Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

Good Libertarians have long been plagued by two paradoxes: one, "How can we hate the government for interfering with the choices people are so great at making for themselves, when in a democracy the government is a product of those choices?" and two, "how can we include the people whose political ideology is limited to wanting to smoke more marijuana without having to actually hang out with them?" In The Myth of the Rational Voter, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan sets out to resolve the first paradox. In doing so, he is heroically successful. When the day comes that Libertarians manage to vanquish government once and for all, the spontaneous order that emerges will undoubtedly include a national holiday celebrating his achievement.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Caplan has produced a fascinating and insightful book along the way. His starts with the idea that for most people, it requires discipline to think rationally and objectively. When people have nothing at stake, they prefer to hold beliefs that are emotionally satisfying, rather than beliefs that are necessarily true. The problem for democracy is that since no election comes down to a single vote, no one experiences the consequences of their own political views. For a voter, there is no incentive to go through the painful process of scrutinizing one's beliefs, since it won't impact the election anyway. When you combine that with polticians who respond to public opinion, you tend to get less-than-perfect policies. It's a compelling way to think about policymaking, and just why it is that so many otherwise intelligent people seem to hold such bizarre political views.

Most (if not all) readers will find much to disagree with in this book. Caplan is not afraid to tread on shaky analytical ground at times- some of his claims are poorly supported, and some of his arguments ultimately ring hollow. But in fact the book is far more compelling as a result of the author's willingness to reach. The approach that Caplan has taken seems to be less one of trying to convince you that everything he says is true; rather, he convinces you that his central thesis is worth thinking about, and then proceeds to stretch it as far and in as many directions as he can. It is then up to the reader how far he or she is willing to go. At one point in the book, Caplan urges his fellow economists to be less equivocal and cautious, and througout he practices what he preaches.

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