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Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter:

I would like to join David Bernstein in commending Bryan Caplan's new book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. It is the most important work on political ignorance in at least a decade, and possibly longer.

Previous scholars, including myself (e.g. here and here), have explored the deleterious consequences of the average citizen's massive ignorance about politics and public policy. Since the 1950s, economists and political scientists have known that it is actually rational for voters to be ignorant, because the chance that any one voter will have a significant impact on the outcome of an election is infinitesmally small. There is little incentive to spend time and effort acquiring knowledge about politics that won't make any difference to political outcomes anyway.

Bryan, however, goes beyond the standard rational ignorance analysis. He emphasizes that it is rational for voters to not only learn very little about politics, but to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do have. Good analysis of political information - like learning the information in the first place - requires considerable time and effort that rationally ignorant voters have little incentive to undertake. Instead, voters are likely to fall prey to systematic errors in considering political information. As Bryan shows in detail, this helps explain why the majority of voters routinely fall prey to gross fallacies in their analysis of public policy - such as the belief that protectionism helps the overall economy; that the rise of modern technology is a major cause of longterm unemployment; and that foreigners are beggaring the American economy (all of these are actual examples from the book).

Because there is so little incentive to acquire and analyze political information to become a "better" voter, most of those citizens who do invest in political knowledge are likely to do so for other reasons. These include reinforcing their preexisting biases and prejudices, using politics as "entertainment" (much in the same way that sports fans acquire knowledge about their favorite teams for similar reasons), and signaling membership in a social group. As Bryan's work suggests (and I discuss in some detail in this article), such motives for acquiring information are extremely conducive to biased and irrational evaluation of the knowledge gained. Bryan calls this kind of systematically biased thinking "rational irrationality." The title of the book is actually slightly misleading. Bryan is not arguing that voters are stupid or irrational. Rather, he contends that it is actually rational for the individual voter to engage in biased and severely flawed evaluation of public policy. Unfortunately, behavior that is rational for individuals can lead to very harmful collective outcomes.

I do have a few disagreements with Bryan's analysis. In particular, I am skeptical of his argument that transferring more political power to knowledgeable experts is a good solution to the ignorance of the average voter. Ironically, the libertarian Caplan here makes the same kind of argument for increasing the power of experts as liberal Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in his 1993 book Breaking the Vicious Circle. Anticipating Caplan, Breyer argued that the ignorance and bias of voters justifies transferring power over regulatory policy to "nonpolitical" expert bureaucrats. I have serious doubts about both Bryan's and Breyer's paeans to expertise.

Be that as it may, Bryan's book is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in democratic theory and political participation.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH: Bryan and I are collaborating on a related project.

UPDATE: To avoid misunderstanding, I should note that Bryan also argues that voter ignorance and irrationality justify limiting the size and scope of government in order to leave more decisions in the hands of the free market and civil society (where incentives for rational information acquisition and evaluation are generally better). I have made the same argument in my own works linked in the post. However, this argument is in some tension with Bryan's simultaneous claim that the deficiencies of voters should be addressed by transferring more power to experts.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter:
  2. "The Myth of the Rational Voter":
Steven:
While obviously not having read the book, I wonder how Caplan squares his views with the notions of spontaneous order developed by Hayek. Under Hayek's theories, shouldn't the "rational irrationality" of all voters arrive at the optimum position?
5.17.2007 10:18pm
Ilya Somin:
Under Hayek's theories, shouldn't the "rational irrationality" of all voters arrive at the optimum position?

No, Hayek's theories of spontaneous order apply to markets and civil society, not to voters. The difference (as Bryan explains in detail in the book) is that actors in the former have strong incentives to seek out information and analyze it rationally, while actors in the latter have incentives to do the exact opposite.
5.17.2007 10:39pm
frankcross (mail):
Hayek's theories do apply somewhat to the political market but not at the same efficiency level. There are theories of cultural evolution that show that group norms move toward the optimal.

