Anthony Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracy (Downs, 1957) is one of the founding books of the Public Choice movement, and one of the most influential social science books of the twentieth century. It has been reprinted and continuously in print (with the exception of a handful of months) for 50 years. Citations to it now surpass that of any other book on American electoral politics, including such classics as Campbell et al.’s The American Voter (1960), which laid the foundations for the behavioral approach to the study of voter behavior that has come to be associated with the University of Michigan (Gray and Grofman, 2005). Downs’ book introduced seminal ideas, such as a cost-benefit calculation of political participation, a spatial model of party competition, knowledge about public affairs as a by-product of other more directly instrumental activities, and concepts such as rational ignorance and cue-taking behavior. While Downs has written more than a dozen other books since 1957, the sum of all this work has not come close to the influence of his first book, and our discussion will focus on this work.

An Economic Theory of Democracy was Downs’ doctoral dissertation in economics at Stanford, and was published without any changes. Several political scientists who read it, including scholars such as Robert Dahl, recognized its innovation and importance, and after being shown the work by Dahl, Charles Lindblom, whom Downs had never met, arranged for three different publishers to offer Downs contracts for its publication (Downs, 1993). Yet, at the time of its publication no one could have truly anticipated its long-run impact on the political science discipline. Remarkably, too, it is largely an accident that Downs wrote on the topic he did, rather than on the political economy of expressways (Downs, 1993). Downs was encouraged to switch dissertation topics by scholars such as Julius Margolis, who introduced Downs to the writings of Joseph Schumpeter, and by his thesis supervisor, Kenneth Arrow (Downs, 1993).


Public Choice Political Participation Median Voter Rational Choice Theory Rational Turnout 
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© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bernard Grofman
    • 1
  1. 1.University of California at IrvineIrvine

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