It is an utter myth that voters in a democracy are rational actors, or at least so says Bryan Caplan in his classic book “Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.” Caplan attempts to forge a new direction for public choice theory by arguing that, contrary to accepted belief, voters often make irrational political decisions. Throughout his book, Caplan refers to various anti-economic biases amongst citizens, which he believes challenge the commonly held assumption that voters are rational. Caplan asserts that democratic failure is ultimately a result of these irrational biases and that citizens are largely to blame for these problems within the American political system.
While Caplan’s book should be praised as an engaging analysis that is accessible to both scholars and the learned public, it is far from the comprehensive theory and new direction that he had wished to develop. Ironically, his failure is due to logical inconsistencies that are inherent in his concept of rational irrationality, his skepticism of democratic failure, and his apparent apologetic attitude towards politicians.
Caplan’s central thesis is that voters make irrational political choices and deserve their share of the blame for the failures of the American democratic system. Caplan supports this claim by utilizing the “Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy,” which is a survey that contrasts the public’s views of relevant economic issues with those of academic and professional economists. In doing this, Caplan assumes that economists have a more accurate understanding of the economy than the average citizen. Reciprocally, he also assumes that citizens tend to hold more distorted views of the economy than do economists.
Some of the more egregious examples of these supposed perceptual disparities are that citizens attributed higher levels of foreign aid spending, higher levels of immigration, and larger tax breaks for businesses as significant causes of economic problems within the United States. Economists, however, are much less critical, noting that foreign aid spending is only a fraction of the federal budget, tax breaks often help businesses, and immigration benefits everyone. In Caplan’s view, the public remains highly skeptical of market processes and lacks a thorough understanding of their true benefits to society, while economists tend to have a more thorough understanding of the market and typically embrace it as a positive tool for societal progress.
Caplan continues his argument against the rationality of the masses by arguing that paradoxically it is rational for citizens to be politically irrational. He states that when one considers the minimal influence an individual has over the outcome of an election and that the costs of being an educated, non-biased agent are excessively burdensome in comparison to the fact that being irrational requires little effort or cost, political irrationality becomes rational. One example he uses to explain this is tariffs; although citizens desire economic prosperity, their biases against foreigners induce them to support protectionism, even though limiting competition through tariffs has repeatedly been shown to maintain higher prices, and ultimately, burden consumers.
While intellectually engaging, Caplan’s work does not provide a consistent or rigorous enough argument to establish a comprehensive paradigm of irrational political action. If Caplan’s “rational irrationality” were to be adopted, he would need to account for the effects of special interests, bureaucrats, and self-interested politicians. Furthermore, his “rational irrationality” fails to explain political engagement at all when political apathy requires the least effort and has the lowest cost of all. Caplan’s book does shed light on one aspect of democratic failure that is often neglected, the role of the citizen. The extent to which citizens play a role in the decline of American democracy deserves further examination.
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