I find the theoretical arguments about irrational voters quite compelling. But it is a very clear empirical fact that democracies do as well or better than non-democracies by every measure of "goodness" of society. That tells me that a shift away from democracy is unwise.
5.17.2007 10:44pm
liberty (mail) (www):

Ironically, the libertarian Caplan here makes the same kind of argument for increasing the power of experts as liberal Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in his 1993 book Breaking the Vicious Circle. Anticipating Caplan, Breyer argued that the ignorance and bias of voters justifies transferring power over regulatory policy to "nonpolitical" expert bureaucrats. I have serious doubts about both Bryan's and Breyer's paeans to expertise.


Even more ironic than that, the ideas are reminiscent of the socialist arguments for using non-political experts and bureaucrats to run the economy...

Voting without strict limits on the powers of government will tend to lead to people voting themselves (or their constituents) favors - which may hurt the overall economy and/or impede on the rights of others (protectionism, subsidies, etc). Expert bureaucrats without strict limits on their powers will also tend to gather power for themselves and impede on the rights of others and the performance of the economy (regulatory agencies, departments of this and that, etc).

The only answer is to enforce strict limits on the powers of government and allow the people to run the economy and the society-- exactly the vision this country was founded on.
5.17.2007 10:52pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
"Unfortunately, behavior that is rational for individuals can lead to very harmful collective outcomes."

Wither then libertarianism, no?
5.17.2007 11:04pm
Ilya Somin:
I find the theoretical arguments about irrational voters quite compelling. But it is a very clear empirical fact that democracies do as well or better than non-democracies by every measure of "goodness" of society. That tells me that a shift away from democracy is unwise.

Democracy certainly does better than other forms of government. But that doesn't mean that democracy is superior to the private sector. In my view (and also Caplan's), democracy should be constrained in order to give a greater role to free markets and civil society, not dictators and oligarchs. Though this aspect of Caplan's thought fits uneasily with his argument for transferring more power to experts.
5.17.2007 11:08pm
wm13:
Why do you say that "most" citizens who invest in political knowledge do so for other (i.e., bad) reasons? Why isn't it ALL citizens? If university professors, lawyers, legislative aides etc. are rational, each of them too will realize that his or her ability to affect public policy is infinitesimal, and will treat politics as a mode of self-expression, or vicious amusement, or a good way to get girls, or whatever. So their views and ideas will be just as suspect as anyone else's. And if people in the chattering classes are not rational, then their judgment won't be worth much anyway.
5.17.2007 11:08pm
Andrew Okun:
A fascinating post and I think I'll buy the book. A few comments though.

1. The selection of examples seems a little pointed. If the author is just trying to solve the mystery of why voters opt for palsied, gibbering statists instead of sound, upstanding libertarians, he might ought to look elsewhere. ;-)

2. The post doesn't seem to mention the underlying mystery, to economists anyway, of why it is rational to vote at all. The individual vote has always been doomed to marginal irrelevance, but turnouts remain significant. It seems to me it ought to be rational that people vote -- repeated game, strength of your bloc, compliance with and maintenance of group values that collectively benefit group -- but I haven't come up with a proof and economists can't isolate some benefit that, when multiplied by the 10^-6 chance of affecting the outcome gives an individual a reason even to spend 10 minutes voting.

3. I think the idea that it remains rational for someone to barely think at all about their vote is questionable. I can see why it is rational for people not to all get PPE degrees just so their individual vote is good, but the value of the crude rules they apply has to be something for it to give them a reason to vote at all. It would be irrational to vote in a two party system by coin toss. Stay at home and use that half hour to clean your toenails. But Caplan suggests that people collectively reduce their voting to rules only a little better than that and as a result suffer a systematic loss of collective value and that that is rational. That can't be right. They need to be getting it right at least some of the time.
5.17.2007 11:18pm
Andrew Okun:
Rather, he contends that it is actually rational for the individual voter to engage in biased and severely flawed evaluation of public policy. Unfortunately, behavior that is rational for individuals can lead to very harmful collective outcomes.

