The Myth of the Rational Voter

There’s an election tomorrow. Do voters know what they’re doing? According to the typical economist — and many political scientists — the answer is “No, but it doesn’t matter.” How could it not matter? The main argument is that the public’s errors cancel out.[1] For example, some people underestimate the benefits of immigration, and others overestimate the benefits. But as long as the average voter’s belief is true, politicians win by promoting immigration policies based on the facts.

This story is clearly comforting, but is it correct? Are the average voter’s beliefs true? In The Myth of the Rational Voter, my forthcoming book with Princeton University Press, I review a large body of evidence and conclude that the answer is definitely no. Like moths to the flame, voters gravitate to the same mistakes. They do not cancel each other out; they compound.

In my book, and in this essay, I focus on the public’s mistaken beliefs about economics. Partly, this is because I am an economist, but mainly it is because economics is such a clear example of a subject that is politically important (“It’s the economy, stupid,”) yet poorly understood. I suspect that the public’s errors extend far beyond economics. There is convincing evidence that the public holds systematically biased beliefs about toxicology and cancer.[2] In foreign policy, similarly, we have the “rally round the flag” effect, the public’s tendency to support wars as soon as they have been declared. But even if the average voter perfectly understood every non-economic subject, misconceptions about economics by themselves would pose a serious problem for democracy.

Identifying Misconceptions

Suppose that one scholar maintains that the average voter’s belief about X is true, and another denies it. For their debate to make sense, both sides have to claim knowledge about (a) what the average voter believes, and (b) which belief is true. How can we get to the bottom of this sort of dispute?

It is fairly easy to figure out what the average voter believes. High-quality surveys abound. The hard thing is figuring out how to “grade” the beliefs of the average voter — to find a yardstick against which his beliefs can be measured.

The most straightforward is to compare voter beliefs to known fact. We can ask voters to tell us the fraction of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid, and compare their average answer to the actual number. Studies that use this approach find that the average voter has some truly bizarre beliefs. The National Survey of Public Knowledge of Welfare Reform and the Federal Budget finds, for example, that 41% of Americans believe that foreign aid is one of the two biggest areas in the federal budget — versus 14% for Social Security.

The main drawback of this approach is that many interesting questions are too complex to resolve with an almanac. But there is another mirror to hold up to public opinion. We can track down people who are unusually likely to know the right answer, see what they think, then check whether the public agrees. Who might these unusually-likely-to-know people be? The most obvious candidates are experts.[3]

To see if the average voter’s beliefs about the economic effects of immigration are right, for example, you can ask the general public and professional economists, and see if, on average, they agree. Is this an infallible test? No; experts have been wrong before. But it is hard to get around the strong presumption that if experts and laymen disagree, the experts are probably right, and the laymen are probably wrong. More importantly, if you have some specific reason to doubt the objectivity of the experts, you can control for it. If you think that economists’ high income biases their beliefs, for example, you can check whether laymen and experts agree after statistically adjusting for income.

This was precisely the approach that I used to analyze the best available data set on economic beliefs, the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy. The overarching finding: Economists and the public hold radically different beliefs about the economy.[4] Compared to the experts, laymen are much more skeptical of markets, especially international and labor markets, and much more pessimistic about the past, present, and future of the economy. When laymen see business conspiracies, economists see supply-and-demand. When laymen see ruinous competition from foreigners, economists see the wonder of comparative advantage. When laymen see dangerous downsizing, economists see wealth-enhancing reallocation of labor. When laymen see decline, economists see progress.[5]

While critics of the economics profession like to attribute these patterns to economists’ affluence, job security, and/or right-wing ideology, the facts are not with them. Controlling for income, income growth, job security, gender, and race only mildly reduces the size of the lay-expert belief gap. And, since the typical economist is actually a moderate Democrat, controlling for party identification and ideology makes the lay-expert belief gap get a little bigger. Economists think that markets work well not because of their extreme right-wing ideology, but despite their mild left-wing ideology.

