June 8, 2010

Election day blues

By Election day blues

Author: R. S. Radford

Myth of Rational Voter
Today is election day, a time we traditionally feel good about exercising our right as citizens to get the government to tell other people what to do. So this may not be the best time to pick up Bryan Caplan’s absorbing theoretical examination of democratic politics, The Myth of the Rational Voter.

Caplan sets out to find the solution to an apparent paradox: In a democracy, the policies that are adopted are those that are preferred by most of the voters. Yet democracies frequently adopt and maintain policies that are harmful to most of the people. How can that be? 

Social scientists long ago coined the term rational ignorance to explain why the great majority of voters are poorly informed on the issues, in any election. In a nutshell, the benefits any given individual will receive from casting an informed vote are less than the costs of becoming informed. So rational voters vote in ignorance, which suggests the policies that are adopted in a democracy may be randomly distributed with respect to their good or ill effects.

This is a sobering prospect. But then Caplan manages to make things even worse by adding his own twist: something he calls rational irrationality. The chances of any given vote determining the outcome of an election are so small, it makes sense for normally rational individuals to vote in favor of blatantly irrational policies, if doing so makes them feel good. By the time Caplan starts drawing demand and supply curves, showing how the amount of electoral irrationality is determined by the direct cost of voting for irrational policies, you may want to have something to steady your nerves before turning on the news tonight to watch the election returns.

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