Rational Depending on Context

by Don Boudreaux on May 7, 2008

in Myths and Fallacies, Politics

Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter : rationally, I’m a big fan.

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M. Hodak May 7, 2008 at 10:05 am

This implies that those who have access to the minds of our children will have the greatest long-run impact on our politics.

With public school curricula managed by the most obsessive do-gooders in any given county, and teachers unions who equate classical economics with capitalistic propaganda, we have what one could argue is state-enforced economic ignorance.

Mr.Beachbums May 7, 2008 at 11:47 am

Rational or not rational is depend on how much false information being injected into their brains.
All of terrorist leader knew it well, and if not how could they recruit new member and preach them there is a Holly war which could lead them to Heavens.
Not only that after 911 all of us do the same failure and very reactionary to said yes for counter attack.
In election they vote their idols since their idols got the most hits on myspace.
Viva Hollywoods

OregonGuy May 7, 2008 at 12:05 pm

Interesting book. And, thanks for the link to your Pittsburgh Live article.

Bret May 7, 2008 at 12:26 pm

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.

John V May 7, 2008 at 12:38 pm

Having read the book, I must say that that is, by far, the best explanation of Caplan's thesis that I have ever read. Concise and unambiguous.

Matt May 7, 2008 at 12:53 pm

" But if by "govern themselves" is meant that people generally vote sensibly, the answer is "no, typically."

An economist should tells us that government equilibriates over long periods, and we want voters to shorten the equilibrium period.

Hammer May 7, 2008 at 1:45 pm

Bret: The point is if you feel happy about shooting yourself in the foot, you might need to reassess your situation. Feeling good doesn't always mean what you are doing IS good. I am told heroine feels great, but it's use is somewhat less than rational, no?

fundamentalist May 7, 2008 at 1:57 pm

I can't understand Boudreaux's interest in it. Caplan has twisted the definition of irrational beyond comprehension. Irrational means to do something that violates reason. It means to be out of your mind and dangerous to yourself and others, as in schizophrenia. But as Mises repeatedly wrote, reason is a characteristic of being human and all people without brain damage act rationally.

As Boudreaux wrote: "Bryan's conclusion rests on the insight that acting rationally is costly. This means, in part, that it take time and effort to gather and process information."

Caplan's first fallacy is that because the effort is costly, he believes people don't spend any time at all gathering and processing economic information. They just rely on preconceived ideas. Is it really so costly that people do nothing at all about it? And where do people get those "preconceived" ideas? They weren't born with them. They get ideas on economic issues from mainstream media who get them from economists. Watching TV and reading Time doesn't cost much in time or money. Both mainstream media and economists are paid to think about economics, so by Caplan's definition, they can't be irrational.

Take Paul Krugman as an example. A lot of people read the NY Times and take their cues on economics from him. Is that irrational? Is Krugman irrational?

Caplan's second fallacy is extending his already faulty concept if irrationality to include disagreeing with economists. Clearly, Caplan doesn't like Public Choice and the idea that people are rational but ignorant. People can also be rational, well-educated and still be wrong, but that doesn't make them irrational. Caplan seems to think that to be rational you must agree with the majority of economists and ignore the minority.

I hate to venture into assertaining a person's motivations, but I will make an exception. Caplan clearly wants to see some type of institution, like the Supreme Court, run by economists that decides econ policy. In order to justify such an institution, he must convince people that the public is not just ignorant, but out of their minds and dangerous to themselves, the traditional definition of irrational. If he accepted that people were just ignorant, then the obvious solution would be better education. But that doesn't satisfy Caplan. He can't accept that a majority of people understand and accept socialist ideas more than free market ideas because that makes all free market economists failures at selling their ideas. The only option left for him is to convince academics that the public is simply out of its mind.

fundamentalist May 7, 2008 at 2:11 pm

PS, I personally think Caplan is irrational, in the traditional meaning of the word, because he rejects Austrian econ for some very silly reasons.

Grant May 7, 2008 at 2:14 pm

I think the title of Caplan's book is a bit off. "The Myth of the Rational Democracy" would be better, since as others have pointed out, the voters aren't acting personally irrational.

fundamentalist, I think you are way off. Its just a classic public goods problem, except the public good is knowledge of good policy. Take a moment to think how much research one would have to do to truly understand the impact of one's vote, or one candidate being elected over another. Even the research needed to gauge the impact of a single bill passed in congress would be staggering; experts with PhDs rarely agree on such things. How can we expect Joe Voter, with few incentives to look into politics too deeply, to gather the correct information?

