In Politics, Idiocy Trumps All

by Don Boudreaux on April 20, 2011

in Other People's Money, Politics

Here’s a letter to the Los Angeles Times:

Jonah Goldberg properly smacks down Mr. Megalomania, Donald Trump, for now backing away from many political positions that Trump staked out before setting his sights on the White House (“Duck, it’s The Donald!” April 19).  Alas, The Donald is only an uncommonly clownish version of the typical seeker of that high office.  H.L. Mencken’s 1940 assessment of ‘serious’ presidential candidates remains descriptive today:

“They will all promise every man, woman and child in the country whatever he, she or it wants.  They’ll all be roving the land looking for chances to make the rich poor, to remedy the irremediable, to succor the unsuccorable, to unscramble the unscrambleable, to dephlogisticate the undephlogisticable.  They will all be curing warts by saying words over them, and paying off the national debt with money no one will have to earn.  When one of them demonstrates that twice two is five, another will prove that it is six, six and a half, ten, twenty, n.  In brief, they will divest themselves from their character as sensible, candid and truthful men, and simply become candidates for office, bent only on collaring votes.  They will all know by then, even supposing that some of them don’t know it now, that votes are collared under democracy, not by talking sense but by talking nonsense, and they will apply themselves to the job with a hearty yo-heave-ho.  Most of them, before the uproar is over, will actually convince themselves.  The winner will be whoever promises the most with the least probability of delivering anything.”*

And too many Americans will devotedly and pathetically follow one or the other of these boardwalk messiahs as stray dogs follow someone who they think is carrying a sack full of sausages.

Donald J. Boudreaux

* H.L. Mencken, “The Politician” (1940), in A Mencken Chrestomathy (New York: Knopf, 1949), pp. 150-151.

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John V April 20, 2011 at 10:24 am

Mencken’s words are timeless and sound like they were written yesterday. Can we call him the father of Public Choice Theory? hahaha

Goes to show that people and politics are as they were in earlier eras. Nothing changes except the amount of the stakes. They are far higher today than even Mencken may have imagined possible. Or maybe not…

DG Lesvic April 20, 2011 at 11:17 am


It is as ridiculous to claim the honor for Mencken as it was for Buchanan and Tullock. Public Choice Theory is just old wine in a new bottle, political realism under a pretentious new name.

It is furthermore the psychological rather than economic way of thinking, and no substitute for it. So have it, but don’t flatter yourself that you’re doing economics, or anything comparable to it. It is a minor part of the case for freedom, and detrimental to it when allowed to crowd out the economic.

Economics is the serious business of free market thought and Public Choice the toy store, Mises the thinker and Mencken the jester, the Leno or Letterman of libertarianism.

John V April 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Did I piss you off at some point today? Your tone is puzzling.

You seem to be trapped in a one-man argument where the honor of Mises and economics are at stake here and they are not.

Don Boudreaux April 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Well and truly said, John V.

John V April 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Thanks. I’m still shaking my head. I had to read it twice to make sure it was as out of bounds and unprovoked as it seemed the first time. I don’t quite get where the belligerence comes from on Austrian Economics with him.

Yelling me as if I’m an economist at all….not to mention one that has a problem with Mises of all people…is ridiculous.

DG is a rare specimen. He’s an Austrian-minded person who incessantly looks for WW3 with other like-minded people.

DG Lesvic April 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Here is an excerpt from The Artificial Profession of Economics, and, hopefully, if it works, a link to it.

He (Mises) excluded the economic psychologists, the “Public Choice economists,” for, “The field of our science is human action, not the psychological events which result in an action.” It is “action as such.” See Human Action, Pp 11, 12

While economics is about the road to Hell, Public Choice is about the intentions paving it. By emphasizing those of public officials, it tacitly admits that they could make a difference, that properly motivated officials could improve upon the market. Simply denying that they could be so motivated is not economics but psychology, and a far cry from economics saying that, however motivated, they could only make things worse. It is an echo of socialist propaganda, blaming the socialists rather than socialism for its failures, and exonerating socialism itself.

Even if, as claimed, it “extended the economic way of thinking to political issues,” it would still just be old wine in a new bottle, for economics has always been Political Economy. It is merely a pretense of something new, of knowing more than Mises by those who don’t know the half of it, and, far from “the economic way of thinking,” a retreat from it, and the free market cause.