Ok, these two sentences are giving me a problem. If it is rational for the voter to vote at all, it must be because their vote, flawed as it is, retains _some_ value for them. But all the outcomes from voting are collective, in the sense that they are filtered through the outcome of the election. And unless the voter is part of a very small group (rice farmers voting when rice subsidies are at issue), it would be mostly collective. For most people voting on most issues, crime, free trade and the like, the result is a collective. It can't be rational to make a crude voting choice that is systematically more wrong than right.

I think in addition to calculating the costs and benefits of voter ignorance, some of the seemingly odd choices voters make can be explained by a better calculation of costs and benefits.
5.17.2007 11:31pm
Jake (Guest):
I like the argument that sort of turns the voter thing around.

As stated above, the chances that somebody's vote actually affects an election are incredibly low. Accordingly, they can't possibly be voting based on their venal interests--if so, it would be vastly more rewarding to get a minimum wage job for the 10 minutes or so it takes to vote. The fact that people vote anyway indicates that they're getting utility from somewhere else. If that somewhere else is something like civic pride, then voters may well be motivated to vote based on some idea of what's best for the country. As long as your civic duty norms are reasonably good, democracy might just work out after all...
5.17.2007 11:34pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Andrew Okun,

I've always felt that the best explanation must include all the following and maybe more:

a) the reason why cultures engage in rituals and superstitious ceremonies (to make ourselves feel better, to join in a social activity, to signal that we are part of the group, etc)
b) why we all stand in line instead of crowding to the front when we can get away with it (because we actually identify with the group and can see that cooperation will work better than defection)
c) why people buy fancy suits - not to look *better* than everyone around them, but just to all end up matching and having all wasted their money equally (social signaling)
5.17.2007 11:36pm
frankcross (mail):
Ilya, I understand, but I think that's a category mistake. Like saying that we should limit red and be more square. Democracy is a form of government. Capitalism isn't. If you want to have more capitalism, you have to figure out what form of government will get that. Democracy may well be that form. When you limit democracy, you need some other government institution to enforce those limits. If it is non-democratic, you need some basis for believing it will faithfully enforce those limits in a correct fashion.

Capitalism is not an alternative to democracy. It is an end that particular systems of government (democracy or non-democracy) will best promote.
5.17.2007 11:58pm
SR (mail):
I have not read the book so maybe I am missing something, but I don't see how scrapping democracy or opting for a libertarian state follow from the conclusion that voters are rationally ignorant (or in some unspecified way biased). Wouldm't this also be an argument for a pluralist political system like ours where people join together in voluntary associations that would be able to invest the time to determine the truth about various issues? Rationally ignorant voters would then defer to the association to which they belong to signal the correct way to vote. It requires very little time or effort to determine which out of a small number of groups serves your interest; and many voluntary associations provide greater rewards than the incremental influence of your one vote, which would justify investing more effort in finding the right one to join. My understanding is that this is a lot like how political parties work. Its not perfect, but has all of the virtues of democracy.
5.18.2007 12:03am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Well I for one will be glad when Ilya, that brave libertarian who earns his living at a public university, eliminates democracy, and just tells us what we all should think and how the economy will be most efficiently run.

And your beef with Stalin was what exactly?
5.18.2007 12:21am
liberty (mail) (www):
"or a good way to get girls"

mmm... get into my big black car...
5.18.2007 12:43am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
In particular, I am skeptical of his argument that transferring more political power to knowledgeable experts is a good solution to the ignorance of the average voter...I have [argued that voter ignorance and irrationality justify limiting the size and scope of government in order to leave more decisions in the hands of the free market and civil society]...

Like Caplan and Somin, I've spent a great deal of time and effort trying to explain why it's irrational for the voting public not to structure government as I personally see fit. Their careful analysis of the voting public's inevitable hopeless incapacity to make better decisions than I can is therefore most welcome to me.

I remain puzzled, however, at how Caplan could thereby conclude that government should be structured as he sees fit, and Somin that government should be structured as he sees fit. If nothing else, one would think that their coming to such mutually incompatible conclusions (as illustrated above) would tip each off to his own error, and spur them to search for the correct answers, which can be readily obtained simply by asking me (see my blog for details).

