We the Sheeple (Ep. 98)

Listen now:

(Photo: Vox Efx)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “We the Sheeple.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)  The gist: politicians tell voters exactly what they want to hear, even when it makes no sense — which is pretty much all the time.

With the Presidential election finally almost here, this is the last of our politically themed podcasts for a while. We’ve previously looked at how much the President really matters (updated here); whether campaign spending is as influential as people think; why people bother to vote (related Times column here); whether we tell the truth in polls; and whether we should consider importing the British tradition of Prime Minister’s Questions.

“We the Sheeple” features Bryan Caplan, the economist-author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. You might have read or heard from Caplan in other Freakonomics venues, including “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting,” in which he discussed another of his books, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

Caplan is, to put it gently, not a fan of our current political system. At he puts it in the podcast:

CAPLAN: You know, if you’re a successful politician, you know you don’t succeed by figuring out what’s really going on in the world and trying to explain it to people. You need to find out what people what to hear and then tell it to them. That’s what you see in debates. That’s what you see voters, successful politicians instinctively are trying to read people, trying to read their faces, what does this person want me to say to him, and that’s how they win.

Caplan also shares with us a letter he received from a Virginia state senator after The Myth of the Rational Voter was published. The senator wanted to thank Caplan for “confirming by your research that my ideas about the stupidity of voters is a valid thought”:

In the podcast you’ll also hear Steve Levitt talk about what he sees as the biggest upside of voting:

LEVITT: I think the reason most people vote, and the reason I occasionally vote is that it’s fun. It’s fun to vote, it’s expressive, and it’s a way to say the kind of person you are, and it’s a way to be able to say when something goes wrong when the opponent wins, “well I voted against that fool.” Or when something goes right when you voted for a guy to tell your grandchildren, “well I voted for that president.” So there’s nothing wrong with voting. [But] I think you can tell whether someone’s smart of not smart by their reasons for voting.

Levitt also tells us what he thinks of the idea of compulsory voting, as practiced in Australia and other places. FWIW, we just received an e-mail on this topic from an Australian reader named Andrew Mannion:

There is a sense that it’s a waste for those who have no interest in politics, although for most of us, voting is just a Saturday morning chore (all our elections are held on Saturdays) to be done with before watching the football or cricket. There is an upside though: with compulsory voting, there’s no need for political parties to spend big dollars on getting people out to vote. Here, that’s guaranteed. So what money is spent – and there’s far less of that here – can be spent on selling policies.

And finally, below is a list of the music that you’ll hear in this episode. David Herman is our engineer and among his many skills is an excellent taste and feel for the music that elevates our podcast above the mere chatter of stationary people. From now on, we’ll try to list the music for all episodes.

“We the Sheeple” Music Credits:

Song Title Artist  Album
Witching Hour Blues Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators Harlem Mad
It’s About Time Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics It’s About Time
Things I Like to Do Lord Echo Things I Like To Do
Agenda Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics It’s About Time

David Mint

We recently pulled some data on the non-voters in American presidential elections since 1828, the first year that vot turnout data was readily available. What we found about non participation we eye opening. Depending upon how one views a non-vote, it could be said that only one President has been chosen by a simple majority of the American people in its entire history: Eisenhower in 1952. You can see our numbers and analysis at the following link: http://davidmint.com/2012/10/23/the-silent-majority-why-no-one-will-win-the-2012-presidential-election/

Thanks again for sharing some insight into the voters mind and all the best!

Jacob E

It's awesome that you guys are listing the music for the episodes. David Herman does an excellent job with the music and the audio.


When I hear that economists don't vote because their vote doesn't matter, it strikes me as being similar to that other joke about the economists walking by the $20 bill on the ground saying "that can't be a $20 bill or someone would have already picked it up." They treat themselves as separate from the system. They tell us we should think more like them, but if we did no one would vote. A vote for the lesser of 2 evils registers some input into the US political process while no vote is a vote for the system to continue as it is. Is that what they want?


This is a great talk. But to me it seems like a double edge sword, to use a cliche. While both politicians lip service should be repugnant to any educated and critical person, there are still good ideological reasons to vote. Some people think the government should enforce their religious norms, for example, and others think the government should not. That seems to be a perfectly good ideological reason to vote, despite what the candidates also say.

Which is why it often comes down to voting for the lesser two evils. Though, an extra problem is introduced when the politician saying what you consider to be more nonsensical is the one in the party which you line up better ideologically.

I've always been torn on the issue of "voter turnout." On one hand, I think that encouraging people who are uninformed, easily misguided, and generally under analytical are ill equipped to be making group decisions for the welfare of the nation.

On the other hand, it seems like often times the first people to opt out are the people who are the most educated, most analytical, and most well informed. Because they feel cold to both candidates, they are more likely to opt out, which can ultimately make the decision even worse, by leaving in the hands of a group that is even more bereft of information or critical thought.

Is there any solution?



I’ll take a stab at a solution.

The issue is that this is a market place of ideas and we, the people, need to vote (demand) in order to shift what is being supplied.

The problem is that people are not being very discriminating in how they give their vote.

