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The Myth of the Rational Voter

Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

By Bryan Caplan
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  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan

The Myth of the Rational Voter (2007) is all about the barriers our democracy faces and why they matter. These blinks break down the various misconceptions people have regarding democracy, explaining how they connect to flaws in the democratic method and show why our current forms of democracy don’t work.

Key idea 1 of 9

The averaging of extremes is fundamental to democracy and is what makes it such a functional system.

Many people consider democracy and democratic governance to be two of humanity’s greatest achievements.

After all, democracy is based on a miracle: the miracle of aggregation. Essentially, this refers to the phenomenon that an average answer given by a group tends to be correct.

So, if you ask some people to estimate how many beans are in a glass, some will guess too high and some too low. But when you average out their answers, the deviation in either direction will balance out, making the average very close to the correct number.

When this idea is applied to politics, it’s plain to see that the average voter is not very well informed and that his assessments of political issues tend to be wrong. But, interestingly enough, the divergent opinions of a large group of voters will average out to close to what is true. So, in a democracy, uninformed or extreme positions tend to nullify one another, leading to a more informed and moderate result.

And it’s precisely this middle way between the extremes that makes democracy such a sensible system. In a perfect democracy, popular ideas prevail while extreme viewpoints cancel each other out because of the miracle of aggregation.

This is what makes democratic governments better than dictatorships, in which only certain elites have a say and often hold opinions that are contrary to those of the majority. For example, when the East German government built the Berlin Wall in 1961, the decision stood in stark contrast to the general political sentiment of the East German people. If the country had been a democratic one, the miracle of aggregation would have never allowed such a wall to be built.

So, the miracle of aggregation is what makes democracy function. But sometimes democracies don’t work – and you’re about to learn why.

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