Then again, as professors paid to exude authoritative wisdom, they're both displaying a certain amount of "rational irrationality" in refusing to admit the inferiority of their own opinions to someone else's--a marvelous demonstration of why we should never pay any attention to academics' opinions regarding political matters.
5.18.2007 12:57am
jvarisco (www):
How does this relate to the common argument that people do not actually evaluate information but instead take cues from elites with similar values? Berinsky has shown this pretty conclusively in terms of the Iraq war. Unless elites (who should know better) are lumped in, I'm not sure why it matters.
5.18.2007 1:22am
Viscus (mail) (www):
The real problem is that there is an association with "rational" as narrowly defined by economists (i.e. utility maximizing) and "good." But the truth is that maximizing utility is bad, not good. In fact, maximizing utility is so bad, it is evil. If all you care about is your own pleasure, you are a worthless person. Period. If all your charity is motivated by the desire to feel good rather than by principle, you are still a worthless person. Even though you happen to be helpful to others, you are doing it for the wrong reasons.

As Kant aptly argued, we humans should be more than little creatures that merely follow our inclinations. Rather, we should behave in a principled manner. We should do what is right, not merely that which feels good.

Caplan is right, to the extent that people behave "rationally," we can expect bad results. No "rational" person votes. However, someone with an ounce of principle might vote.

It is a good thing that people are not "rational," but instead are sometimes principled. People become informed about politics out of principle, not merely pleasure. Caplan has the wrong model in his head. If it doesn't make me "feel" good, I am not going to do it. But in reality, we "irrational" (i.e. principled) voters actually act upon principled. Voter behavior cannot be predicted by Pavlovian models advanced by the likes of Caplan.

Voters are not "rational" as that term is defined by economists. That people do make an "irrational" effort to become informed is why government often has certain advantages over the private sector.

Another factor needs to be taken into consideration. That is, no one particular voter needs to be an expert on everything political to vote intelligently. A Democrat who is not certain about economics can defer to an expert like Brad DeLong or Paul Krugman. A Republican might defer to Milton Friedman or Alan Greenspan. The fact is, that political parties aggregate information about good policies based on certain common assumptions. One need not be an expert oneself, all one need do is defer to the appropriate expert -- i.e. the one that you know shares your values.

One thing we can be certain of. No "rational" individual would read Byran Caplan's book. Unless they were an academic who thought it might help their research. It is too much effort for too little return. Lucky for Caplan's book sales, people are not rational. Lucky for the political system, people are not rational.

The problem with Caplan's book is it assumes people are "rational" when they in fact are more principled than is assumed by economists.

The problem for Caplan is that the Myth of the Rational Voter is in fact correctly labeled. People are not "rational" in the way that economists (with no empirical basis) assume.

What we really have are principled voters who effectively signal to each other to make voting decisions efficiently based on shared values.
5.18.2007 1:28am
Vinnie (mail):
Basic algebra: solve the easy side. Reinstate the draft.
5.18.2007 1:56am
TechieLaw (mail) (www):
How is this any different than comparing voting to the theory of corporate law?
5.18.2007 8:50am
Bretzky (mail):

Bryan is not arguing that voters are stupid or irrational. Rather, he contends that it is actually rational for the individual voter to engage in biased and severely flawed evaluation of public policy. Unfortunately, behavior that is rational for individuals can lead to very harmful collective outcomes.


So, if individual ignorance can lead to very harmful collective outcomes, wouldn't it then be irrational of an individual voter not to learn as much as he can so he can make intelligent voting decisions? I assume that those very negative collective outcomes would negatively impact the individual voter too.
5.18.2007 9:03am
Tim (mail):
As a person with neither the time or ability to participate in the polical process, How else do I express my digust with the process except by not voting?

I can still participate in polling and give my opinion to whomever would listen to me. But if I am given a choice between a candidate who will give government power to non-profit organizations and a different candidate who will give government power to profit-making organizations and both will tell be it is for my own good, I would rather sit out thank you.