From one perspective, we should have expected these findings all along. From the time of Adam Smith, if not earlier, economists have complained that economic policy was based on misconceptions, and tried to make a difference by correcting their students’ prejudices against markets, international trade, and so on. Economists preserve this tradition to this day when they teach undergraduates, write for popular audiences, or talk amongst themselves. In recent decades, however, economic research has built on the contrary assumption that the beliefs of the average voter are true. What is surprising about my results is that I race long-standing economic tradition against recent economic research, and the traditional view wins.[6]

What Misconceptions Do

Political scientists have often criticized economists for assuming that voters are selfish. The data — along with personal experience — have convinced me that the political scientists are right — no matter how much you know about a voter’s material interests, it is hard to predict how he is going to vote.[7] In contrast, if you know what a voter thinks is best for society, you can count on him to support it.

Before we can infer that the policies that are best for society will actually prevail, however, we have to add the very assumption I am challenging: that the beliefs of the average voter are true. If his beliefs are false, his good intentions lead him to support policies that are less than optimal, and possibly just plain bad.[8]

Consider the case of immigration policy. Economists are vastly more optimistic about its economic effects than the general public. The Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy asks respondents to say whether “too many immigrants” is a major, minor, or non-reason why the economy is not doing better than it is. 47% of non-economists think it is a major reason; 80% of economists think it is not a reason at all. Economists have many reasons for their contrarian position: they know that specialization and trade enrich Americans and immigrants alike; there is little evidence that immigration noticeably reduces even the wages of low-skilled Americans; and, since immigrants are largely young males, and most government programs support the old, women, and children, immigrants wind up paying more in taxes than they take in benefits.[9]

Given what the average voter thinks about the effects of immigration, it is easy to understand why virtually every survey finds that a solid majority of Americans wants to reduce immigration, and almost no one wants to increase immigration. Unfortunately for both Americans and potential immigrants, there is ample reason to believe that the average voter is mistaken. If policy were based on the facts, we would be debating how much to increase immigration, rather than trying to “get tough” on immigrants who are already here.

Needless to say, I do not expect any prominent politicians to read this and publicly change their position on immigration. Democracy is a popularity contest. If the average voter believes that less immigration is best for society, democracy rewards politicians who oppose immigration. This does not necessarily mean that elected officials cynically pander to the prejudices of the public. Our leaders might have gotten to the top of the political game because they sincerely share popular prejudices. Regardless of what is going on in politicians’ hearts and minds, though, we can expect democracy to listen to the average voter, even when he is wrong. The empirical evidence indicates that he often is.

How Misconceptions Are Possible

Most of the economic misconceptions that we see today were already well-known in the time of Adam Smith. How can the public keep making costly policy mistakes, year after year, century after century?

Public choice economists are used to blaming what they call “rational ignorance.” In elections with millions of voters, the personal benefits of learning more about policy are negligible, because one vote is so unlikely to change the outcome. So why bother learning?

In my book, however, I argue that rational ignorance has been oversold. Rational ignorance cannot explain why people gravitate toward false beliefs, rather than simply being agnostic. Neither can it explain why people who have barely scratched the surface of a subject are so confident in their judgments — and even get angry when you contradict them. Why, to return to the case of immigration, do people leap to the conclusion that immigration is disastrous, and have trouble holding a civil conversation with someone who disagrees?

My view is that these are symptoms not of ignorance, but of irrationality. In politics as in religion, some beliefs are more emotionally appealing than others. For example, it feels a lot better to blame sneaky foreigners for our economic problems than it does to blame ourselves. This creates a temptation to relax normal intellectual standards and insulate cherished beliefs from criticism — in short, to be irrational.

But why are there some areas — like politics and religion — where irrationality seems especially pronounced? My answer is that irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap.[10] If you underestimate the costs of excessive drinking, you can ruin your life. In contrast, if you underestimate the benefits of immigration, or the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, what happens to you? In all probability, the same thing that would have happened to you if you knew the whole truth.

In a sense, then, there is a method to the average voter’s madness. Even when his views are completely wrong, he gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price. No wonder he buys in bulk.