The politician (supplier) is pitching themselves with the fervor of a late night infomercial, whose promises are just as likely to evaporate upon delivery.

In order to avoid the bait and switch normally being supplied, people need to vote for a package that promises to deliver little more than unbiased simplicity and transparency in providing only basic public goods (defense, police, fire protection, etc.) and addressing difficult to tackle externalities (pollution).

As long as people keep voting for some magician who promises a cavalcade of goodies upon election (at someone else’s expense), we are doomed to a repeat of this sad show over and over again.

And don’t be afraid to vote 3rd party. This may signal the two main hucksters (Dems and GOP) to change their show.



I have to wonder about the claim that "politicians tell voters exactly what they want to hear". Quite apart from the fact that I can't instantly recall any mainstream politician ever telling me anything I wanted to hear, it seems pretty obvious that voters are divided into groups with vastly different opinions. Thus if some candidate - say RIchard Mourdock - tells one group exactly what they want to hear, that creates considerable reaction from those who don't want to hear it.

Emil Lime

Exactly. Competing tribes of voters who vote exactly the same way for 100's of years. What are the names of these factions. What are the names of the parties who are voted for by these factions. When have factions changed parties. Which factions are growing in influence. Michael Lind claims that the Republican and Democratic parties switched names in the 60's. due to the invitation of the African American Faction into the Democratic Party. So, that makes Roosevelt a representative of what is currently called the Republican Party. That's what needs to be uncovered. That is why nobody understands politics in the US anymore.


Hogwash. It was the Democrat party that wouldn't allow African Americans to vote. Case in point is Condalezza Rice's father. He wanted to sign up to vote and the Democrats wouldn't let him, so he went to the Republican party and signed up. That's why she's a Republican to this day. That's also why Senator Robert Byrd was in the Democrat party, and in the KKK, and remained in the Democrat party. The Democrat party was, and still is, a party that looks at people as groups based on skin color, or sex, or union membership . . . and not as individuals with minds of their own. Just look at what they do to members of those groups who "go off the reservation" or "plantation."


Many years ago I determined the real value of democracy is in suppression by the illusion of consensus. This is much better than suppression by force in most ways.

But really the 'stupid voter' is just another face of the 'stupid consumer', pandering to the lowest common denominator is the key to success in anything dealing with people en mass be it politics, art, entertainment or mundane supply. Even if you isolate a demographic which is supposed to be elite you still need to pander to the basic instincts or lose market to someone who will. Politicians are not an exception by any means. Several great statesmen have remarked how filling a chamber with people who would otherwise be thoughtful, intelligent and even insightful, turns them into idiots. So the senator should really not have said 'they' but 'we'.

Mike Hunter

So Mr. Caplan isn't a fan of our current system. Fair enough. Can he tell us what changes could realistically be made to create a better system? It's unproductive to bitch and moan about something being broken and then not even attempt to find a way to fix it.

Emil Lime

Man, you guys lost me on this one. I contemplate never listening again. Try this. Interview Michael Lind and ask him about the United States Political Calculus. It far and away explains more about politics in the US than anything you statistic logic junkies come up with.

People hate politicians because we make THEM hate US. But that said, who on earth has time to study issue after issue and come up with a rational logical decision on what's best. Nobody. Including POTUS. What we're voting for is a manager. And that has to do with personality. And the only thing people know about managers is judging the managers they have against the uber manager, which is POTUS. It's not about micro managing policy. Sea changes in policy happen when they happen. Civil Rights, it happened eventually. It always takes longer than we'd like, but it eventually happens.

Seriously Levitt, are you really not going to vote? You voted for Obama and now your disillusioned? That is bull up and down. JUST the composition of the Supreme Court should make you vote this time. Alone. That is the real issue that people should think about. Social Justice! care anything about it? You are NOT for strict construction of the constitution. You take pragmatist positions all the time. You're logic causes ambivalent cynicism. Stop teaching people that.



Excellent comment and exactly what I was thinking during the podcast. I stopped listening to Freakonomics before because the podcast had the silliest conclusions.

The guy said "In the last decade a lot of people dropped out of college" (paraphrasing). Really? During the worst recession in 80 years people dropped out of college? Who'd a thunk it! Is the last decade representative then? If this major error was made, what else has he missed?

Yes, there is a lot to despise in the US political system. But not voting is just saying that one side is just the same as the other, which isn't true by a long shot. We can see that by the utter nonsense so many on the far right spew. And not just the lunatics in the wings, I'm talking about elected representatives who say things like "woman's parts have a way shutting that down" when talking about rape and pregnancy. Or "anchor babies" or "Obama hates America", "Secret Muslim", or an entire network (FOX news) that is devoted to propagandizing and supporting these inbred mammals that think the earth was created 6000 years ago, ignore climate science and think evolution is a communist plot brought forward by all the communist democrats.

Do we have to point out that a large part of the Republican party want to turn the US into a theocracy? If they were to succeed, how long would it be until the US had an official religion and mandatory attendance in several states? Yes, it sounds crazy, until you listen to some of the people pushing it. Remember, its for the good of our immortal souls. Your opinion doesn't matter if your a heathen.