In this way I believe I am being a rational voter.
5.18.2007 9:28am
Ben4343434:
Excellent post by Viscus.

I vote not because voting is rational, but because I consider it my civic duty. I suspect others do the same. Educating myself about the issues is part of that civic duty. Further, with the breaking down of information barriers (see e.g. Levitt/Dubner/Freakonomics on real estate markets), it is becoming increasingly easier to educate yourself on those issues than Mr. Caplan's cost/benefit theory would suggest.
5.18.2007 12:04pm
mtl (mail):
Despite the lack of incentives, I'd suggest that some voters cast their ballots out of a some notion of civic duty that trumps the theoretical insignificance of their votes.

For instance, a person who has lived in a country under a dictatorship might feel it is his obligation as a citizen of a free country to vote his conscience since his fellows in his homeland are deprived of any voice in the government and are trampled upon by it.

Or Christians might extrapolate from Rom. 13:1ff to the belief that God has ordained government, requires it to be just (or suffer the consequences), and, in the case of a republic/democracy, given them a role in it. Therefore, it is their duty and obligation to be a just and wise voter because God has entrusted them with such a role. (Well, one could hope they would extrapolate this way, but I doubt too many have.)
5.18.2007 12:08pm
Ken Arromdee:
Isn't the whole thing like a tragedy of the commons, in a way? The cost of the user becoming informed affects the user, but the benefit of the user becoming informed is spread out over the whole society (instead of a 100% chance of affecting his own fate, he has a small chance of affecting his own fate plus person A, person B, etc.)
5.18.2007 12:19pm
wooga:

I remain puzzled, however, at how Caplan could thereby conclude that government should be structured as he sees fit, and Somin that government should be structured as he sees fit. If nothing else, one would think that their coming to such mutually incompatible conclusions (as illustrated above) would tip each off to his own error, and spur them to search for the correct answers, which can be readily obtained simply by asking me (see my blog for details).
I think Dan Simon has hit the nail on the head here.

I am much more knowledgeable than the general public on all sorts of issues. But would I prefer a system with me as a dictator? How about with a bunch of people who think exactly like me in some sort of oligarchy or Party control of the government?

The answer is a resounding NO. No matter how smart I may be, I'm still at risk of succumbing to group think and irrational behavior. I still make mistakes, and if I (or my clone group) had all the power, we would be able to destroy the world that much faster because of our elitist unity on some horrible spawn of group think. I've had too many experiences with yes-men bowing down before my superior brain -- with occasionally bad results because nobody challenged some fundamental mistake I overlooked -- to delude myself into thinking I could guarantee my dictatorship would not lead to catastrophe.

Even where Joe Public is totally ignorant of politics, he still has a level of 'common sense' which serves as a reality check on intellectual navel gazing. Sure, we should increase Joe Public's grasp of basic principles of logic and causation, but his political ignorance is - on the whole - not a problem. He's not going to be holding office and drafting legislation. But he (collectively) is going to always provide a gut check on the self-righteous activist.
5.18.2007 1:07pm
Richard H (mail) (www):
If politics were only about what is done to me, or my colusion in what is done to me (i.e., voting), then a sort of rational ignorance might make sense.

But politics - classically conceived (and I think the classics got it right) - is broader than what we in the US call politics. Politics conceived thusly, refers to what goes into building and shaping a people or community. Because the community has many dimensions, action takes place on many levels. My action as a poltical person is not merely to vote, but to interact on the local level in a multitude of ways. My ignorance, whether vicious or virtuous, while possibly diluted on the macro level, is magnified on the micro level.
5.18.2007 4:08pm
Andrew Okun:
Isn't the whole thing like a tragedy of the commons, in a way? The cost of the user becoming informed affects the user, but the benefit of the user becoming informed is spread out over the whole society (instead of a 100% chance of affecting his own fate, he has a small chance of affecting his own fate plus person A, person B, etc.)

