Are Voters Irrational: An Interview With Economist Bryan Caplan

The topic below was originally posted in my blog, the Intrepid Liberal Journal as well as The Peace Tree, the Independent Bloggers Alliance and Worldwide Sawdust.

People across the political spectrum routinely question the senses, intelligence and values of their fellow voters. A decade ago conservatives chafed, as President Bill Clinton remained popular in spite of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In recent years liberals like myself seethed while Republicans maintained one-party dominance in spite of their incompetence and criminal policies. They’re also citizens who challenge the wisdom of any voter who supports the two-party duopoly.

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and co-editor of EconLog challenges the rationality of voters with his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton University Press). Caplan, a libertarian, contends that democracies fail because of voters themselves rather than favorite scapegoats such as special interests. He argues that voters are regulated by four irrational prejudices:

1. Too little faith in the free market;
2. A distrust of foreigners;
3. Undervaluing the conservation of labor;
4. Unjustified pessimism that the economy is going from bad to worse.

Referencing those four biases are a reoccurring theme of Caplan’s book that skillfully mixes economics, political science, and psychology to analyze how voters think and the public policies that result from what they want. Overall his book is compelling and provocative. On July 30th, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times referred to Caplan’s book as “the best political book this year.”

I concur with Caplan that for too many voters ideology is analogous to religious faith and evidence doesn’t penetrate their entrenched worldviews. However, as a liberal I disagree with Caplan’s equating skepticism about the free market or free trade agreements with irrationality.

In my opinion the free market isn’t appropriate for all sectors of the economy such as healthcare or education and free trade has too many imbalances that require attention. Furthermore, I believe too many conservative/libertarian economists ignore the hidden economy that isn’t measured by the Gross Domestic Product or quarterly statements. Caplan of course disagrees and I suppose by his definition I’m one of those irrational voters.

Each of us can become imprisoned by our own belief systems and it’s healthy to challenge our perspectives. Caplan graciously agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his controversial book. Our conversation was approximately forty minutes. Please refer to the media player below. This interview can also be accessed via the Itunes store by searching for "Intrepid Liberal Journal."


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