And I agree wholeheartedly with your point about the Supreme Court. Should the right get to select two more justices the supreme court will be changed for at least a decade, probably more. And not for the good. Moved towards the right by a party that wants to take the US back to the fifties. The real problem is, they want to take it back to a fifties that never really existed, they just think it did. They imagine a fairyland fifties where White was Right and Still On Top, there were no gays or lesbians, you could still beat your wife and not get arrested and the US government could kick you out of a private sector job because you once belonged in the same photography club as a guy who gave a speech about collective bargaining rights one night at a union drive after work in his basement.

Lets not even mention how Romney is going to get the insurance companies to accept those with "Previous Conditions" when it's going to cost a fortune and they only went for it because of all the extra policies they would sell to healthier people because of the mandate. Unless he wasn't really serious about keeping the "Previous Condition".

But Romney wouldn't lie, would he? He just changed his mind. Thirty seven times. Oh, well, yes, some are now saying he lied under oath in court to help a friend. But that was to help a friend. What's a little perjury between friends?

Perhaps this is all just a clever ruse by Levitt to convince some of those 'low information voters' not to vote at all. That would likely help out Obama. Very clever of you, Levitt. So you really are a Obama supporter?

Finally, "Not one vote ever mattered in an election" (for president). What about a certain election result in Florida? The recount got broken up by a bunch of young republican brown shirt thugs. I think the voters name was H. Chad.


david tseng


I've been listening to your podcasts for the last year or so, I think I've heard about 60-70% of them and I love them. But I'm writing because you guys are so clearly blind to several points when you say that (and I'm paraphrasing) "Stupid people think their vote matters."

1. The intelligence of a person can not be ascertained by any one measure. (this is abundantly obvious, but I'll just point out one counter example: DaVinci believed the world was flat).

2. Your vote does matter. It just doesn't "decide" the election in the sense that it will not be the one vote that puts something over the 50% mark. It matters because if you don't vote, then OTHER PEOPLE's votes will count for more. You take the argument to one extreme: that one person's vote will never determine the election, but you don't go the other way and ask: if nobody votes then who determines the election.

I know what you're thinking: that's a foolish, and simplistic argument. So here's where it really leads: if you don't vote, then when EXIT POLLSTERS ask, "who did you vote for?" You won't be there to answer. And if you don't answer, then your demographic (Asian/white, old/young, educated/not, whatever) will not be represented. And if you aren't represented at the polls, then POLITICIANS won't care about you.

So GO VOTE, because if you don't, politicians will know, and you and your kind will lose influence.

Tell me I'm wrong?



Good podcast guys.

Actually, the men behind the curtain are actually quite happy voter turnout is so low.
How can you direct people towards the system you want if people are thinking and caring?
Answer : you can't.

But, the idea that Americans have only 2 choices, Democrat or Republican, is just foolish and myopic.

There are 3 viable candidates I can think of who weren't even mentioned in the podcast, and before you say, "I'll be throwing away my vote", think about it, if all the apathetic iconoclasts throw away their votes at candidates they actually believe in...
Well, 50% of eligible voters don't vote...they all vote for a candidate besides Romney or Obama...you know what, it's actually very likely a totally unexpected candidate winds up President.

Don't want to be sheeple?

Get your head out of the sand and check out the 3rd party candidates.

I'll even get you started.
Check out the 3rd party Presidential Debate on Youtube :

If you want to "have fun" voting and maybe actually get someone into the oval office who isn't a corporate puppet and a "highly skilled" face reader and emotion panderer, vote your conscience.

And, maybe tell your disenchanted friends too.
Maybe the disillusioned voter can shock the system this election.



At the presidential level there has never been a single vote that has made a difference, but there have been local and state elections where the difference in votes was in the single digits. And of course even in presidential elections there have been cases where a single state made the difference, and that single state was won or lost on a very small number of votes. So categorically stating that your vote makes no difference is simply wrong.

I find it disappointing that such an influential blog advocates less participation, rather than more. We know that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, we know that groups that participate more in the electoral process as a group have a louder voice. And we know that the political parties will slice and dice the results of this election to determine how to target their views in the next election. So yes, your participation matters a great deal, even if you are not the decisive vote for the election.


Eric M. Jones.

"Your individual interests have very little to do with how you vote, very little to do with your views on particular issues. In general it’s not true that rich people are Republican, poor people are Democrats. So there’s a very slight tendency that way, but it’s nothing like the picture people have of the all rich people vote Republican, all poor people vote Democrat."

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics...The wealth vs. voting preferences is not comparable left and right. The Democrats have a fairly even distribution across wealth and voting preferences. The Republicans (now) have a skewed distribution of the rich and powerful who by concentrating on wedge issues and distractions (and Fox "news") have been able to manipulate the less informed voter to follow them and vote against their own self-interest. True, the Democrats have uninformed voters as well, but they are simply uniformed...not lied to and manipulated by a propaganda machine for political purposes.

You might disagree with my analysis, but your statement conceals much that should be discussed. This is not a fair and balanced commentary.



I have to wonder why, if educated people realize that individual votes don't matter, there was such a push for voter ID. Wouldn't the "smart" politicians know that it doesn't matter who actually votes?