What’s Wrong With Democracy — and What’s Better

Unfortunately, the social cost of irrationality can be high even though it is individually beneficial. If one person pollutes the air, we barely notice; but if millions of people pollute the air, life can be very unpleasant indeed. Similarly, if one person holds irrational views about immigration, we barely notice; but if millions of people share these irrational views, socially harmful policies prevail by popular demand.

When individual choices in markets have harmful social side effects, most people want to do something to about it. In the case of pollution, for example, economists usually want to tax emissions, and non-economists want to set emission standards. Few people just shrug their shoulders and say, “The solution to the problems of markets is more markets.”

When individual choices in democracy have harmful social side effects, however, many people really do just shrug their shoulders and say, “The solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy.” If they wish to sound more hard-headed, they may instead quote Churchill: “[D]emocracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”[11]

On reflection, though, quoting Churchill in the face of democratic failure makes about as much sense as seeing rampant air pollution, and saying, “The free market is the worst form of economic organization, except all the others.” One can criticize markets or democracy — and propose remedies — without advocating socialism or dictatorship. Democracy, like the free market, can be limited, regulated, or overruled.

So what remedies for voter irrationality would I propose? Above all, relying less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets.[12] By and large, we don’t even ask voters whether we should allow unpopular speech or religion, and this “elitist” practice has saved us a world of trouble. Why not take more issues off the agenda? Even if the free market does a mediocre job, the relevant question is not whether smart, well-meaning regulation would be better. The relevant question is whether the kind of regulation that appeals to the majority would be better.

Another way to deal with voter irrationality is institutional reform. Imagine, for example, if the Council of Economic Advisers, in the spirit of the Supreme Court, had the power to invalidate legislation as “uneconomical.” Similarly, since the data show that well-educated voters hold more sensible policy views[13], we could emulate pre-1949 Great Britain by giving college graduates an extra vote.[14]

I suspect that these — and other! — eccentric institutional reforms would be helpful if tried. Unfortunately, there is a catch-22: The majority is unlikely to vote to reduce the power of the majority. Still, milder versions of these reforms might slip through the cracks. The public has largely ceded control of monetary policy to professional economists; perhaps the public would be willing to defer to expert judgment on some other areas as well. In a similar vein, although the majority is unlikely to approve plural votes for college graduates, it does allow the well-educated to exert extra influence by virtue of their higher turnout rate. It might be politically possible to further increase the de facto influence of educated voters by spending less money to increase turnout.

In the end, though, the catch-22 means that institutional reform is unlikely to be a very effective check on voter irrationality. What else is there? Even in the most democratic countries, political actors have a degree of slack or “wiggle room.” It is usually possible for officials to deviate moderately from voter preferences without being removed from power. And to be blunt, if the average voter holds irrational beliefs that lead him to support bad policies, using political slack to mitigate the damage seems like the right thing to do. If the average voter is wrong about immigration, and you have the political slack to push through an amnesty, go for it.

The Supreme Court may be the best example of a political body with a lot of slack. Justices serve for life, and it takes a constitutional amendment to overturn their decisions. This suggests — and history confirms — that they have significant power to improve upon democratic outcomes. If the Court has the chance to rule on the constitutionality of legislation inspired by anti-market misconceptions, why not overturn it for violating due process, or the Ninth Amendment, or the Tenth Amendment?[15] This was the essence of so-called “Lochner era jurisprudence.” Given what we know about the public’s economic biases, however, I think we owe those stodgy old judges an apology.

Of course, I do not expect the Supreme Court to revive Lochner anytime soon. At least as far as economics is concerned, the current justices basically accept the idea that they should defer to majoritarian wisdom. And obviously, they are not alone. The prevailing view even among the well-educated is that it is unseemly to question the competence of the average voter. Many elites go further by praising the insight of the average voter, no matter how silly his views seem.

As long as elites persist in unmerited deference to and flattery of the majority, containing the dangers of voter irrationality will be very hard. Someone has to tell the emperor when he is naked. He may not listen, but if no one speaks up, he will almost surely continue embarrassing himself and traumatizing spectators.

