Whenever I hear someone say “rational” I worry. Everyone means a different thing. This is a problem as obviously you can’t discuss rationality without knowing what it is. Bryan Caplan uses his view of rationality to criticize democracy in The Myth of the Rational Voter (Caplan 2007). The book leaves me with mixed feelings. I love books that tackle major topics and democracy’s value is definitely that. Sadly I can’t get past some significant problems.
Caplan discusses important points around aggregation and social systems that he’d argue cause “irrational” outcomes. I’ll address these some other time. Most relevant here is the fact that his definition of the rationality of individual voters is confused. This is a central problem given he is trying to attack the “myth of the rational voter”. (I don’t blame only Caplan for this confusion as he is not alone). Caplan discusses something he calls rational irrationality (Caplan 2007). The voters he describes don’t bother to learn economics as any individual bears all the costs of an education in economics but can’t influence policy more than the ignorant. Basically Caplan complains that democracy doesn’t punish ignorance so voters have no incentive to reduce their ignorance.
To Caplan voters are not bothering to learn when there is little value to learning. What should we call those who don’t incur pointless costs? Most would call that rational. So Caplan’s problem seems to be that voters obey economic logic even if they don’t learn economic theory. If I understand Caplan’s argument correctly his problem with democracy is not that voters are irrational but that they are ignorant because democracy gives them no incentive to learn. His problem is that voters are sensibly responding to the incentives presented them.
So are voters rational? I guess that depends on what you mean by rational.
Read: Bryan Caplan The Myth of the Rational Voter 2007, Princeton University Press