Bryan Caplan  

What I Learned At the Library

E for Excited... Professors for Drugs...

I'm in the last stages of my book on voter irrationality. Last week, I reached the part in my plan when I search for recent, relevant articles that I've missed. My plan: Scan all the articles published from 1999 to the present in all of the following journals: American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Economic Journal, Journal of Economic Literature, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Law and Economics, American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, and Public Opinion Quarterly.

The three biggest surprises to come out of my labors:

1. Out of all the journals listed above, the one with the most articles I actually wanted to read was the American Journal of Political Science. Call me a traitor to my discipline, but political scientists who study politics just seem a lot more likely than economists to know what they're talking about, and a lot more likely than economists to have an original and true observation to make.

2. The sky is not falling. Political correctness has failed to break into the top journals in not only economics, but political science as well. Articles about "race, class, gender, and sexual orientation" are rare. When they do get published, they're often actually good. For example, Public Opinion Quarterly had an interesting piece that discussed misconceptions about homosexuality.

3. A common complaint about academic research is that it is "literature-driven" (what Prof. X said about Prof. Y is wrong because of an argument by Prof. Z) rather than reality-driven. From a bird's-eye point of view, this complaint seems overblown. There are lots of published articles that almost seem like they arose in a vacuum. Then the author cited other papers to pretend to be building on an established literature, rather than thinking independently.

Admittedly, most articles aren't worth reading. But that's no big deal, because there isn't enough time in the day to read all the articles that are worth reading.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (7 to date)
John P. writes:

Now, if only someone could come up with a good way of determining which articles are worth reading. . . .

David Thomson writes:

Make sure you read Raymond Wolfinger's classic "Who Votes?" He is the reason why I so accurately predicted that the Democrats were grossly exaggerating their hopes of getting younger people to vote for them in 2004. Wolfinger is apparently a flake liberal---but he’s still brilliant:,R/

asg writes:
Call me a traitor to my discipline...

You're a traitor to your discipline!

Robert Schwartz writes:

When Poli Sci starts to make sense, its time for a vacation.

Michael H. writes:

Hi Bryan
I think this is an interesting subject.
First of all, I would wonder why economist really ever thought the rational voter hypothesis was valid when it is clear the probability that you vote would make a difference is very small.

If you know that your vote is not likely to make a difference but you think you should vote nevertheless, then people would naturally vote in a way they think they should, which is probably how they do vote. In other words, people will look at the potential outcome of an election and vote for the outcome that they think is best for the country and not for themselves. This make perfect sense, why would you risk hell and self-torment by voting for the bad guy who will cut your taxes when you know your vote isn't likely to make a difference anyway, (except it might send you to hell).

The value-added of an intelligent vote is not just he benefit to the voter but the benefit to all the people in society covered by the vote: which could be an enormous benefit even if the probability that you would cast a decisive vote is fairly low (although it isn't as low as you might think).

The reason people vote is similar to the reason people tip and the reason people donate to charity: people tend to do what they think they "should" do and what is expected of them, if it isn't too much bother.

Michael H. writes:

Hi Bryan,
I decided to write up my ideas in a post here.

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