My final remedy for voter irrationality, then, is for people who know more than the average voter to stop being so modest. When experts and those who heed them address a broader audience — in the media, in their writings, or in a classroom — they need to focus on the questions where experts and the public disagree, and clearly explain why the experts are right and the public is wrong. Thus, when economists get the public’s ear, they should not bore them with the details of national income statistics, or quibble with each other about marginal issues. They should challenge the public’s misconceptions about markets, foreigners, saving labor, and progress.

But if the public is as irrational as I say, will this work? It might. Irrationality does not rule out persuasion, but it does change what people find persuasive. If people accept beliefs, in part, because they feel good, it is important to wrap your message in the right emotional packaging. “I’m right, you’re wrong, change,” falls flat. But in my experience, “I’m right, the people outside this classroom are wrong, and you don’t want to be like them, do you?” is fairly persuasive. Frederic Bastiat, arguably the greatest economic educator in history, should be our role model. Who else could make a critique of popular economic prejudices not just charming, but funny?

Conclusion

I suspect that many readers will just view me as “tone-deaf” to democracy. Whether or not the people know what they are doing, don’t they have a right to choose?

I can understand when people make this argument about self-regarding choice. Even if an individual does not know his own best interest, I normally think that he should be free to make his own mistakes. The problem with irrational voting, unfortunately, is that people who do it are not “just hurting themselves.” If the average voter is irrational, we all have to live with the consequences.

Every parent eventually asks his child, “If all your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?” I have an even more loaded question for those who refuse to second-guess the wisdom of the average voter: “If the majority said we all had to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you push people who refused to jump?”

Notes

[1] See e.g. Wittman, Donald. 1995. The Myth of Democratic Failure: Why Political Institutions Are Efficient. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Persson, Torsten, and Guido Tabellini. 2000. Political Economics: Explaining Economic Policy. Cambridge: MIT Press; Drazen, Allan. 2000. Political Economy in Macroeconomics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; and Page, Benjamin, and Robert Shapiro. 1992. The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] See Kraus, Nancy, Torbjörn Malmfors, and Paul Slovic. 1992. “Intuitive Toxicology: Expert and Lay Judgments of Chemical Risks.” Risk Analysis 12(2): 215-32; and Lichter, S. Robert, and Stanley Rothman. 1999. Environmental Cancer – A Political Disease? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[3] Another possibility is to compare the views of laymen who score well on tests of political knowledge to those of demographically similar laymen who score poorly. This is the standard approach in the political science literature on “enlightened preferences.” The findings of this literature are quite compatible with my own; for a comprehensive survey, see Althaus, Scott. 2003. Collective Preferences in Democratic Politics: Opinion Surveys and the Will of the People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] See here for a readable overview. For more academic treatments, see e.g. Caplan, Bryan. 2002. “Systematically Biased Beliefs About Economics: Robust Evidence of Judgemental Anomalies from the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy.” Economic Journal 112(479): 433-58; Caplan, Bryan. 2002. “Sociotropes, Systematic Bias, and Political Failure: Reflections on the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy.” Social Science Quarterly 83(2): 416-435; and Caplan, Bryan. 2001. “What Makes People Think Like Economists? Evidence on Economic Cognition from the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy.” Journal of Law and Economics 44(2): 395-426.

[5] How can these patterns be so clear-cut, given economists’ legendary tendency to disagree with each other? The answer, quite simply, is that there is much more consensus than meets the eye. Popular culture creates a false impression because it is more entertaining to watch experts debate than it is to watch them agree; and in any case, once economists reach a common understanding, they move on to new topics.

[6] For a two-round debate between myself and a leading defender of the rationality of the average voter, see here [pdf] and here [pdf].

[7] For overviews, see Sears, David, and Carolyn Funk. 1990. “Self-Interest in Americans’ Political Opinions.” In Mansbridge, Jane, ed. 1990. Beyond Self-Interest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 147-70; Citrin, Jack, and Donald Green. 1990. “The Self-Interest Motive in American Public Opinion.” Research in Micropolitics 3: 1-28; and Caplan, Bryan. 2001. “Libertarianism Against Economism: How Economists Misunderstand Voters and Why Libertarians Should Care.” [pdf] Independent Review 5(4): 539-63.