Democracy keeps government from doing obviously terrible things, like dropping bombs on New York City or erecting walls to keep citizens from leaving their country. Beyond that, I think its mostly fumbling in the dark.

dave smith May 7, 2008 at 2:26 pm

Bret, in addtion to what hammer said, another problem is that your vote makes me poorer, too.

Sam Grove May 7, 2008 at 2:41 pm

In my conversation with several, um, progressives, they support some socialism because the system is incapable of delivering an ideal state where they get to keep all their bread, so they vote in order to maximize their take of crumbs.

IOW, they hold that that can't exert any major influence, so they settle for some tiny influence…at least theoretically.

Bret May 7, 2008 at 2:46 pm

Hammer asks: "I am told heroine feels great, but it's use is somewhat less than rational, no?"

That'd be a short term versus long term tradeoff. For the terminally ill in pain, heroin use is perfectly rational.

But more importantly, if you believe (likely incorrectly) that heroin use would make your life better overall in the long term, then choosing to use heroin would be a perfectly rational decision.

This is where Caplan has it upside-down in my opinion. Voters may well have beliefs that are incorrect, but their actual votes, based on their beliefs, are probably, on average rational. In other words, if you really believed the stuff they believe, then you would find it perfectly logical and rational to vote the way they do.

Bret May 7, 2008 at 3:01 pm

dave smith write: "…another problem is that your vote makes me poorer, too."

First, my personal vote probably does not make you poorer since given the current state of the universe, I favor moving incrementally towards less regulation, lower taxes, and less government nannying and I vote accordingly. My comment above was hypothetical, not specifically about my actual voting intentions.

But the point is that for the supposedly "irrational voter" that I was portraying, they are simply willing to make the tradeoff that they'll make some people, such as yourself, poorer, in order to pursue some grand scheme for the general betterment of humankind and the universe or whatever. Clearly, you being a bit poorer should not get in the way of such noble plans. They feel very good about this and (especially) since you disagree with them they don't feel the least bit bad about you being poorer. Given that they'll feel wonderful about "doing something" it seems that their vote is perfectly rational. After all, the typical american will probably get by okay no matter how they vote.

Brad Warbiany May 7, 2008 at 4:23 pm


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.

Bret May 7, 2008 at 4:43 pm

Brad Warblany wrote: "So let's say that the average voter's stated reason for voting is to make things better."

"Better" according to left-leaning voters means income more evenly distributed, even if everyone's poorer. Given that, it is rational to vote for more redistribution.

Braid Warblany also wrote: "…that's an indication of the flaws inherent to democracy…"

Yes, democracy is the 2nd worst form of government. What's the worst? All others.

Brad Warbiany May 7, 2008 at 4:59 pm


I think those on the left have a sincere belief that if they institute their socialist policies, that they will improve outcomes for all but the rich capitalist pigs, and we will all live in peace and harmony. Yes, they're idiots, but I think they're sincere idiots.

As for democracy, I've pointed out elsewhere that democracy is a means, while liberty is an end. I consider democracy flawed because it quite often does not meet my preferred end, being liberty. Caplan might argue that democracy is flawed because it doesn't achieve voters preferred end– improved outcomes for all. A Constitutionally-limited representative democracy is pretty close to my ideal government (if I believed in governmnet). Unfortunately our current government removed most of those constitutional limits and simply became a representative democracy.

Bruce May 7, 2008 at 5:06 pm


Assuming that you are correct, and that left-leaning voters recognize the true consequences of their votes, why do we not hear politicians campaigning accordingly? I have heard many politicians say we'll all be better off with a flatter income distribution curve. I have yet to hear one say that flattening that curve will make everyone poorer but that is a worthwhile price to pay to acheive a more egalitarian society. Why the need to lie to voters capable of making rational choices given all the facts?

Andrew May 7, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Excellent review of an excellent book. We can only hope Caplan's work has an impact on those outside the economics and public choice world.

Bret May 7, 2008 at 6:10 pm

Brad Warblany writes: "I think those on the left have a sincere belief that if they institute their socialist policies, that they will improve outcomes for all but the rich capitalist pigs…"

I don't think so. Try the following experiment sometime. Ask a leftist friend which policy s/he would prefer:

Policy A: Rich get 50% richer, poor get 20% richer.

Policy B: Rich get 20% poorer, poor get 10% poorer.

I've asked this to many left leaning friends. After hemming and hawing, once pushed to answer, they always choose B. Every time.

Equal distribution is more important than absolute income for the poor.

