Bryan Caplan  

Myth of the Rational Voter 2016

Henderson on the Case Against ... Wishful Thinking and Unintende...
In 2007, I published The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad PoliciesEvery presidential election year, people ask for an update, and I normally say, "Nothing's changed."  But 2016 really does look like an outlier.  My thoughts:

1. While the public perennially exhibits what I call anti-market and anti-foreign biases, 2016 is egregious.  Sanders is anti-market bias personified, Trump is anti-foreign bias personified.  Sadly, my claim that the median American is a "moderate national socialist - statist to the core on both economic and social policy" looks truer than ever.

2. While Sanders' odds of winning the nomination are now low, his policy views seem closer to the median Democrat's than Clinton's.  The typical Democrat will vote for Clinton's name recognition and general electability, but still pines for Sandersian socialism. 

3. Trump's average policy views may be farther from the median Republican's than his rivals'.  But he's the only candidate whose anti-foreign bias matches the median Republican's.  I've long thought this was important to Republicans, but it now looks like anti-foreign bias matters more to them than all other issues combined.   And unlike Sanders, Trump started out with more name recognition than his competitors - an edge that's snowballed over time.

4. After bleakly assessing public opinion, The Myth of the Rational Voter argues that democracies normally deliver substantially better policies than the public wants.  The political system tends to quench the public's anti-market and anti-foreign urges while substantially watering down the policy poison.  In 2016, one of the main dilution mechanisms has badly failed: Using social pressure to check and exclude hard-line demagogues. 

5. Fortunately, most of the other dilution mechanisms remain intact.  Most notably: (a) While the public often likes crazy policies, they resent the disastrous consequences of those crazy policies.  This gives politicians a strong incentive for felicitous hypocrisy once they gain power - especially when contemplating policy change.  (b) The median voter has a short attention span, so relatively sane elites have more influence in the long-run than the short-run.  (c) Old-fashioned checks and balances: Congress, the Supreme Court, and state governments make it hard for Sanders or Trump to fulfill their promises even if they want to.

6. As a puritan, Sanders revolts me and Trump horrifies me.  Even impotent populism makes my flesh crawl.  The spectacle of populism-with-a-prayer-of-a-chance has already lost me hours of sleep.  Trump in particular keeps intruding on my Bubble.

7. Flesh crawling aside, the actual consequences of a Trump or Sanders presidency remain shrouded.  I'd bet that deportations (de jure plus de facto) rise under Trump, and give a 25% chance that the 1965 immigration act is amended in an anti-immigration direction.  But I can also easily imagine four years of gridlock. 

8. Main 2016 worry: My base rate for war between the United States and another major power is about 2% per presidential term.  For Trump, I'd up the odds to 5% per term.  Yes, I know by some measures he's less hawkish than his Republican rivals and Hillary.  But his macho persona and casual remarks seem more predictive than his public statements.
9. Neither Sanders nor Trump "prove me right."  My case rests on stable features of democratic politics, not the latest salacious stories.

10. Still, if voters were rational, Sanders and Trump wouldn't stand a chance.  None of the candidates would survive serious scrutiny, but Sanders and Trump would be thrown out as soon as they delivered one short speech.

11. Suppose an Hispanic version of Donald Trump were thrilling Hispanic voters.  Call him Donaldo Trumpo.  Opponents of immigration would plausibly fear that El Donaldo is a classic strongman plotting to turn the U.S. into a banana republic.  And they would hasten to the inference that Hispanics are fundamentally authoritarian and unfit for democracy.  If 2016 doesn't convince you that political externalities are a two-way street, nothing will.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Tim writes:
2. While Sanders' odds of winning the nomination are now low, his policy views seem closer to the median Democrat's than Clinton's. The typical Democrat will vote for Clinton's name recognition and general electability, but still pines for Sandersian socialism.

This strikes me as somewhat rational and a counter argument to the "myth of the rational voter".

For instance, strong Libertarian views might strike me as irrational (just as strong social Democrat views strike you as irrational). And yet.... Even if Libertarian views are closer to the median Republican (which was the conventional wisdom before Trump), a Libertarian voter supporting Mitt Romney over Gary Johnson, because she recognizes that that Romney is a lesser evil than a sure loss to even a neoliberal Democrat, strikes me as a rational act.

Tom Jackson writes:

I notice that the Kindle version of "The Myth of the Rational Voter" is still above $15. Wouldn't 2016 be a good year for Princeton University Press to put the Kindle on sale?

RPLong writes:

@ Tom Jackson - the myth of the rational reader? Or maybe it's surge pricing?

Richard writes:

The anti-foreigner bias would probably be a lot less important in politics if it wasn't for nonstop mass immigration continuing forever. People don't like being demographically overwhelmed, and we should accept that part of human nature, not try to work around it.

