The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

28 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2007

See all articles by Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan

George Mason University - Center for Study of Public Choice; George Mason University - Mercatus Center


In theory, democracy is a bulwark against socially harmful policies. In practice, however, democracies frequently adopt and maintain policies that are damaging. How can this paradox be explained?

The influence of special interests and voter ignorance are two leading explanations. I offer an alternative story of how and why democracy fails. The central idea is that voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational - and they vote accordingly. Despite their lack of knowledge, voters are not humble agnostics; instead, they confidently embrace a long list of misconceptions.

In the minds of many, Winston Churchill's famous aphorism cuts the conversation short: Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. But this saying overlooks the fact that governments vary in scope as well as form. In democracies the main alternative to majority rule is not dictatorship, but markets. A better understanding of voter irrationality advises us to rely less on democracy and more on the market.

Keywords: brian caplan, democracy, socially harmful policies, special interests, voter ignorance, irrational voters, government scope, form of government, majority rule, markets

JEL Classification: D72

Suggested Citation

Caplan, Bryan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. Cato Institute Policy Analysis Series No. 594, Available at SSRN:

Bryan Caplan (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Center for Study of Public Choice ( email )

Fairfax, VA 22030
United States
703-993-2324 (Phone)
703-993-2323 (Fax)

George Mason University - Mercatus Center ( email )

3434 Washington Blvd., 4th Floor
Arlington, VA 22201
United States

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