Bret May 7, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Bruce wrote: "I have yet to hear one say that flattening that curve will make everyone poorer but that is a worthwhile price to pay to acheive a more egalitarian society."

Of course they don't say that. It just semantic trickery though.

The policies will only make us poorer relative to how rich we would've been if less socialist policies had been adopted. We probably won't actually get poorer compared to the current level. Technology advancements will probably continue to compensate for poor government policies. For example, europe with its much more socialistic policies is still ahead of where it was 30 years ago. It's just behind where it could've been (and the US).

fundamentalist May 7, 2008 at 6:18 pm

Grant: "How can we expect Joe Voter, with few incentives to look into politics too deeply, to gather the correct information?"

I agree with you that voters are wrong about their economic choices. I have no problem with that. But they're not irrational. They're excersizing sound division of labor and allocation of resources based on cost/benefit analysis. They let the "experts" do the heavy lifting, as they should. What could be more rational?

Caplan has an agenda: he wants a Supreme Court-like institution for economists. To achieve that, he has to torture the meaning of the word irrational.

It should be obvious to Caplan that rational people can arrive at different conclusions about the same subject if they start with different premises. Marxists are not irrational; they just value different things highly and start with faulty premises. Getting the reasoning and analyses correct are the easiest part. The hard part is arguing over premises.

fundamentalist May 7, 2008 at 6:21 pm

PS, Caplan clearly doesn't understand what the founders of our republic were trying to do. They had no intention of creating a state that would produce optimum prosperity or efficiency or any other optimality. They had a conservative, defensive strategy in mind. They wanted to prevent the worst kind of government, tyranny. In order to do that, they knew we would have to settle for mediocrity frequently.

Mathieu Bedard May 7, 2008 at 6:50 pm


You have to understand that the term rational conveys a special concept in economics that is not exactly the dictionary's definition.

I had a similar argument with a peer that insisted on the fact that the dictionary's definition of "artificial" means created by man, and that since all prices are the product of human interaction they're all artificial, rather than what the economist means, aka different from his natural state. The problem is not that it's not true, but you have to understand that in the modern economist's jargon, whether you agree or not, rational (and artificial..) has a precise meaning that is different from other language's definition of rational.

Now, you take the example of Mises' very precise definition of rationality. You wrote;

It means to be out of your mind and dangerous to yourself and others, as in schizophrenia. But as Mises repeatedly wrote, reason is a characteristic of being human and all people without brain damage act rationally.

But that's not really correct. If you read Mises correctly, even schizos are rational. For to be rational, by Mises' definition, is to act. Being irrational is to respond to stimuli without acting, like with reflexes for example. The doctor's knocking on your knee and your foot goes kicking? That's irrational. Therefore rationality is a characteristic of all human action, sane or not.

But once again that's a very particular definition of rationality that is not the consensus in economics. There is only one economic science which everyone's allowed to influence and help evolve. To reject 70 years of science is pretty foolish and is not really helping Austrian concepts be

a) taken seriously
b) integrated into the mainstream corpus.

Think about an article every econ undergrad of the last 30 years has read, Robert Lucas' Critique. He's more or less (more than less) saying the same thing Mises is in the 5th chapter of Human Action. Do you think he would have had half as much success going all Mises-Warrior on macroeconomics?

The question of whether the mainstream definition of rationality is relevant or not is another discussion, and I would most probably agree with you on that, and my feeling is that so would professor Boudreaux.

Gil May 7, 2008 at 10:41 pm

It'd be nice to think the U.S. Founding Fathers had a go at creating a minimalist democratic government on the grounds that politicians could be elected out of office if they were starting to get power-hungry. Usually in dictatorial society a revolution has to be had when people want change when leaders go bad.

vidyohs May 8, 2008 at 7:29 am

Irrational voter? I believe it has accurately been said that "it doesn't matter who casts the votes, it is the one who counts the votes that matters".

Today, May 8, 2008, the irrational voter is the one who goes into the voting booth believing that his vote for state and federal office seekers is going to actually choose a "public servant".

As the "King" of Guadelupe County (hispanic democrat), Texas said to Lyndon Johnson on the election day of his first run for the U.S. Senate, "how many votes do you need?"

Texas is the state where "vote the graveyard" was created.

Are there any rational voters at all, if so, where would one find them?

When you live in a tryanny the only votes that matter are the ones you load into your rifle's magazine.