We have a media and education system that is almost unanimously liberal. If you can't convince people to accept immigration under these circumstances, you never will.

AS writes:

The anti-foreign bias identified in the book was related to international trade deficit, not immigration. Immigration is different because it can bring social and political externalities that mere long distance trade does not. So I'm not sure that being opposed to immigration is necessarily a "bias". It could just be a rational response to those social and political externalities.

LD Bottorff writes:

Professor Caplan,
I'm a conservative Republican, but my views on immigration are closer to yours than to Trump's. If you think Trump intrudes on your bubble, just imagine what it's like for me to have to face the prospect of voting for Hillary because the Republican candidate is sooo bad.
You claim that voter distraction, or short attention span is responsible for ameliorating the bad policies that voters prefer. I think that the role of lobbyists also plays a part. Politicians need to convince voters that they think as they do, but politicians still listen to lobbyists. And when really bad ideas become the rage, people like the Koch brothers can help counter that with donations to organizations that support more reasoned policies. All that could change if Hillary gets her chance to overturn Citizens United.

Thomas writes:

"Irrational" in your lexicom seems to mean "disagrees with me."

Don Boudreaux writes:

Thomas: I recommend that you read Bryan's 2007 book. You will discover that you are very much mistaken in what you infer about the meaning that Bryan attaches to "irrational."

Frans Alexander writes:

Actually, the whites voting for Trump are finally exhibiting a rational awareness of the way mass immigration is leading to their dispossession as a people. They are becoming aware that their group interests, economically speaking, are threatened by mass immigration from non-whites interested in pursuing their own ethnic interests, assisted by the diversity regime which now dominates the United States.

Even on libertarian grounds one can argue that mass immigration goes against white Americans, as Stefan Molyneux argues here:

I am sure Caplan would struggle in the same way as this open borders advocate for white nations struggles on Israel question:

Levi Russell writes:

Is your conception of anti-foreign bias totally focused on international trade and immigration? I only ask because, for all his (absurdly egregious) faults, Trump is at least marginally less likely than a few other R's (and maybe Clinton) to carpet bomb children.

D writes:

I'd really enjoy it if Bryan could go on Stefan Molyneux's podcast. Molyneux is one of a very small handful of people who displays courage and honesty of the issues surrounding mass immigration.

Bryan is fairly educated on these topics - IQ, its heritability and group differences, criminality, culture, institutional degradation, etc. - even though he tends to avoid dealing with them.

Most public debates on the topic by economists are framed in terms of "humans are just widgets", wages, and worker displacement.

John Hamilton writes:

While I largely agree with you, I think feel less certain about my beliefs... For example, you say that "if voters were rational, Sanders and Trump wouldn't stand a chance". Did you know Dani Rodrik is voting for Bernie Sanders? You know, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik: Tyler Cowen said he looked most forward to reading Dani Rodrik's new papers. Is Dani Rodrik irrational? Will Wilkinson has also implied that he may vote for Bernie Sanders as well. I think rational people can disagree! (I should note that I think Cowen and McArdle are right on Sanders, and there is no good defense of Trump, despite Jonathon Chait's best efforts

Mark writes:

John Hamilton, I think it's a valid point that the critique of irrationality is hard to distinguish from merely claiming someone is wrong.

One thing that I think can be said about the Trump/Sanders phenomenon is that politics currently is more driven by emotion and pathos than by policies or coherent reasons (coherent, not necessarily sound).

I think of a rational voter perhaps being on who can articulate the policy positions they favor in their chosen candidate and the reasons they like said policies, even if they're bad policies and bad reasons. Trump and Sanders supporters generally are more likely to argue on the basis of aura and narrative, with little mention of policy positions or articulated reasons.

Frans Alexander: "Actually, the whites voting for Trump are finally exhibiting a rational awareness of the way mass immigration is leading to their dispossession as a people."
There are no group interests, only individual interests. I am better off for being able to buy cheaply made foreign goods or goods made cheaply by foreigners here. Do you think I want to pay $20 for a box of strawberries because they were picked by another caucasian? Trump is regress. Racialist demagogues like Al Sharpton have only helped to stunt their communities; the last thing anyone needs is a white Al Sharpton (in other words, a Trump).

Frans Alexander writes:

Hamilton wrote:

"There are no group interests, only individual interests."

Not true:

You may be better eating your strawberries, but the whites who compete with cheaper labour, the white middle class paying for more services to support masses of immigrants, deal with crime, etc, etc, is not better off.

