Northern Europe’s Rational Voters?

An economist named Bryan Caplan just published a book called The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. You can read the introduction here. A good summary:

This book has three conjoined themes. The first: Doubts about the rationality of voters are empirically justified. The second: Voter irrationality is precisely what economic theory implies once we adopt introspectively plausible assumptions about human motivation. The third: Voter irrationality is the key to a realistic picture of democracy.

American economist/blogger Tyler Cowen (who would be called very much wirtschaftsliberal in Germany) has read the entire book. One of Caplan’s conclusions seems to have come as a surprise to him:

Voters are less irrational in many northern European countries. I don’t agree with their socialistic view of the world, but in epistemically procedural terms they are making a much greater effort to get at the truth and put that truth into their vote. What accounts for such a difference?

In my personal, non-empirical experience, I find political discourse in Germany much more sophisticated than in the U.S. Therefore, I can understand where this observation might come from.

I wonder if it ever occurred to Tyler Cowen, however, that Europe’s ‘socialistic’ policies might just be a result of Europe’s more rational political discourse? I posted a short comment on his site, which I’ve expanded a bit below.

As for me, I actually live in Northern Europe, the land of unusually rational voters. If you were behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, would you prefer ending up as a low-skilled worked in the United States or in, say, Sweden?

In one country, you are guaranteed excellent healthcare. All individual horror stories aside, outcome studies consistently show European healthcare to provide slightly better service, at a lower cost, than one gets in the U.S. (I’ve used both systems, and can see no difference except in price). You get 6 weeks of paid vacation. You get some of the best schools in the world for your children, provided at no extra cost. Beautifully-designed cities. Very little crime. Strong unions. A comprehensive social-welfare system that protects you in the event of adversity, and will provide a modest retirement for you even if you don’t put much aside yourself. These social welfare benefits, in turn, greatly reduce economic pressure, freeing you to make a much more healthy work/leisure tradeoff than is possible to most mid- to low-skilled American workers.

In return for all this, you will have to pay higher taxes, live in a less dynamic econony, and do without some consumer goods like large refrigerators, an auto for everyone, etc. But since you (rationally) don’t believe you’re going to somehow become wealthy during your life, you won’t be misled by ‘class warfare’ propaganda of the kind dished out by millionaires on American TV. ‘Of course the richest people in society will complain about high taxes,’ you’ll say to yourself, ‘I probably would myself, if I were in their position. But I’m not rich, and, as a shop attendant/auto repairman, I almost certainly never will become rich. As long as my taxes are something I can pay comfortably, and as long as they don’t drive all the productive people out of the country, and as long as they pay for services that make my life more secure and rewarding, I can deal with that.’ 

You also (rationally) understand that your taxes benefit everybody, a lot, at the same time, when they are plowed into well-run programs that make your life more secure, and your community safer. An example: You can have a well-designed city with almost no ‘no-go’ areas — like virtually all northern European cities — or you can keep the tax money that pays for all that urban planning for yourself, and instead wall yourself off in a gated community to protect yourself from people who might migrate in from the kinds of desolate urban wastelands that pockmark most cities across the world, including all large U.S. cities. Another example: You may not make enough to own a car. But that won’t affect your life very much, because good urban planning has created an extensive public-transport network that gets you most places you want to go.

Voluntarily accepting an extra 10% of your income being taken away in taxes can be an extremely rational thing to do, provided it’s invested in reasonably well-designed programs that create vibrant, secure communities and a safety net for everyone. Thus, voting ‘socialistic’ can actually be quite rational Which might, perhaps, explain why there is a social-democratic party in just about every country except for the United States.

3 thoughts on “Northern Europe’s Rational Voters?

  1. Yes, arguably rhenanian capitalism and laissez-faire à la européene are rational choices – they have been mine, so far. Unfortunately, it’s not deemed PC to apply the much touted concept of sustainable development here. The era after Franco’s death is labelled destape in Spanish: the act of opening a bottle and hearing a (promising) plop. When the soviet cork was removed from the continent’s political orifice, the anti-Western, anti-Zionist funk of a thousand years cold rise – and we’re smug about it, to hell with consequences.

    There, I did it again, and no four-letter-word to be seen – neither the F nor the I variety! That should spare me a zesty Fatwa or two.


  2. European discourse more politically sophisticated? What do you mean by discourse, Andrew? Conversations with your landlady, Stammtisch debates, German media discussions?

    Let us consider U.S. media and blogs as an example of public discourse. One list of links can be found under on the left side. Many are international, but most are U.S. Now, compare that list to media and blogs under In terms of variety and depth, not to mention energetic creativity and breadth of scholarship, the U.S. is ahead IMHO.

    Irrational? There’s a lack of sound thinking and judgment on both sides of the Atlantic. Surely the re-election of Bush II and his White House Jacobins qualifies, but Germans also re-elected Schroeder, and nearly gave him victory over Merkel, although the domestic policy record of his administration showed one disaster after another.

    Moreover, take a look at online reader responses on “Spiegel” and “Stern” (we’ll save German vulgar Marxists, neo-Nazis, and other extremists for another day): for example, Malzahn’s article “Böse Amis, arme Mullahs” (,1518,474554,00.html); talk about Gleichschaltung. This is political sophistication? More like Agitprop.

    Just what are Europe’s “socialistic” policies? Are they working well? Rates of unemployment are high. Dependent wage-earners are coerced into paying social benefits but not entrepreneurs and civil servants. An army of new proles are working meagerly paid jobs on the periphery of society. Meanwhile, professionals–doctors, lawyers, engineers–are leaving Germany in droves. Businesspersons are relocating plants and facilities to other countries. Hardly promising for the future.

    The Rhineland social market economy model did work well in the post-war years. Social solidarity was high after the war; the U.S. was meeting German defense and security needs; natural resources were relatively cheap; labor was highly motivated; growth rates were fairly constant; globalization wasn’t a real threat. Now the playing field has changed and with it the rules. A paradigm shift is called for, if only to meet the challenge of globalization.

    As for the U.S., what many Europeans don’t realize is that the American welfare state is a huge public enterprise in terms of tax dollars (see under The U.S. has “socialistic” policies as well.

    Among the disadvantages of a social market economy, you do not list what is foremost, namely, as Hayek and de Tocqueville pointed out, the threat to liberty disguised as social benefits. Though I consider the libertarian project largely utopian, the libs do make good points, particularly Hayek with his analysis of socialism’s tendency to lead to totalitarian regimes. There does exist a sort of craven psychology which feeds on bureaucracy and authoritarianism, and overly planned societies encourage it.

    For more on alleged defects of “amerikanische Verhältnisse,” I refer you to Gersemann’s book of the same name, translated into English under the title “Cowboy Capitalism.”


  3. a low-skilled worked in the United States or in, say, SwedenAndrew, no one ever doubted that the German, or any other economic model, works for a selected group of people for a limited amount of time.


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