But the cost of voting is irreducible, though tiny, and people persist in voting. If all of the benefits of that decision are shared in common and yet the voter is rational, there can't be much of a tragedy there. There has to be some remaining value. To be a tragedy of the commons, the voter would have to rationally be taking a benefit for himself from the individual transaction.
5.18.2007 4:45pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Viscus may be referring implicitly to a theme like Frank's "What's The Matter with Kansas?" in which he explains the conservatives got the voters in Kansas to vote against their interests by pitching values.
One reviewer did some homework and discovered that Frank was wrong about the economic situation. The Kansans didn't lose by voting values. But even if they had, they would have been voluntarily paying the price for that which they valued.
Frank thinks that only economics matter, or ought to matter. Any other path means something's wrong with you.

Most of us would pay or risk paying something material--up to our lives--for some non-economic value. That's only irrational if the only rational goal is economic.

So if we're talking about irrational voting, we might want to be sure the voters aren't rationally going about maximizing the occurrence of what they believe in outside the economic sphere, and willingly paying for it.
5.18.2007 4:59pm
Eli Rabett (www):
The utility of rational voters is that they limit the thievery and lying of the political class by insisting on reality in policy discussions. The political class, on the other hand seeks to limit such behavior. See for example Al Gore's new book (cue frothing replies)

The potential for manipulating mass opinions and feelings initially discovered by commercial advertisers is now being even more aggressively exploited by a new generation of media Machiavellis. . . .

As a result, our democracy is in danger of being hollowed out. In order to reclaim our birthright, we Americans must resolve to repair the systemic decay of the public forum. We must create new ways to engage in a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future.
Indeed, given the discourse here one clearly sees who prospers from the manipulating others towards ignorance.
5.18.2007 6:13pm
Earnest Iconoclast (mail) (www):
The fact that voters are ill-informed and that this is rational, therefore unlikely to improve does not imply that "experts" will somehow make better decisions. Assuming (as the previous statement does) that people act "rationally" when they act in their own interest, these experts and bureaucrats would just act in their own interest and the voters would still not get what they want.

What we really need are voting agents or political agents who study all the issues and suggest a voting strategy or give us a list of candidates and/or issues to vote for. Voters would then be free to select a voting agent who they trust and would take his recommendations.

There are many areas where such agents would help solve the problem of too much information. The government doesn't need to step in and regulate the decision making process, the market does.

Political parties act as agents to some extent, so do local newspapers and pundits. If voters can become familiar with their local pundits/papers/etc... they can make rational decisions by choosing who to listen to.

EI
5.18.2007 6:33pm
TCO:
Voters looking for information that affirms their biases is very similar to what one sees on the blogosphere. People gravitate to places where they hear what they want to hear. If a new valid contrary point is raised, they get very agitated (vice delighted in seeing something new and interesting). Even at the more intellectual blogs like Justoneminute and Climate Audit, this is the pattern. Of course, there are always a few who are interested in real issue analysis, but it's a small, small fraction.

2. This is a kicking blog. I'm just starting to read it (more). Layout is kind of ugly, though. I hope you tolerate my trolling. I like to do that. Like to drink and post as well. Please don't ban me.
5.18.2007 7:05pm
Joshua:
Ken Aromdee and Andrew Okun: Actually it's more like a reverse "tragedy of the commons": The individual voter bears the cost of becoming politically informed, but the benefits accrue to society at large.
5.18.2007 7:58pm
Eli Rabett (www):
One further point, Caplan's childish analysis ignores any other action by the voter except the action of voting in a contest where there are a huge number of voters. First, there are any number of local elections where the number of voters is small, and the weight of an individual vote much larger. Second, and most importantly, voters interact with politics in many more ways than simply voting.
5.19.2007 12:23am
liberty (mail) (www):
one thing nobody ever mentions - maybe people just want to feel like they matter... if voting is insignificant it just highlights how insignificant our lives are in general... how can one person ever make a real difference?
5.19.2007 12:34am
R. Richard Schweitzer (mail):
Governments as "institututed among men," are only part of the social order, and the functions and composition of governments are only part of the many and varied decisions required of those comprising the social order.

