The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies
by J.R. Leonard | September 19, 2008
By Bryan Caplan. Princeton University Press; 276 pages
Review by J.R. Leonard
Orthodox theories of individual behavior in politics or economics tend to fall somewhere on a one-dimensional continuum between absolute rationality and total ignorance. That is to say, social scientists generally presume that people are either informed and know what is best for them, or are ignorant and unable to make correct choices. This approach mitigates against the criticism that democracy will invariably lead down the slippery slope towards demagoguery. It goes something like this: Yes, it is entirely possible that some portion of a given population will be voting on policies of which they have little or no knowledge, but their votes will be randomly dispersed on either side of the issue; that leaves the informed voter with the power to determine the outcome of any given election. This phenomenon is referred to as the miracle of aggregation.
Pick out any person at random and quiz her on the merits of an upcoming referendum and she may well prove to have little or no knowledge as to whether the matter is beneficial or harmful to her. If she votes, however, she has a fifty-fifty chance of voting the way that benefits her. Most of the uninformed votes should cancel each other out; leaving the matter to be decided by those who have well-formed opinions.
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