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We the Sheeple (Ep. 98)

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(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

Eric M. Jones.

ps: Most political systems are composed of:

A) The Powerful.
B) The Coalition.

Guess which is which?


Why does Bryan Caplan say he wouldn't even give the politicians a C for something that is completely wrong? Could they get a D then?


I was disappointed. I usually find the insights educational and entertaining. This was just terrible. Large elections, like economics, requires a macro-scale view. The concept of voting and elections doesn't make sense if enough people take the same attitude. If it is indeed OK for many people to not vote then why have a democracy? Is it a joke when other countries vote for the first time; some people even dying to vote, literally. To say you vote because it your vote doesn't count is looking at it the wrong way. Voting is a balance of the community and the individual. Give this more thought and bring true insight not your own eccentric behaviors.


There have been several studies like the one below. Apparently people choose looks above all else.
(I don't watch TV, I don't even own one)


>A few years ago, John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas, both of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland conducted a simple experiment to determine whether election results could really be explained primarily by superficial features.

The researchers gathered photos of the faces of candidates (winners and runners-up) from the 2002 French parliamentary elections. In one experiment, they showed the pairs of faces to more than 680 adults, and asked them to identify which one seemed more competent. Their competence ratings – based only on photos of the candidates’ faces – predicted actual election results 72% of the time.

That, however, is not the most surprising part of their study. In a second experiment, they showed the same sets of photos to 681 children between 5- and 13-years-old. They were told, “Imagine that you will now sail from Troy to Ithaca. Who would you choose as the captain of your boat?” The kids’ decisions correctly predicted actual election results 71% of the time! <



I notice that they didn't perform the obvious follow-up experiment, which is to determine whether actual competence correlates to appearing competent.


Is political (or a politician's) competence even quantifiable?


The issue with the whole "Send a message by not voting" mantra is that it doesn't really send a message to anyone. Not voting, IMO, just says that you are too lazy to be bothered with being involved in your government. Like it or not, the government has some say in your life and you need to be involved.

Don't like the options for president? Then go to the polls and only vote on local issues/candidates. Those have more of an effect on your day-to-day life anyway. Then the numbers show that you care, but aren't happy with the choices for specific offices.

Kristie Dunham

He states that thousands even millions might want to be president, I humbly disagree. I believe that the job is too big for one individual, we need to divide the powers even further. Thoughts anyone...

Kristie Dunham

I saw some comments about how to reform elections, I like the idea of a jury duty like system for Congressional and other offices. Ideas..


Gosh! I sometimes think that when otherwise brilliant people make insane statements that it must be the case that they’ve either had a really bad day at the office, an argument with their spouse, got a really bad meal, or maybe they’ve caught a bug and are under the influence of some good pharmaceuticals. But then I come to realize that maybe… just maybe… it is a really really bad joke presented in the form of a long story with a terrible plot, or, a contrarian brain teaser meant to get us out of our funk.

You are going to vote Levitt, aren’t you?


Why wasn't it argued that people decide to drop out of college due to lack of funds? Or the possibility that the lack of funds make them reconsider their need or fit into normal college education. How arrogant of Caplan to suggest that gov't assistance for college is a total waste. I bet if that gov't were enough, fewer people would drop out.

Conscientious Elector

Not only is voting compulsory here in Australia for federal elections but also state and even local government. So on average, you have to trudge to the library and get in the drone-queue 3 out of every 4 years.

Richard Tasgal

Perhaps an individual vote, even if it is not a deciding one, can be influential because politicians look to the results of past elections to figure out what is popular.


This cynicism has left me cold. I vote because I believe in democracy. I wonder how North Koreans, the Chinese or the Cubans would feel about the right to vote. Would a popular vote have been a good thing in the Soviet Union or Imperial Japan? I vote because many people have given the ultimate sacrifice so I can. So what that it is unlikely that my vote matters because of the share number of voters, or the pandering politicians. I try to be a logical person but a life lead solely on logic is a cold, bitter life. Vive la démocratie!!!