What Al Sharpton and most black leaders demonstrate, including Hispanic and Jewish leaders, is a predilection to promote the interests of their group, while expecting Whites to play only individualist strategies. And there is no denying that only Whites have a stronger disposition to act apart from groups in the name of universal ideals. Europeans, particularly Northern Europeans, are the least collectivist of all peoples, which is leading to their colonization by hordes of aggressive-collectivist Muslims. Trump is expressing, implicitly, White identity.

[N.B. The quote "There are no group interests, only individual interests" seems to not have been written by the commenter John Hamilton, but instead by the commenter Mark. Please try to make correct attributions when quoting other commenters in the thread.--Econlib Ed.]

Dwayne Woods writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Doug S. writes:

Yes, political externalities work both ways. I am an out atheist, and there are many countries in the world where it would be illegal to express my views - and 13 of them would execute me for it. So forgive me if I fear immigration by people who would have me killed.

gda writes:

Commenters would do well to note that Trump's positions, while seemingly extreme, will always be moderated/negotiable. Calm your fears.

Trump is absolutely right that our politicians are clueless about how/whether to prevent China et al from taking undue advantage of us by currency manipulation etc.

We have indeed been sold a bill of goods when they ask us to believe that full open borders and globalization is, ipso facto, a "good thing". Economists (mere social scientists, remember), are not entirely innocent of developing and promulgating this false belief. If only people were widgets, then they might be on to something.

Those "conservatives" who would vote for Clinton over Trump are demonstrating very clearly that they know the game is rigged and that they just want to continue to suck at the teat. After all, better to be on the outskirts of the Inner Party(s) than risk being cast adrift, right?

Mark writes:

Frans Alexander,

I wrote that actually, not Hamilton.

Also, in my field, most of the people I compete with for jobs are white or Asian. Cheap immigrant labor increases my purchasing power. An influx of educated European immigrants, on the other hand, might reduce my wages.

"What Al Sharpton and most black leaders demonstrate, including Hispanic and Jewish leaders, is a predilection to promote the interests of their group, while expecting Whites to play only individualist strategies."
What you're describing is nothing more than a rendition of the prisoner's dilemma, and here, the optimal strategy is for everyone to abandon childish notions of ethnic solidarity and play the individualist game. A country full of collectivists belonging to different warring collectives is not a recipe for a prosperous or harmonious or free society.

Mark S writes:

Could you talk about the following topics in future posts?

(a) Gary Johnson's second bid
(b) FairTax and its feasibility. Do you prefer it to the status quo?
(c) lawsuit to get included in presidential debates and how important (or unimportant) it is

I got curious after listening to the following FT podcast episode:

Frans Alexander writes:

Mark wrote: "A country full of collectivists belonging to different warring collectives is not a recipe for a prosperous or harmonious or free society."

-------- except that Europe industrialized with strong collective identities, no immigration, and all liberal democratic institutions in Europe were created in those nations in Europe with a strong sense of ethnic identity. Those
states in Europe possessing a high degree of ethnic homogeneity, where ancestors had lived for generations – England, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark – were the ones with the strongest liberal traits, constitutions and institutions. On the other hand, those states (or empires like the Austro-Hungarian Empire) composed of multiple ethnic groups were the ones enraptured by illiberal forms of ethnic nationalism and intense rivalries over identities and political boundaries.

I am still waiting for answer to this question: can Caplan respond better than this open borders advocate at Molyneux's show?

Rasa writes:

"Flesh crawling aside, the actual consequences of a Trump or Sanders presidency remain shrouded."

This is fascinating and a bit strange to see a passionate defender of the middle of the road. My thought is that when giant obstructions block the road, one must choose to swerve left or right (sadly up or down does not seem to be a political option). How you swerve can define your politics, but if you don't swerve, and blindly embrace the obstruction, you eventually become the obstruction - and ta-da! - Beltway politics! This was an interesting article to read for the comments as well. I'm not used to seeing reasoned calm arguments from the right these days. It used to be that you could read William F. Buckley and disagree but you didn't feel intellectually assaulted. Still, how someone can see the Koch brothers as a good check against radical social ideas is downright scary to me (plutocracy is undemocratic by definition) but at least it seems like the honest explanation I've wanted from the right. From that point of view one can at least better define the issues. - and speaking of which, if you need oligarchy to defend yourself from democracy you might want to redefine your political label.

Floccina writes:

Trump seems to be a double bagger, anti-foreign and anti-market bias.

Sanders too is not great on immigration or war. He derided open boarders as a Koch idea and he proposed supporting a Sunni Muslim collision in Syria. He is also very much against trade with foreigners and rails against jobs lost due to international trade.

Floccina writes:

One more thing since the most important issues to me are literal war and the drug war I must consider Trump. Trump is less likely to bomb or put troops in Syria and more likely to end the war on drugs.

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