El mito del votante racional

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No. 594

May 29, 2007

The Myth of the Rational Voter
Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies
by Bryan Caplan

Executive Summary
In theory, democracy is a bulwark against socially harmful policies. In practice, however, democracies frequently adopt and maintain policies that are damaging. How can this paradox be explained? The influence of special interests and voter ignorance are twoleading explanations. I offer an alternative story of how and why democracy fails. The central idea is that voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational—and they vote accordingly. Despite their lack of knowledge, voters are not humble agnostics; instead, they confidently embrace a long list of misconceptions. Economic policy is the primary activity of the modern state. And if there isone thing that the public deeply misunderstands, it is economics. People do not grasp the “invisible hand” of the market, with its ability to harmonize private greed and the public interest. I call this anti-market bias. They underestimate the benefits of interaction with foreigners. I call this anti-foreign bias. They equate prosperity not with production, but with employment. I call thismake-work bias. Finally, they are overly prone to think that economic conditions are bad and getting worse. I call this pessimistic bias. In the minds of many, Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism cuts the conversation short: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But this saying overlooks the fact that governments vary in scopeas well as form. In democracies the main alternative to majority rule is not dictatorship, but markets. A better understanding of voter irrationality advises us to rely less on democracy and more on the market.



Bryan Caplan is an associate professor of economics at George Mason Universityand an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. This study is an excerpt from Caplan’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton University Press, 2007).

Voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational—and vote accordingly.

Introduction: The Paradox of Democracy
In a dictatorship, government policy is often appalling but rarelybaffling. The building of the Berlin Wall sparked worldwide outcry, but few wondered, “what are the leaders of East Germany thinking?” That was obvious: they wanted to continue ruling over their subjects, who were inconsiderately fleeing en masse. No wonder democracy is such a popular political panacea. The history of dictatorships creates a strong impression that bad policies exist because theinterests of rulers and ruled diverge. A simple solution is make the rulers and the ruled identical by giving “power to the people.” If the people decide to delegate decisions to full-time politicians, so what? Those who pay the piper—or vote to pay the piper—call the tune. This optimistic story is, however, often at odds with the facts. Democracies frequently adopt and maintain policies harmful formost people.1 Protectionism is a classic example. Economists across the political spectrum have pointed out its folly for centuries, but almost every democracy restricts imports. Admittedly, this is less appalling than the Berlin Wall, yet it is more baffling. In theory, democracy is a bulwark against socially harmful policies, but in practice it gives them a safe harbor. How can this paradox beexplained? One answer is that the people’s “representatives” have turned the tables on them.2 Elections might be a weaker deterrent to misconduct than they seem on the surface, making it more important to please special interests than the general public. A second answer, which complements the first, is that voters are deeply ignorant about politics.3 They do not know who their representatives are,...
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