Before you scoff at my statements, review some of the recent decisions passed down by the Supreme Court, since the enactment of the Patriot Act, regarding the power of the state. The cop that pulls you over can now arrest you for any reason he chooses without having to show anything more than a fabricated suspicion, "He was acting strange like he was on drugs" is good enough and can fit any of us. "Strange" being defined by the cop as being unwilling to accept his dictates. Ten years ago they could detain you at the spot until a warrant had been issued and you and your vehicle checked out, but not just arrest you and haul you off to jail because you didn't knuckle under.

So, you rationally knuckle under to avoid the hassle……partner, you just voted in the only real way that counts.

vidyohs May 8, 2008 at 7:38 am

BTW Mark,

Your comment to begin the discussion wasn't improved upon by anyone. You're exactly right.

Hammer May 8, 2008 at 10:23 am

I can't speak to the specific definition of "rational" Caplan applies in his book, but I think there is a very good argument that most people apply a much higher standard of thought process to some parts of their lives (usually professional) than they do to the rest. When you really sit down and map people's ideas and beliefs about how society and government should and do work, they are usually extremely contradictory. My favorite example of late is a women I work with explaining to me that she thought it was important to get kids the best education possible, stating that she thinks public schools are generally bad, private schools are generally better, but that it was important to have public schools because it was possible for private schools to be as bad as public. She didn't think private schools could be worse than public, but at their worst would be the same. She didn't see why her analysis was faulty.

I look forward to her going to vote…

That's the first part of the irrationality. Just not being able to really build a strong framework of how to get to point B from A.

Part of this stems from the second irrationality: agreeing out of hand with politicians or pundits whose ideas or plans make you feel good. People line up behind these folks often with nearly no thought other than "I like the sound of that." They then spout off talking points as though they have really given the issues thought. In reality all they are doing is giving their vote to the speaker who makes them feel the best.

There are many more examples, but those are the two biggest I think of how people simply are irrational in their voting behavior. People can be very irrational in a number of ways, generally those ways without quick feedback on the results of their actions.

fundamentalist May 8, 2008 at 1:42 pm

Mathieu: "rational (and artificial..) has a precise meaning that is different from other language's definition of rational."

So what is this special definition of rational?

Caplan offers a summary of his definition of irrational in his exec summary: "The central idea is that voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational— and vote accordingly. Despite their lack of knowledge, voters are not humble agnostics; instead, they confidently embrace a long list of misconceptions."

So in Caplan's view, what turns ignorance into irrationality? Confidence! If you accept Caplan's definition of irrationality, then you would have to say that most economists are irrational because "they confidently embrace a long list of misconceptions." In that case, I would say that Caplan is one of the most irrational.

But what I don't understand is why Caplan doesn't delve into where people get their misconceptions. I agree completely with him that the public holds a lot of misconceptions about economics. But I also insist that most economists are chock full of misconceptions, too, but they have no excuse. They're paid to study it while the public isn't. Caplan seems to think that the public is born with these misconceptions. He really should study research on how ideas get transmitted through a society. The public gets their ideas from opinion leaders such as politicians and the media, who in turn get those ideas from economists.

Cato May 8, 2008 at 11:05 pm

Has anyone ever heard of the basic human instinct of tribalism?

It is a common world wide condition. It creates a sense of security by being part of something as well as a barrier against those who are not part of your tribe and we are all afflicted. In the US, people don't just belong to one tribe but many.

Being an avid fan of your favorite (you fill in the blank)team prevents you from appreciating the skills of their opponents.
Will a Chicago Cubs fan turn against them because they lose year after year? Will some of them continue to hate their tormentors? You bet…that is until one of those tormentors gets traded to the Cubs.
How about religion? How many people rationally choose their own religion when brought up in a religious family of a specific faith? And let's not even mention race.

All I'm getting at is that politics is just another form of tribalism. Party affiliations are formed at young ages and fester in an individual until they become "true believers" and irrational.

Just think about the job description of our political leaders. "To protect and defend the Constitution of the USA". Now ask yourself how many people do you know who have actually read the US Constitution and The Federalist Papers? Have you? I'd venture a guess of not many judging by the amount of unconstitutional legislation constantly being passed by our government leaders.
And finally, how many people do you know, including yourself, who have ever opened a book on economics and made an effort to understand how economic forces react to stupid legislation? And how many people still think that government run health care is good despite clear evidence that it has failed in every civilized nation that has it while our system remains the best in the world?

Rationality, indeed.

fundamentalist May 9, 2008 at 9:02 am

Cato: "How many people rationally choose their own religion when brought up in a religious family of a specific faith?"

Actually, it's a myth that people remain in the religion of their family. A recent study by the Pew Institute shows that mobility among religious groups, and between religious and nonreligious groups is quite high. But then anyone raised in a religious family already knows this.

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