are best for society will actually prevail, however, we have to add the very assumption I am challenging: that the beliefs of the average voter are true.
Consider the case of immigration policy. Economists are vastly more optimistic about its economic effects than the general public.
Given what the average voter thinks about the effects of immigration, it is easy to understand why virtually every survey finds that a solid majority of Americans wants to reduce immigration, and almost no one wants to increase immigration. Unfortunately for both Americans and potential immigrants, there is ample reason to believe that the average voter is mistaken.
Needless to say, I do not expect any prominent politicians to read this and publicly change their position on immigration. Democracy is a popularity contest. If the average voter believes that less immigration is best for society, democracy rewards politicians who oppose immigration.
This does not necessarily mean that elected officials cynically pander to the prejudices of the public. Our leaders might have gotten to the top of the political game because they sincerely share popular prejudices. Most of the economic misconceptions that we see today were already well-known in the time of Adam Smith.
In my book, however, I argue that rational ignorance has been oversold. Rational ignorance cannot explain why people gravitate toward false beliefs, rather than simply being agnostic.
Neither can it explain why people who have barely scratched the surface of a subject are so confident in their judgments — and even get angry when you contradict them. My view is that these are symptoms not of ignorance, but of irrationality. In politics as in religion, some beliefs are more emotionally appealing than others.
For example, it feels a lot better to blame sneaky foreigners for our economic problems than it does to blame ourselves. But why are there some areas — like politics and religion — where irrationality seems especially pronounced? My answer is that irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap. In contrast, if you underestimate the benefits of immigration, or the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, what happens to you?
Even when his views are completely wrong, he gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price. Unfortunately, the social cost of irrationality can be high even though it is individually beneficial. If one person pollutes the air, we barely notice; but if millions of people pollute the air, life can be very unpleasant indeed. When individual choices in markets have harmful social side effects, most people want to do something to about it.
In the case of pollution, for example, economists usually want to tax emissions, and non-economists want to set emission standards. So what remedies for voter irrationality would I propose? Above all, relying less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets. Why not take more issues off the agenda? Even if the free market does a mediocre job, the relevant question is not whether smart, well-meaning regulation would be better. Another way to deal with voter irrationality is institutional reform.
I suspect that these — and other! Unfortunately, there is a catch The majority is unlikely to vote to reduce the power of the majority. Still, milder versions of these reforms might slip through the cracks. The public has largely ceded control of monetary policy to professional economists; perhaps the public would be willing to defer to expert judgment on some other areas as well.
In a similar vein, although the majority is unlikely to approve plural votes for college graduates, it does allow the well-educated to exert extra influence by virtue of their higher turnout rate.
In the end, though, the catch means that institutional reform is unlikely to be a very effective check on voter irrationality. What else is there? And to be blunt, if the average voter holds irrational beliefs that lead him to support bad policies, using political slack to mitigate the damage seems like the right thing to do.
The Supreme Court may be the best example of a political body with a lot of slack. Justices serve for life, and it takes a constitutional amendment to overturn their decisions. This suggests — and history confirms — that they have significant power to improve upon democratic outcomes. If the Court has the chance to rule on the constitutionality of legislation inspired by anti-market misconceptions, why not overturn it for violating due process, or the Ninth Amendment, or the Tenth Amendment?
Of course, I do not expect the Supreme Court to revive Lochner anytime soon. At least as far as economics is concerned, the current justices basically accept the idea that they should defer to majoritarian wisdom. And obviously, they are not alone. The prevailing view even among the well-educated is that it is unseemly to question the competence of the average voter.
As long as elites persist in unmerited deference to and flattery of the majority, containing the dangers of voter irrationality will be very hard. Someone has to tell the emperor when he is naked. My final remedy for voter irrationality, then, is for people who know more than the average voter to stop being so modest. When experts and those who heed them address a broader audience — in the media, in their writings, or in a classroom — they need to focus on the questions where experts and the public disagree, and clearly explain why the experts are right and the public is wrong.
But if the public is as irrational as I say, will this work? It might. Irrationality does not rule out persuasion, but it does change what people find persuasive. If people accept beliefs, in part, because they feel good, it is important to wrap your message in the right emotional packaging. Frederic Bastiat, arguably the greatest economic educator in history, should be our role model.
I can understand when people make this argument about self-regarding choice. Even if an individual does not know his own best interest, I normally think that he should be free to make his own mistakes. Wittman, Donald. Political Economics: Explaining Economic Policy. Political Economy in Macroeconomics.
Robert, and Stanley Rothman. Environmental Cancer — A Political Disease? For more academic treatments, see e. Caplan, Bryan. The answer, quite simply, is that there is much more consensus than meets the eye. Beyond Self-Interest. The Economic Consequences of Immigration. The Macmillan Dictionary of Political Quotations. NY: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Myth of the Rational Voter 2016
The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies is a book by the economist Bryan Caplan , in which the author challenges the idea that voters are reasonable people whom society can trust to make laws. Rather, Caplan contends that voters are irrational in the political sphere and have systematically biased ideas concerning economics. Throughout the book, Caplan focuses on voters' opinion of economics since so many political decisions revolve around economic issues immigration , trade , welfare , economic growth , and so forth. Using data from the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy SAEE , Caplan categorizes the roots of economic errors into four biases : anti-market, anti-foreign, make-work , and pessimistic.
The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies
My thoughts:. While the public perennially exhibits what I call anti-market and anti-foreign biases, is egregious. Sanders is anti-market bias personified, Trump is anti-foreign bias personified. After bleakly assessing public opinion, The Myth of the Rational Voter argues that democracies normally deliver substantially better policies than the public wants. In , one of the main dilution mechanisms has badly failed: Using social pressure to check and exclude hard-line demagogues. Fortunately, most of the other dilution mechanisms remain intact. Most notably: a While the public often likes crazy policies, they resent the disastrous consequences of those crazy policies.