John V April 20, 2011 at 12:39 pm


That’s all fine and good. I just don’t see why you come at this as if discussing Public Choice is somehow a slap in the face of economics. I don’t see it that way. Nor does your passion for attacking people who discuss Public Choice make any sense to me.

They are two separate disciplines with their own purpose that happen to treat different aspects of a larger issue. Your point is just puzzling.

Don Boudreaux April 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm

No matter how many times DG Lesvic is told that public-choice economics has absolutely NOTHING to do with psychology – in fact, that it rejects any such basis for explaining political processes and outcomes – he persists in his belief that public-choice is based on, grounded in, reliant upon psychology.

I challenge him to offer evidence for his belief – evidence from the works of acknowledged public-choice scholars and not from Mises apostles who, like DG, mistakenly THINK they know what public-choice is about and then proceed to utterly misrepresent it.

Don Boudreaux April 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm

BTW, I happen to know that my friend Richard Ebeling agrees with me (as anyone who knows economics must) that public-choice economics – whatever its merits or demerits – is emphatically NOT grounded in, or based on, or motivated by, psychological assumptions and premises.

Methinks1776 April 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Maybe DG has simply contracted a bad case of Cranky Old Man Syndrome.

DG Lesvic April 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm


If, as you yourself observed, Public Choice Theory is nothing more than what wise men such as Mencken have been saying all along, why the new name for it, why Public Choice rather than just plain old politics?

Supposedly it brings something new to political thinking, the more scientific, economic way of thinking about it.

In the first place, there’s nothing new about that. Economics has been Political Economy right from the start. And, in the second place, it simply isn’t true. It is not an extension of the economic way of thinking but a retreat from it.

If it is something other than economics, and, as Prof. Boudreaux says, something other than psychology, what is it?

I can think of only one thing. Academic pretension.

What Mencken said was fine. Buchanan and Tullock saying the same thing is fine. What is not fine is making more of it than what it is, the old way of thinking about politics, which was fine as far as it went, but upon which economics was a gigantic improvement.

Prof Boudreaux,

I wouldn’t be so sure that Prof Ebeling agrees with you.

Have you asked him lately?

vidyohs April 20, 2011 at 10:31 am

Thanks to the internet, we the people can now do the job that the newsmedia never truly did; we can identify the lie the moment it is uttered and refuse to let the liar separate him(her)self from the lie.

vidyohs April 20, 2011 at 10:37 am

To add to that thought is the fact it is a wondrous thing, thanks to video technology, that no matter the question or the situation we are now able to confront a liar with the visible and audible proof of his own words and himself speaking them.

BV April 20, 2011 at 10:38 am

… and we can do that on “day one”! :)

Gil April 21, 2011 at 1:47 am

What are on Earth you talking about?

SheetWise April 21, 2011 at 2:18 am

Maybe that lying doesn’t work as well as it used to?

Of course, that’s only true if people actually listen and pay attention.

rpl April 21, 2011 at 9:22 am

Oh, people listen and pay attention just fine; however, the other thing that technology has done is to make it easier for people to seek out news sources that confirm their biases. Thus, they are keenly aware of every lie or gaffe their most hated politicians make, but blissfully ignorant of similar behavior from their favorites.

Eric Hammer April 21, 2011 at 2:43 pm

That’s true, but it is a good step up from never being able to demonstrate whether anyone was lying or merely “misquoted.”

It would be a good idea for a blog though to track various public lies by politicians in easily searched format. Like FailBlog for politics. FalseBlog? LieBlog? NiebelunginLiedBlog?

Ken April 20, 2011 at 10:44 am

Mencken certainly had a way with words. Pity he was (or came across as, anyway) such a misanthrope, though if one wants to go in for misanthropy, one can find reason enough without hardly tryin’….

Apolloswabbie April 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

That’s a thing of beauty, thanks for sharing.

Methinks1776 April 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

1940, you say? The only thing history teaches us is that history teaches us nothing.

Michael April 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Or that it has plenty to teach and we consistently fail to learn from it.

Methinks1776 April 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Yep. Teaches us nothing :)

Michael April 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Ah, I see the emphasis now. I misread you. ;)

I interpreted “teaches us nothing” as “has nothing to teach”. Oops.

