Bryan Caplan  

Dear New Yorker: I Want My Catch Phrase Back

Armen Alchian... Reducing Real Compensation...
I'm a firm believer that (a) all publicity is good publicity, (b) the more attention my memes get, the better - even if if I get no credit.  And in the past, The New Yorker has done me nothing but good; its review of The Myth of the Rational Voter was more than fair.  Yet despite my lackadaisical standards and pent-up goodwill toward his employer, John Cassidy has managed to aggravate me by calling his New Yorker blog "Rational Irrationality."
I coined the phrase "rational irrationality," over a decade ago to capture human beings' tendency to be less irrational when the private cost goes up.  My first publication with "rational irrationality" in the title appeared in 2000 and the concept was central to my 2007 book.  Still, if Cassidy were merely adopting my concept without attribution, I'd consider it a favor: I want my memes to live!

Unfortunately, not only does his usage diverge sharply from mine; he strangely uses "rational irrationality" as a synonym for garden-variety collective action problems:
Unfortunately, the real causes of the crisis are much scarier and less amenable to reform: they have to do with the inner logic of an economy like ours. The root problem is what might be termed "rational irrationality"--behavior that, on the individual level, is perfectly reasonable but that, when aggregated in the marketplace, produces calamity.
My question: If Cassidy needs a sexier name for "collective action problem," what's wrong with "Prisoners' Dilemma" - a phrase that he uses later in the article?  Was it really necessary to mangle my catch phrase?

Update: In the comments, several readers point out some pre-2000 appearances of the phrase "rational irrationality."  Point granted, but these earlier uses were basically dead ends.  When I was first publishing this work, I did my due diligence - and none of these references turned up on google or Jstor.  If Cassidy had done the same, he would have found  lots of references to my work - and avoided needless conceptual confusion.

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COMMENTS (27 to date)
Tushar writes:

Unfortunately, this has potential to seriously dilute the power of your catchphrase with respect to its original coined meaning.

Fenn writes:

No such thing as an original idea. He may well have come up with it on his own.

Always sort of jarring seeing your ideas elsewhere. I once wrote about looking through a screen door making the world look like it was pixelated like a TV picture, wrote a story where someone with a deviated septum was gagged and suffocated, and used to sometimes say things were as useful as a parasol in a hurricane.

I ran across all 3 of these later on. The first in a Pynchon's "Vineland", the 2nd in Infinite Jest, and the 3rd in Stephen King's "On Writing." King's was the only one that was published after I'd used it. The other 2 guys must've resorted to time machines to plagiarize me.

MP writes:

A google scholar search for "rational irrationality" brings up a 1968 paper called: "Individual welfare functions and consumer behavior: A theory of rational irrationality" by BMS Van Praag. (Google Scholar does not provide the PDF, and I have not checked to ensure the cite is correct.)

More recently, Patricia Greenspan has a paper on Emotional Strategies and Rationality, in which she credits the phrase "rational irrationality" to Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), esp. p.14 Patricia's paper is available for download here (see footnote 18):

Tushar writes:


If you'd finished Bryan's post you'd see that if Cassidy was simply using his idea, Bryan would have no problem. The whole issue is about using a phrase Bryan coined to mean something different, thereby diluting its power with regards to the original meaning. Cassidy is simply referring to collective action problems with "rational irrationality" and not to the supply/demand curves for rationality that are invoked by Bryan's coinage.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Are you sure they took it?

Here is a Salon article from 2000 that uses that for the title:

It's a couple months after your article, but I'd be somewhat surprised if Elizabeth Arens reads the Eastern Economic Journal. Besides, she quotes Shiller throughout, so she clearly has no problem citing academic economists if she did read yours.

We've been juggling with the extent to which man is rational but also irrational for a very long time. Despite the strawmen we like to knock down, I doubt very many people have believed in pure rationality. People have also noticed for a very long time that some of our apparent irrationalities have advantages. Evolutionary psychology, for better or worse, has been built on this insight. I think "rational irrationality" is an obvious word choice, and I wouldn't just assume that every time you see it someone is taking it from you. So take heart!

Daniel Kuehn writes:

And now I'm reading MP's post.

Ya, I wouldn't be too upset about this Bryan. Unless you're just concerned that it isn't thought of as being attributable to you - I suppose that's a let-down. But I'm not so sure people are just stealing it, abusing it, and not attributing it.

b writes:

And somewhere some guy named Van Praag rolls over in his grave.

Looks like you're the one poaching phrases. Probably would have been prudent to do a little research (you claim to be an academic and all) prior to getting all puffed up about this.

Maybe you came up with the idea on your own. Maybe you read about it in an undergrad or graduate class you've long since consciously forgotten, only to have a 'stroke of genius' later.

I hope he uses this opportunity on his blog to give the history of the phrase (which, given his definition, sounds along the lines of how Van Praag used it), and excoriate you for unjustly accusing him of misappropriating phrase, when you had done the same.

Intellectual laziness on your part yet again.

Unit writes:

I wouldn't worry: you'll be able to say something like "If you want an example of rational irrationality, i.e. spouting one's own mind irrationally when the private costs of doing so are minimal just read a few blogposts from the "rational irrationality" blog.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

b -
I don't even think it's a lack of back-checking. It's just a word combination that seems fairly easy to come to for anyone thinking critically about how rational we really are (which is a lot of people).

The point is that Bryan shouldn't be worried that someone is deliberately taking "his" idea - not that he should have done better diligence previous people who have used the phrase.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

*done better researching previous people...