[8] For further discussion, see Caplan, Bryan. 2003. “The Logic of Collective Belief.” Rationality and Society 15(2): 218-42; and Caplan, Bryan. 2001. “Rational Irrationality and the Microfoundations of Political Failure.” Public Choice 107 (3/4): 311-31.

[9] On the fiscal effects of immigration, see Lee, Ronald, and Timothy Miller. 2000. “Immigration, Social Security, and Broader Fiscal Impacts.” American Economic Review 90(2): 350-4; and Simon, Julian. 1999. The Economic Consequences of Immigration. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

[10] For further discussion, see Caplan, Bryan. 2001. “Rational Ignorance versus Rational Irrationality.” Kyklos 54(1): 3-26.

[11] Eigen, Lewis, and Jonathan Siegel, eds. 1993. The Macmillan Dictionary of Political Quotations. NY: Macmillan Publishing Co.: 109.

[12] Commentator Ian Shapiro has repeatedly denied that this is a coherent option. See Shapiro, Ian, and Casiano Hacker-Cordón. 1999. “Reconsidering Democracy’s Value.” In Shapiro, Ian, and Casiano Hacker-Cordón, eds. Democracy’s Value. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1-19; Shapiro, Ian. 1999. Democratic Justice. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; and Shapiro, Ian. 1996. Democracy’s Place. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. I critique Shapiro’s arguments at length in my forthcoming book. If he would like to pursue this issue, I would be happy to do so during the discussion phase.

[13] In “What Makes People Think Like Economists?,” I estimate that each step of education on a 1-7 scale has 9.3% as much effect on economic beliefs as a Ph.D. in economics.

[14] As Speck explains, “[G]raduates had been able to vote for candidates in twelve universities in addition to those in their own constituencies, and businessmen with premises in a constituency other than their own domicile could vote in both.” (Speck, W.A. 1993. A Concise History of Britain, 1707-1975. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 175).

[15] See e.g. Barnett, Randy. 2004. Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; and Macedo, Stephen. 1987. The New Right v. the Constitution. Washington, DC: Cato Institute.

Bryan Caplan is associate professor of economics at George Mason University where he is also affiliated with the Center for Study of Public Choice and the Mercatus Center.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Outsmarting Democracy? by David Estlund

    In his reply to Bryan Caplan’s lead essay, Brown University political philosopher David Estlund argues that neither of Caplan’s proposed alternatives to democracy, markets and experts, satisfactorily correct for the problem of voter irrationality. With respect to experts, Estlund observes that political questions are moral as well as empirical: “[M]aybe … my morally wise mother would perform better overall than the economists. That settles nothing, since there is no entitlement to rule others based simply on the fact that you know what is best.” As far as markets go, Estlund says “Voters and market actors are the same people, so we should expect the charges of ignorance and irrationality to be leveled against people in both guises… In the aggregate many market mistakes, like voting mistakes, affect everyone.”

  • Caplan’s Republic by Loren Lomasky

    University of Virginia political philosopher Loren Lomasky compares Caplan’s criticism of democracy and defense of expertise with Plato’s argument in The Republic, while noting that in a modern system of representative democracy, voters choose among candidates, not policies. “If voters are as intellectually maladroit as Caplan suggests,” Lomasky writes, “then they are incapable of mastery of their elected representatives,” who are thus left with a fairly free hand to set policy. “What [voters] can do, though, is ‘throw the rascals out,’” and that, Lomasky argues, is good enough.

  • Irrationality, or Just Plain Ignorance? by Jeffrey Friedman

    Jeffrey Friedman argues that Caplan’s charge of voter irrationality relies on the unrealistic idealizations of economic theory and that “[v]oters who don’t understand economics because they haven’t been exposed to it, or because they’ve been exposed to it but have found it tough going, aren’t irrational; they’re just ignorant.”

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