Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Economic power is exercised by means of a positive, by offering men a reward, an incentive, a payment, a value; political power is exercised by means of a negative, by the threat of punishment, injury, imprisonment, destruction. The businessman's tool is values; the bureaucrat's tool is fear.”     Ayn Rand

May 7, 2008

Rational Voters?

by Brad Warbiany

Over at Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux linked to his article discussing Bryan Caplan’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter.

In the always-wonderful comments section, a commenter named Bret made this point:

So let me get this straight.

If I vote in a way that makes me feel fantastic and wonderful about myself and I really couldn’t care less if I’m poorer because of that vote, then that’s irrational? It would somehow be more rational to vote in a way that makes me feel miserable yet be a bit richer?

This sounds like rationalism run amuck to me.

What is missing here is that he’s not making a point about rationalism, he’s actually pointing out the flaw in democracy. Perhaps at the same time he’s pointing out a flaw in Caplan’s thesis, but when I read it I had to respond:


You implicitly make a great point, but I think you’re drawing the wrong parallel here.

Rationalism could be defined as following the proper course of action to achieve your goals. The course of action which is most likely to achieve your goals is the most rational, the course of action least likely is the least rational.

So let’s say that the average voter’s stated reason for voting is to make things better. In that case, voting for a socialist policy is likely not to achieve his goals, despite the fact that he believes it will. In that case, his vote would be irrational.

In another case, let’s say the average voter’s true (revealed preference) goal is to feel good about himself and feel like he’s a part of the system. In that case, the vote which makes him FEEL best is the most rational, regardless of the outcome.

Note the difference. In the first case, the voter values outcome. In the second, the voter values feeling good. Your implied point is likely that most voters fall into the latter category, not the former.

And if anything, that’s an indication of the flaws inherent to democracy, not of irrationality. Because most voters care more about how they FEEL about their vote (despite professing to care about outcomes), democratic politics tends towards satisfying voters’ emotional needs, rather than realizing the most economically efficient outcomes.

I’ve posted previously that liberty is an end, democracy is a means, and I am only in favor of democracy in as much as it meets the end of liberty.

I think this is the flaw in Caplan’s thesis. He assumes that people are truly interested in using their vote to improve outcomes. I think most (like myself) have become so fatalistic about our inability to affect policy that we rarely believe our vote will change outcomes. Thus, we vote to make ourselves feel better, like we’re doing the right thing. If Caplan assumes that we rationally desire to influence outcomes, of course many people vote irrationally— meaning the policies they vote for won’t achieve the outcome they desire. If Caplan changes his assumption, though, to the same assumption I make— they vote the way they’ll FEEL best about— the votes are no longer irrational. The votes may not achieve the outcome they profess to desire, but the votes do improve their personal happiness, which is likely the true goal.

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