Myth of the Rational Academic

Tyler Cowen praises Bryan Caplan’s new book The Myth of the Rational Voter, but bothers to "outline residual points of disagreement":

I’m amazed that the public is as rational and smart as it is.  Few people demand that our leaders resort, say, to the tools of superstition, even though many people believe in astrology.  Our political irrationality is highly selective and self-serving in a "feel good about ourselves" way, rather than indiscriminate.  I don’t understand what, in Bryan’s theory, prevents voters from satiating in irrationality, with truly dire social consequences.  He writes of "a demand for irrationality" in stripped down Beckerian fashion, but the model in the back of his mind has a great more structure in it than the book lets on.  The sheep on the cover, for instance, do not play a formal role in the model of the book, even though conformism both eggs on and constrains real world political irrationality.

What makes Tyler so sure he is so rational?  Tyler is puzzled to see a high correlation between his own views and the supposedly irrational views of the public.  But Bryan’s theory is perfectly consistent with high correlations across people in their irrational political views; Bryan doesn’t predict such views are independent and irrational, just irrational.  Conditional on Bryan’s theory, Tyler does not have a good reason to assume that his own political views are a good proxy for rational views. 

Maybe the political world we live in is a world of truly dire social consequences, relative to the world we would have with rational voters. 

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  • Perhaps Tyler’s point can be expressed in more neutral terms: there are certain widespread beliefs, like belief in astrology, which are rejected by the political system. Whether astrology is irrational or not it still points to an inconsistency if the book argues that politicians are driven to reflect the public’s views. Why do politicians profess belief in God but not in astrology? It sounds like the book does not sufficiently investigate this kind of distinction, in Tyler’s view.

  • michael vassar

    I think that the last sentence of this post is terribly important. Those who don’t get the point of overcoming bias, and even those who can, simply can’t see how much it costs us to live in the world as it is, relative to what the world would be like if a much higher standard of rationality is typical. People become blaze. They live in a world saturated with irrational disagreement and cannot even imagine what it would be to live in a world of factual agreement.
    The first two verses of “Imagine” come to mind.

    OTOH, Tyler didn’t say he was surprised by the rationality of the public, but rather by the greater rationality of political decision makers than of the public, for instance, regarding astrology. I think it is fair for him to be confident in his rationality when it agrees with the actions taken by political decision makers and disagrees with those of the public. Are you really suggesting that we should take astrology more seriously?

  • _Gi

    Even most believers in astrology realize that conventional science does not regard astrology as reality-based discipline. Moreover, open belief in astrology is contrary to wide-spread theological doctrines. Perhaps it is simply not popular enough to be a factor.
    Also, don’t forget Nancy.

  • Well, the sheepish cover is pretty cool, whatever Tyler thinks.

  • One might also argue that the phrase “rational voter” is an oxymoron, since voting is irrational, at least at the national level. The odds of a vote making a difference are too small to overcome the costs of voting, on virtually any plausible assignment of utilities.

  • Carl Shulman


    Do you mean irrational for an individual with purely selfish preferences? A bad economic policy or war can cost trillions of dollars or many thousands of lives. If you are in a swing state during a close American presidential election (or better yet, an early presidential primary), you might have a one in a million chance of changing the outcome for the better, for an expected net benefit to others of over $1 million. If you are even somewhat altruistic, and don’t know of much more effective charities to expend energy on, then this could be worth a half hour of your time.

  • Doug S.

    Voting isn’t irrational behavior. There is a payoff for voting: you get to signal to others that you are a responsible citizen.