Are Voters Rational or Irrational?

On Café Hayek Don Boudreaux writes

My brilliant younger colleague Bryan Caplan is making quite a splash with his new book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. It is, in my opinion, the most important book on the economics of politics to appear in the past decade.

In contrast, on his blog Dani Rodrik states that “Caplan is doing us a service by taking on the holy cow of the rational voter”, but points out that Caplan gets his key piece of evidence wrong,

First, I have a problem with the economics in the book. Consider the key exhibit in Caplan’s case, the fact that many or most people are skeptical about free trade even though most economists are in favor. Caplan interprets this as evidence that people just don’t get the argument about free trade’s benefits (to themselves as well as the economy overall). But in fact there is nothing in the economic case for free trade to suggest that all or most of the individuals in the economy will be better off with free trade. The median individual/voter could well end up worse off (as may have been indeed happening during the last quarter century). So the difference of views between the economist and the person on the street may be reflecting the former’s own social preferences instead of the latter’s misunderstanding.

And even with respect to the aggregate gains from trade, the economist’s case hinges on a large number of auxiliary assumptions. These may well be violated in the real world. I would bet my dollar on the common person having an instinctive understanding of these imperfections before I would trust a Chicago or GMU economist’s priors on it.

A review of the book by Christopher Hayes can be read here, another by Gary Bass here.

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One thought on “Are Voters Rational or Irrational?

  1. The average and the median voter has opinions that differ systematically from those of the average or median economist. But of course for any economic topic there are some economists that hold the same opinion as the average voter. For trade, Rodrik offers himself as a case in point.

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