The myth of the rational voter

I wish I had time at the moment to read Bryan Caplan’s new book or the piece he has written at Cato unbound on the myth of the rational voter. Having only done the briefest skim I can’t really comment on the conclusions he reaches. However, the title seams fairly self explanatory.

This has really made me think of all the people I saw interviewed during the election night coverage saying they used to vote Labour but had decided to vote for National because it was “time for a change”. When pressed why change was needed not one person had anything to say. I kept joking at the time that it was the  “obama factor” (where in my opinion change was needed). In hindsight I’m concerned that it was. I can’t help but find it slightly worrying that people voted National but didn’t really have a reason to other then “change”.

Agnitio: Happy National are in but worried about how they got there…..

16 replies
  1. Kimble
    Kimble says:

    I think it is much more likely that people did think it was time for a change but for a wide variety of reasons that are difficult for an individual to list off the top of their head.

    For example, the general arrogance that defined Labours final term may have finally gotten to people, but few would be able to specify a specific incident on which their decision hinged.

  2. billbennettnz
    billbennettnz says:

    Kimble’s right. I just posted these words elsewhere:

    “In my view it’s time to get rid of a leader, any leader, any party, once they start acting like they are born to rule.

    And that’s the problem. Clark, Cullen, Tizard amongst others were all starting to look and sound more like royalty than the representatives of ordinary people.”

    Hence the ‘It’s time for a change’ factor.

  3. agnitio
    agnitio says:

    Just to play devil’s advocate (I don’t need any convincing that getting rid of labour was a good thing), even if people appear to act “more like royalty then the representatives of ordinary people”, if they are still doing what’s right for the people should we throw them out just because we don’t like them?

  4. goonix
    goonix says:

    I can’t see how wanting a change of government isn’t “rational”. As with anything, if you don’t like what you’ve got, you opt for something else.

  5. billbennettnz
    billbennettnz says:


    If a politician came along and just automatically always did the right thing without reference to the wants and needs of the electorate, you’d have a point. I don’t think that’s likely to happen.

    I’m not saying I do this, but I think there’s almost a case for voting against an incumbant government regardless of any other considerations. A better approach is to impose term limits. Three three-year terms is enough for anyone in my book.

  6. agnitio
    agnitio says:

    I just couldn’t help but wonder if some of these people wanted ‘change for change’s sake” not becuase they thought National would acutally do things better.

    I see where you coming from though, for it to be rational the warm fuzzies you get from throwing out labour would have to be wieghed up against the the effect that National’s policies will have on you.

    If you are indifferent between National and Labour’s policies (given how close they both are to the center now that is quite palusible!) then a dislike of Helen Clarke is definitely enough to tip your utility maximization towards throwing labour out:)

  7. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    I agree with Agnitio’s point that change for change’s sake seems like a strange reason to switch governments. However, it’s interesting to contrast that with the recent posts at Overcoming Bias on corruption.

    Essentially Eliezer suggests that people have evolved to be corrupted by power in order to maintain their position. Therefore it is good to have a heuristic by which we change government regularly in order to avoid such negative consequences. However, that doesn’t mean that change is always for the better. It just means that we get a better outcome on average by switching regularly.

    In this case, if people can’t come up with any better reason for change than a heuristic about Labour’s time in power, then maybe the change is not necessarily for the better.

  8. ian
    ian says:

    I agree there is rationality in the ‘time for a change concept’. There is a tendency for Governments to become arrogant in the new zealand context, which I believe was the underlying feature of the current Labour Government. This was reflected in the ministerial working party which aimed to reduce Government expenditure, but then determined all of its expenditure was appropriate.

  9. billbennettnz
    billbennettnz says:

    There’s another aspect to this. You could call it a “Darwinian clash of ideas”.

    A government should be able to push through it’s entire reform programme in three terms of office. If they then turn up at an election arguing for a mandate to ‘finish the job’ they’re just taking the mick.

    Generally governments run out of fresh ideas at about this point anyway. Some governments renew from within, but generally they have to be voted out of office in order to regroup. Having a refreshed Labour party challenge National in three years time would be a very good thing.

  10. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    As I understand it, utility maximisation is a way of modelling people’s decisions – but few economists would say people literally make their decisions by weighing up a series of mathematical equations.

    The corollary to this is: that people can’t articulate reasons behind their decisions doesn’t mean those decisions aren’t rational.

    The problem that Caplan points out is that people are not just ignorant of their reasons, they are actively irrational.

    What I find surprising about his proposed solutions is that he advocates more reliance on free markets. Surely if people are irrational in politics, they are irrational in markets too? Isn’t irrationality an issue across all spheres, and therefore not a good distinguishing feature of any one?

  11. Eric Crampton
    Eric Crampton says:

    Rachel, you’ve not read Caplan carefully enough. In his model, people are rationally irrational: in low consequence, low cost environments (like voting), they’ll indulge their preferences over beliefs; in high consequence environments (like markets), they think a little harder about things. You may well retort that voting is a high consequence environment; in the aggregate that’s true, but each voter’s probability of decisiveness is low enough that he doesn’t worry much about it. Classic externality story, really.

    Caplan’s stuff figures prominently in the last couple of weeks of the public choice class I teach at Canterbury…he was on my dissertation committee….

  12. Nigel Kearney
    Nigel Kearney says:

    Kimble is right. People dislike Labour because of a combination of lots of little things, not any one big things. To name just a couple of little things would seem like a poor reason to change the government so people said ‘change’ instead. But the real reasons are there.

  13. Steve
    Steve says:

    Every voter is irrational because the probability of there single vote making a difference means its not worth voting. Therefore how can we trust anyone to vote rationally, when the mere decision to vote is irrational?

    I saw a recent web video about an economist who refuses to vote because everyone else votes and therefore its not worth it. It was rather interesting but I can’t remember the link.

    Its even worse under MMP because your vote is swallowed by all votes, whereas under FPP your vote is only shared with your electorate (though I suppose its prob actually similar given the probability your vote makes a difference in your electorate and whether your MP makes a difference to the government)

  14. agnitio
    agnitio says:

    I agree that the probability of your vote having an impact is neglible and most people probably realise this.

    However, if you don’t vote then this increases the probability that someone else’s vote will matter (i.e. someone who would vote for the party you don’t want to get in). This could possibly be enough to “ratioanlly” induce someone to vote.

    On the other hand, if you get warm fuzzies just from voting and arguing with people who voted for other parties etc… then it is still rational:)

  15. Steve
    Steve says:

    lets assume it is rational, what about the people that don’t vote?

    I think a good model is that those who choose not to vote don’t get enough “warm fuzzies” or to make enough of a difference, whereas those who do vote, do get enough enjoyment from it. As this number increases the difference for the marginal voter decreases, and eventually we have an equilibrium.

    Maybe this explains the lower voter turnout in America because it is watered down by the larger population.

  16. Eric Crampton
    Eric Crampton says:

    Steve, the economist you’re thinking of is the Econo-God Gordon Tullock. I tell my students that he sits at the head of the Pantheon of the Econ-Gods, hurling thunderbolts at all those who displease him.

    Voting is irrational if it is an instrumental act. If it’s consumption rather than investment, well, economists have little to say about onanism.

    Steve and Agnito: both of you should check out both Caplan’s Myth and Brennan & Lomasky’s prior Democracy and Decision, which lays out the expressive voting argument.

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