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The Myth of the Rational Voter

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The Myth of the Rational Voter

Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

Princeton UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Democratic voters know little about economics. And it shows.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative


Economists on the right and the left agree on a surprisingly large number of policy issues. They believe free trade is good, the U.S. budget deficit is not a problem and most human beings are better off now than in the past. Yet the democratic public doesn't agree. It fears trade and foreigners, thinks the budget deficit is a big problem and is pessimistic about the economy even during periods of record economic growth. But the worst part, says economics professor Bryan Caplan, is that the public votes. Drawing on empirical research about voter attitudes, Caplan describes how voters are mistaken about many policy issues and – more importantly – why they are wrong. His account is frighteningly plausible, but so is his solution: more economic education. getAbstract recommends this pithy volume to anyone concerned about voters' ostensibly self-defeating behavior. Democracy may be better than the alternatives, but no one said it was easy.


The Enlightened Public

If the average American is any indication, voters are shockingly ignorant. For instance, each state in the United States has two senators. Europeans can be forgiven for not knowing this elementary fact about U.S. politics, but you would think most Americans would know it. Nope. Small wonder, then, that fewer than 40% of U.S. voters can name both their senators. Fewer still know their senators' party affiliations, even though a random guess gives them a 50% chance of being correct. And only about a quarter of voters know how long senators serve (six years).

Perhaps worse, voters seem to be shockingly knowledgeable about political trivia. Take the 1992 campaign for the U.S. presidency. Fewer than 20% of voters knew Bill Clinton's environmental record. But almost 90% knew that vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle picked a fight by criticizing a television character. Quayle, the candidate who couldn't spell "potato" and stressed the importance of "bondage between mother and child," lit into Candice Bergen's character, Murphy Brown, over the "immorality" of being a single mother. Only 15% of voters knew the candidates' positions on the death penalty...

About the Author

Bryan Caplan is Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and co-editor of EconLog, an economics blog.

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