Bryan Caplan  

My Intellectual Insurance Policy

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My The Myth of the Rational Voter argues that many wonderful policies are extremely unlikely to be adopted because voters are deeply irrational.  You could call it a bleak conclusion: If my descriptive views about the world of politics are correct, then the world of politics will persistently trample on my normative ideals.

Very sad, but there is a silver lining: My views provide me with a strange intellectual insurance policy.  The more my normative ideals lose, the more my descriptive views win.  If political disaster strikes, I can claim victory for my social science.  And if great policy reforms come to pass, I can claim victory for my political philosophy.  Whatever happens, either I win as a scholar or I win as a human being. 

It's a small consolation, but it's something.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Silas Barta writes:

I recently came up with a saying to summarize the voter irrationality problem: "Simple, welfare-enhancing, politically-popular: pick any two."

Scott Sumner writes:

If the bad policies somehow make things better, do you still win as a human being?

Arthur writes:

Yes, but whatever happens, you also either lose as a human being, or lose as a scholar.

hanmeng writes:

When it comes to the time that one is ostracized by one's peers, then denied the freedom to speak, then led off in chains, then tarred, feathered, and exiled, then imprisoned, then tortured, and then finally faces the firing squad, I hope that continues to be consolation enough.

Capt. J Parker writes:

"If political disaster strikes, I can claim victory for my social science."

I would argue it's more like a pyrrhic victory. One benefit of science is that it enables us to act more rationally. If political disaster strikes then it's an indication that Dr. Caplan's social social science has failed to progress beyond the very early descriptive phase.

Behavioral science has understood since at least Freud that human action is motivated by many other things besides rational thought. If Edward Bernays could exploit Freud's ideas to get people to smoke more cigarettes why can't our economic scholars do the same to get people to adopt sound economic policies?

Of course, individuality liberty is most desirable and defensible when individuals are assumed to be highly rational. So, I have no great desire to live in a world where we need to depend on the ideas of Bernays to help us pick the "correct" leaders.

Changes in public policies would come not from intellectual debates alone; rather, from the willingness of the debaters to follow up with grass root support of ideas that make differences in public life.

I constantly challenge myself to apply the Pareto-Optimal theory in evaluating and advancing a public policy; more importantly, I follow up at my city-level government to arouse candidate opposition from alternative voices to my proposals, often hoping to refine and re-educate myself about what would work better for society.

The onus is to search for those tools that would afford for advancement of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as proposed in the Constitution

BrianH writes:

That is a solid example of a well diversified portfolio

mbka writes:

Bryan, don't take this the wrong way, but aren't your concerns a tad solipsistic here?

Rich Berger writes:

File this one under "Oh what a good boy am I".

Michael W writes:

I'll admit to occasional irrationality but I also look at the list of policy positions by our major political policies and find very little to like in either camp. Thinking 'rationally' I believe it's highly probable that none of my 'ideal' policies will be enacted. Therefore I have to prioritize those things I think are important then assign a probability to which candidate is most likely to push for my most important priorities.
This is the thought process of a rational voter. To me, it's irrational to believe that in a country so large and diverse at the U.S. the 'ideal' policy on any particular issue is likely to be enacted. We would have to look far below the state level to find examples of anyone's 'ideal' policy put into action. Thinking of my own upstate NY village, I'm hard pressed to think of just a few things that would fall in this category and this is a community of less than 5,000!

Fred Anderson writes:

I have not read "The Myth of the Rational Voter," so there is great risk that what I write is foolish error, but . . .

(1) I agree that strict rationality is perhaps out of reach for mere humans. Jonathan Haidt's metaphor of rationality as a rider on an elephant of older, more instinctive thought is apt. Our brains have been evolving for perhaps 5,000,000 years; we have had the power of speech for perhaps 50,000. And our reasoning (and recollection) is done largely in words. So it is plausible that most (even 99%?) of our thinking is sub-conscious (facial recognition, loving our offspring, fear of snakes, revulsion at vomit, odor & emotion, loneliness, etc.). Haidt's book ventures advice for how to move the elephant to the rational rider's preferences.

(2) And yet; group action -- at least under certain special conditions -- can be rational. James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" is a very readable introduction to this decision science area. (And -- disclaimer -- marks the limits of my own depth.) So while every normative preference may not be achievable in a democracy, perhaps some are (those fitting the "special conditions" alluded to).

If your work has already thoroughly plowed this field, I apologize for wasting your (and the reader's) time.

gda writes:

"....many wonderful policies are extremely unlikely to be adopted because voters are deeply irrational."

Well, no rational voter would ordinarily vote for a candidate who is under two separate criminal investigations by the FBI simultaneously.

Particularly as the candidate under investigation has a long and checkered history in government, none of which (arguably) has resulted in ANY (far less many) "wonderful" policies.

So that statement, in the current context, is at least partially correct. However, we cannot discount stupidity, greed or tribal membership (which apparently "trumps" honesty and integrity these days).

Bleak prospects indeed for the country.

TSB writes:

If you are loss-averse, this is a terrible portfolio.

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