The Truth of the Rational Scholar

by Don Boudreaux on April 29, 2007

in Books, Politics

Of all the books that I’ve read in the past 15 years (which is about equal in number to the books that Tyler Cowen has read in the past 15 weeks), the one that has had the biggest impact on my view of the world is Democracy and Decision, by Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky, published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press.  This book provides key insights for public-choice scholars – key insights that were largely unknown before this book’s publication.

And now, taking Brennan and Lomasky to the next, higher level is my colleague Bryan Caplan’s first book, The Myth of the Rational Voter (Princeton University Press, 2007).  I will bold but sincere in my praise: persons who do not grasp the lessons in Bryan’s book cannot understand politics as well as persons who do grasp those lessons.

Buy a copy.  Read it.  Ponder it.  Learn.

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{ 15 comments }

Sam Grove April 29, 2007 at 11:14 am

Most people vote according to their tribal instincts. In fact, the whole reason for political government is to maintain hierachical power structures in institutional form. The only reason for popular voting is to get the losers to settle for grumbling until the next election.

Whatever the itellectual justifications might be.

Sam Grove April 29, 2007 at 11:16 am

Can someone stick and "n" in there?

M. Hodak April 29, 2007 at 10:04 pm

I looked this book over last week. Not to pooh-pooh Caplan or his research, but my take on it was that it seemed to repeat two things I (and not just me) have been saying for a long time:

1) Despite all the bellyaching on the right and left, we have pretty much the government that the people want.
2) The people suffer badly from economic ignorance.
3) This ignorance is wholly expected in a nation where the average high schooler is required to do Euclidean proofs, but is not required to learn economic logic.

M. Hodak April 29, 2007 at 10:06 pm

Uh, that's three things. My economic logic clearly surpasses my numeracy.

muirgeo April 30, 2007 at 1:46 am

I'm quite interested in this book and challenging what I assume to be a libertarian perspective on the economy.

The key to this book best I can gather from the summary alone is what I've always said of conservative/ libertarian economic principles, you put Capitalism ahead of Democracy. It seems a basic tenant of this economic political philosophy that people are too stupid to govern themselves but we can't tell them that because we need to get elected. Maybe its the truth but I'm just not comfortable accepting it.

I dare say we fought a revolution on these principles back in 1776. We the people don't want Kings or corporations ruling us no matter how stupid we are.

If I'm totally off the premise of the book please let me know.

Russell Nelson April 30, 2007 at 2:23 am

Governments rule us because we allow them to have guns, in the theory that they use those guns to prevent violence we don't like. Where do corporations fit into this theory? We don't allow corporations to have guns. So, yeah, you're totally off the premise of this book.

muirgeo April 30, 2007 at 9:22 am

I would argue corporations rule us because they control markets. I'm betting you'll likely drive to work in an internal combustion automobile run on gasoline. Some would call that a freedom but its arguably a created dependency that has more to do with a controlled market and rule bending at the top rather then an open market or representative democracy. You can vote in and out leaders you can't vote in and out CEO's. A company is run more like a Monarchy then a Democracy and I'm not sure why we want to go back that way imperfect as democracy is.

Sam Grove April 30, 2007 at 11:49 am

Nobody controls the market, though many try. No company can force you to buy its products, unless it is a legalized (government granted) monopoly.

Corporations are organized according to the strictures of corporate law. Presidents, vice presidents, etc. Sound familiar? And they only govern the way they do business, not whether you have to buy their products. The purpose of corporate law is to create a fictional "individual" and to define its relationship to the law.

The Marxist mindset is so tiring.

muirgeo April 30, 2007 at 1:22 pm

The Marxist mindset is so tiring.

Posted by: Sam Grove

Come on Sam calling some one a Marxist because they want reasonable/better/fairer or more oversight of corporations is like calling some one a fascist because they want less.

That you think Corporations aren't forcing you to buy or fund their product is laughable.

You have a President and a Vice President who are both their because of the Corporations/Industry they profited from. Then you have a president tell the people of a soon to be invaded country, "Your fate will depend on your actions, do not destroy oil wells…" Not to mention the closed door creation of our energy policy. And you think you are independent of corporations and you think you are not being forced to "buy" their product?

Once corporations and lobbyist are banned from influencing politicians then maybe I'll believe you.