Wow - I really butchered "due diligence" by trying to turn it into "do diligence", didn't I!

tom writes:

When do you starting selling t-shirts?

I want mine to have Bart Simpson writing on the board: "Vandalism is never rationally irrational." Or Calvin peeing on a copy of the New Yorker.

jrs writes:

Daniel Kuehn,

No...the point is he should have done better due diligence.

If you are going to claim to have 'coined a phrase' -- "I coined the phrase "rational irrationality," while complaining that someone else has taken it without attribution and skewed its usage -- "Dear New Yorker: I Want My Catch Phrase Back", then you should make sure that:
1. You actually coined said phrase.
2. The other person who you accuse of, "Was it really necessary to mangle my catch phrase", is not, in fact, using it more similarly to how it was originallly coined than you yourself are.

Although I do agree with your conclusion. He shouldn't be mad about some taking his idea, which is neither original or profound. It's about as coinable as 'pompous academic'.

Fenn writes:

I did read his post. Underlying the whole thing is his assummption that Cassidy did take his coinage (and used it for something else).
My whole point is that it is quite likely Cassidy came up with it on his own. I similarly doubt Caplan swiped it from Van Praag.

RL writes:

It is simply linguistically poor usage to refer to the collective action problem as "rational irrationality". Only individuals can act rationally or irrationally. In the collective action problem, they all act rationally. It is not reasonable to refer to the collective result, aimed for by no one, as "irrational" (rationally or otherwise).

agnostic writes:

JSTOR gets hits on "rational irrationality" back to the '50s and '60s. Don't know what the meaning was, but the term has been around for awhile.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

RL -
But that sort of thinking is always circular. If we were all rational there would BE no collective action problem... but on the other hand, rationally knowing we're all not rational there IS a collective action problem. So which is it?

Ultimately this comes down to a labeling question. Posner and DeLong had this fight earlier in the year. It was ultimately pointless. They were saying pretty close to the same thing, Posner just wanted to label it rationality (presumably a rational understanding of how other people will react and of strategy), and DeLong wanted to label it irrationality (presumably because we all know how to theoretically get a rational outcome and choose to defect or misbehave). It's all the same point - some people want to call it rational and some irrational. I think that's one of the distinct advantages of combining the two into "rational irrationality" (and now that I think about it, "irrational rationality" might work just as well).

Mike writes:

Has anyone coined the phrase, 'Pompous academic'?

Ryan Vann writes:

I'm not entirely sure that I agree with this assertion "If we were all rational there would BE no collective action problem... "

Collective actions problems are a result of conflicting interests and lack of coordination moreso than rationality, or lackthereof. In otherwords, its just a result of operating under a system of asymmetric information (as most issues are).

At least that is my understanding. I would agree with you that the rational/irrational hangups and debate are mostly fruitless, but that is mostly because they are often completely of tangential importance.

Taras Smereka writes:

I am pretty sure the other commenters are right about the phrase preceding you. Just another proof of the absurdity of "intellectual property".

Ryan Vann writes:

I am pretty sure the other commenters are right about the phrase preceding you. Just another proof of the absurdity of "intellectual property"

IP can definitely be taken into very odd places.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ryan -
Oh I agree. My whole point was that that statement is true under a certain definition of rationality, but not true under others. A rational group of people with the same interests (one might argue) should be able to arbitrate those interests and come to a solution.

Or, if you define rationality somewhat differently, that same group of rational people would see a strategic opportunity and coordination would fail out of mutual (rational) suspicion.

My point was that there's a lot of arguments about rationality and irrationality where we're saying close to the same thing we just have different definitions.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

And Coase solves a lot of that, if you let him. But even Coase doesn't change the fact that (1.) rationality ain't what it was in econ 101, and (2.) even if we take the difficulties of these arbitrations into account and let Coase allow us to all be rational again - decision making is STILL a really complicated thing to talk about.

Justin Martyr writes:

Bryan, you are looking at this all wrong! Cassidy isn't mangling your idea of rational irrationality. He is proving your point! His whole blog consists of comforting progressive illusions.

I suspect he got the name because of the conflict between individual and group good. What is rational (utility maximizing) for the individual is irrational (not utility maximizing) for the group. The whole purpose of the blog is to show the need for government to solve the problem. Ironically, he does not realize that the government is the problem.

RL writes:

Daniel disagreed with my claim that rationality is intrinsically an individual trait and claimed that the collective action problem can be viewed as a problem of rationality. Ryan disagreed, pointing to conflicting interests.

I would only add that even ignoring conflicting interests, the collective action problem is primarily a problem of coordination. Rationality is never a problem of coordination. So I have to disagree with Daniel and renew my claim that it is logically absurd to call the Prisoner's Dilemma an example of rational irrationality.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

RE: "Daniel disagreed with my claim that rationality is intrinsically an individual trait"

No I didn't! Where? The existence of collective action problems is evidence of rationality (or irrationality, depending on how you define "rational") - that doesn't mean I'm saying that collectives are rational or irrational.

Alan Crowe writes:

Inspired by Bryan's catch phrase I have written a poem expounding the point.

Mark writes:

My apologies, but I do find it funny that Mr Caplan would throw a minor tantrum, because someone used his catch phrase. I actually think that the act of getting upset because someone is using your catch phrase would be better a better use of the phrase "rationally irrational."

But in academia, a big part of your remuneration comes in the form of recognition, so for you it is like Mr. Cassidy just stole your checkbook. Yes?

I do apologize for my lack of empathy...I probably would be annoyed if I were in your shoes.

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