It has been pretty well established (and acknowledged by a Nobel Prize) that practically all decisions are made with incomplete (and often inadequate) information.

What Hayek (and others) have inferred is that, for their functions in a social order, actors seek and use as much information as they perceive necessary for the decisions (choices)they determine as affecting their individual conditions (which include many various relationships).

How much effort (time especially) individuals apply to seeking sources for information, evaluating it, and comparing conflicting information, is probably a function of perceived impact of the resulting decision on the individual's concern with the effects and results of the decision to be made.

The greater benefit for individuals in an open society seems to be to limit the functions of government so that those individual concerns, and the related importance to individuals of decisions are also limited.

To provide an substitute "expertise" that lubricates enlarging the limits on governmental functions, to increase the "efficiencies" of those processes, is contrary to the concept of an open society, and the decion processes within it.

There is not much "irrational" about that.

R. Richard Schweitzer
s24rrs@aol.com
5.19.2007 10:51am
Brian Pitt (mail):
I consider all of the foregoing comments to be insightful. While I have not, as yet, read the book, my understanding of other Caplan writings suggests that his pessimism about "democracy" is due to its "success." By "success," I am suggesting that Caplan avers that the systematically biased beliefs of voters steer public policy. "Voter irrationality" or voters not conversant with economic and political theory (and who subsequently lean on biased beliefs due to that ignorance), are likely to be swayed by the emotional appeals of special interests.

Caplan, contra Buchanan and Tullock, does not believe that special interests mute the wishes of citizens in their endeavors to shape public policy. Instead, the wishes of citizens are at the heart of public policy. Special Interests simply promulgate the biased beliefs of citizens----to the detriment of healthy societal structures (e.g., private propery and a predictable legal system).

Caplan, unlike many academics (and many of you highly educated folk on the blogosphere), does not take the historical performance (e.g., high GDP) of democracy for granted. He, like many of his "Austrian" friends (e.g., Mises and Hans-Hoppe), do not presuppose beneficent outcomes from public opinion.

Finally, Even if you do not agree with his ideas of more "expert" influence (which I have not read), does anyone not fear the "mob rule" implicit in democracy? Just allow the examples of racial segregation and the banning of consensual sex serve as reminders.

And by the way, this blog is kicking!!!
5.19.2007 1:42pm
TCO:
1. Eli, presumably the cost-benefit analysis could be performed mathematically to look at different group sizes. In the limit, you get to partnerships or the like. You can even perhaps solve algebraicly for what size election balances with what incentives. Of course the key point is not that this analysis is the be-all, end-all of public choice theory (incorporating every side issue), but that it is useful in bringing to light some ways of thinking about things.
2. Of course voting is a type of positive externality (others get a free rider benefit). One example in economics where this can be looked at is shareholders rights. I remember having all kinds of debates with Aaron Browne at eRaider who said that giving shares of companies to workers would motivate them (and nominal amounts, not the huge incentive percent that top execs get). My point to him was that individual workers on their own could not sink or swim the company. They had the stock fine and want the company to do well. But even with large incentive (in stock) percents, they could not by their individual exertion affect the company value. But whether one of them individually goofs off or steals or puts in big effort does essentially nothing to move the stock value (but is a large area of effort in terms of time investment). He kept telling me that in the aggregate they would have an effect and I kept coming back to sheep grazing the commons. I don't think he ever got my point.
3. I tried getting this but it was not at Barnes and Noble. Eli, have you have read the book? Are you sure your childish tag is really appropriate? Are you an expert in public choice theory (status of the field) to put down a popular book like this, as trite?
5.21.2007 10:29pm
TCO:
Another example of externality is shareholder revolts. Is it worth the money and effort to participate in a proxy fight if you have a small holding (to advertise and the like). The key to shareholder democracy is not more uprisings, but more takeovers. The removal of poison pills.
5.21.2007 10:54pm