Al April 30, 2007 at 2:43 pm

I don't think you're a Marxist, but you appear to be wrong on a great number of things:

I have never been, nor will I ever be, forced to buy anything I don't want to, **unless I am forced to be the Government**.

You can't ban a corporation from petitioning the government without banning people from doing it as well. If you want corporations to close up shop in DC, limit the scope of governmetn so they won't need them.

The President is in office because he (twice) won more Electoral College votes than his competitor. Are you suggesting he won becuase he is a tool of Big Baseball? Big Oil? Big Construction? Or maybe, is it because his cometitor sabatoged themselves during the campaign and debates?

muirgeo April 30, 2007 at 6:41 pm

I have never been, nor will I ever be, forced to buy anything I don't want to, **unless I am forced to be the Government**.

Well via government fiat you ARE buying protection and other subsidies for oil companies….unless of course you believe Iraq is all about terrorism. And in my opinion it's the corporations control or influence that forces you to buy or support or subsidize their product.

"You can't ban a corporation from petitioning the government without banning people from doing it as well."

We can ban corporations from doing anything we want. Remember they are not people and they only are allowed to exist if we the people say they can. They operate under OUR rules. If they don't like the rules then they dont have to incorporate. No one is forcing them. But they definately should not be seen as people and should not be allowed to directly effect elections and policy…IMO.

Sam Grove April 30, 2007 at 8:52 pm

"And in my opinion it's the corporations control or influence that forces you to buy or support or subsidize their product."

There seems to be something missing here…ah, after product, insert: "through politicl influence".

I didn't say you were a Marxist, but your sentiment is straight out of the Marxist mindset. I referred to this indirectly by mentioning "government granted monopoly", likewise, when corporations, or any significant interest influences politicians to steer money their way, it is the government that forces me to pay for it. It is the government that threatens me with property seizure, jail, or even death, if I don't pay the taxes it commands. By granting the government the power to tax and otherwise command, you create an instrument that will be influenced by anyone with the resources and incentive to do so. So if I may put it another way, it is those who support an agency of extortion…the government…who force me to pay for things I'd prefer not to, for it is they who empower government with their consent, support, and advocacy.

"If they don't like the rules then they dont have to incorporate."

Ad hominem comment. Political structures will always be influenced by those with the resources and incentive to do so. Government does not run according to the opinion of people, such as yourself, rather, it operates according to the incentives created by its power to control resources and people, in accord with human nature.

You want a government to control corporations? In due time, you will get a government influenced BY corporations.

It is inevitable.

Mike H May 1, 2007 at 12:16 pm

I may be reading too much into the title of the book, but to suggest that voters do not act rationally is to be condescending and elitist.
I agree that voters do not always do what is in their own best interest; the evidence for this seems to be readily apparent. But "rational" is different than "logical." A person's reason for doing something, say voting for a particular politician that is more authoritarian than another, are not based on what is logically in their best interest, but on what they perceive as being in their best interest. This is perfectly rational, though not necessarily logical. For instance, a young man, new to the workforce and making minimum wage, may vote for a politician that is advocating a hike in the minimum wage. He does this because he believes, emphasis on "believes", that an increase in the minimum wage is in his best interest. What he doesn't know, is that it is entirely possible that he is voting himself out of a job (not to open that particular can of worms again). In this, respect Caplan is right. The harm, for lack of a better term, is a result of a poor understanding of basic economics.
But a "poor understanding of economics" is not the same as irrationality. The voter does indeed do what he believes is in his best interest. He is simply wrong.
You might say I'm splitting hairs, and that argument may have some serious merit, but, while the distinction I'm making is subtle, it is, to my mind at least, nonetheless important.

Russell Nelson May 2, 2007 at 3:02 am

"We can ban corporations from doing anything we want."
Actually, muirgeo, no, we can't — at least, not without making corporations want to have a say in government.

What if our government was Constitutionally prohibited from interfering with business? Why would a corporation give dollar one to a congressman? But ahhhh, now you see the problem. Congressmen WANT to be corrupted. It's viewed as part of the payment due to them as Congressmen.

garcol July 30, 2007 at 8:04 am

Based upon current economic policies and government actions, I see no evidence whatsoever that voters in any way affect the outcome of the politcial (or economic) gestalt.

Minor policies (like spraying DDT or Flourine additives in the water, or GM foods, are lightning rods) get attention and may draw actions on the part of portions of the populace, but ongoing substantive impact on the polity by the voter is non-existant.

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