Myth of the Rational Voter

Prof. Bryan Caplan discusses his controversial book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. His thesis is that a majority of voters err in their thinking on economics issues, and that these errors can be grouped under 4 different irrational biases, which Caplan calls the make-work bias, the anti-foreign bias, the pessimistic bias, and the anti-market bias. These errors make it difficult to enact effective policies through the democratic process. Caplan’s argument responds to the claim in conventional public choice theory that voters are rationally ignorant, as well as to critics of that theory.

Credits: This lecture was delivered in 2009 at the Metropolitan State College of Denver School of Business, as part of the Exploring Economic Freedom Lecture Series, directed by Prof. Alexandre Padilla. This video was produced and directed by Scott Houck, and edited by Adrienne Christy. Video production provided by the Educational Technology Center at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Video used by Learn Liberty with permission.


  1. Matt Wavle

    How could it NOT matter if voters do not know what they are voting on?  Random errors will cancel themselves out, meaning that the well-informed are relatively in charge.  But often these are NOT random errors.  Also, with a choice between two bad choices, the well-informed would abstain from voting.  The masses of ill-informed voters seem to legitimize very bad choices.

  2. ndvo

    I think there is another explanation for why do people go for very stupid ideas and take an emotional response to critics. I’d say that explaining anything has a very high cost. No human can rely upon his own thoughts all the time for the world is too complex. We learn quite early that we can take advantage of the work done by others by following their lead. You know people seek the lowest price with the best quality, so you simply buy the best seller. The key here is that you know that imitating is a way better idea than trial and error. A problem arises because people realize other people imitate. Controlling other people behavior is usually the cheapest way to get something. As one knows others don’t want to pay the price of understanding, they simply mislead them. Of course other people notice this and they try to set apart the two types of guidance. It is way to costly to verify a claim. It is almost as costly as to discover the truth. Shortcuts are needed. There is a widely known shortcut to truth: honesty. People will think that anyone who speaks sincerely is telling the truth. It is too hard to check the facts, but human beings are in a sense experts in checking sincerity. In most debates people are much more worried on checking the honesty of the speaker than the truth of his words. Finally, if one wants to seem honest there is a very good way to do it: 1- be convinced of what he says; 2- be emotionally attached to what he says. The problem is, as pointed out in the video, if one is emotionally attached to an idea it is very dangerous to be rational about it. Thus the more convincing is he who is deeply convinced and attached himself.

    Why doesn’t it apply to hard sciences? Well, it does. In any field rational arguments are improved as they are presented in a simpler version, i.e. with a cheaper cost. Rational arguments are also improved  as they present a better reward. I’d say as economists arguments get simplified, as people get used to them and as the results become more clear, more people will understand. Eventually the majority of the followers will imitate economists ideas simply because they will be the prevailing ones.
  3. thomas6698

    It makes sense of why rational people would abstain from voting. There decision will mean little to nothing.

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