JohnK April 20, 2011 at 11:15 am

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”
—Thomas Sowell on Politics Government

DG Lesvic April 20, 2011 at 11:18 am

And which is the more important?

SheetWise April 21, 2011 at 2:21 am

In general, or to somebody running for office?

erp April 20, 2011 at 11:54 am

Leave Trump alone. He has as much right to free speech as the rest of us. If the Republican leadership had any integrity or courage, Trump wouldn’t have any appeal. Right now, I’d rather vote for him than anyone else on the horizon.

yet another Dave April 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Leave Trump alone.


He has as much right to free speech as the rest of us.

True dat, but his freedom of speech doesn’t come with a “leave me alone” clause.

John V April 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Other than an ambitious Senator Rand Paul making a run at WH, I can hardly think of one high office Republican I’d actually vote for.

Looks like I’ll be checking the Libertarian box again and giving the establishment a nice middle finger. At least I walk out of the booth with a smile since that vote isn’t worth much in a civic sense.

Matrim April 20, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Gary Johnson is a libertarian minded politician who plans on running

Don Boudreaux April 20, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Gary Johnson, from what I can tell, is one of the very rare exceptions to Mencken’s rule – a fact that means that Johnson has almost no chance of winning.

John V April 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm


Chucklehead April 21, 2011 at 12:14 am

Gary Johnson needs to run for Senator from NM where he can win and Join Rand and DeMint to do some good.

Whats this I hear about $25 Million for vehicles, fuel trucks and ambulances for Libyan rebels. Could this be Cash for al Qaeda?
War is the ultimate broken window fallacy.

John V April 20, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Sounds good to me. I’ve reformed myself to never dealing with the icky feeling again of voting D or R for President by simply not doing it. But like I said, I would reconsider if that D/R candidate is really a libertarian underneath the surface trying to make his way through the normal channels.

brotio April 20, 2011 at 11:19 pm

If you mean that, if the Republicans run anyone other than Rand Paul, you’ll simply be voting against Obama, then I probably agree with you.

whotrustedus April 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm

I’ll wager with anyone here that Trump doesn’t run. I’m sure that this is just publicity for his brand.

I, for one, find it hard to take a candidate seriously whose primary campaign issue seems to be the validity of the birth certificate of an elected official.

Don Boudreaux April 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm

I can shorten your final paragraph into one that truly describes my attitude: “I, for one, find it hard to take a candidate seriously.”

ArrowSmith April 20, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Why must you always be so cynical?

KD April 20, 2011 at 1:57 pm

The democrats couldn’t have picked a better republican candidate.

Ryan Vann April 20, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Agreed, Trump was a great choice for them; too bad it won’t work.

Terry Noel April 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm


rhhardin April 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm

“…as stray dogs follow someone whom they think is carrying a sack full of sausages.”

It’s “who,” which is the subject of “is carrying.” In modern English, moreover, “who” is acceptable in both subjective and objective cases, so you really don’t need to figure it out if you stick with “who.”

Except after a preposition (“for who the bell tolls”), which isn’t a case mistake but a register mistake. The fronted preposition is formal register, and the “who” for “whom” is informal register, and you can’t mix the registers without sounding odd. “Who the bell tolls for” is fine.

On feeding stray dogs, my treatment of bicycle chasing dogs, a never-fail method (video).

Don Boudreaux April 20, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Thanks! Corrected.

yet another Dave April 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm

A preposition is something you never end a sentence with :-)

His Dudeness April 20, 2011 at 2:50 pm

It seems obvious enough to any sentient adult human that The Donald is just a publicity seeking, money grubbing egomaniac motormouth without a shred of intellectual or ethical integrity. His primary value as a putative presidential candidate is entertainment and nothing else. As Mencken himself understood perfectly well political races are a form of bread and circuses for amusing the empty headed mass of lowest common denominator voters, many of whom are apparently of the Retardpublican variety.

Methinks1776 April 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Nah…he’s just bored. There’s a lot of time to kill in the day after the wife takes off for her full time job of maintaining herself, her alimony security is off to the park with the nanny and the daily bouffant comb-over is perfected.

Mike Slater April 20, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Everyday I am amazed at the brilliance of Professor Boudreaux. Here’s to Don, and may he never stop fostering our quest for knowledge.

Methinks1776 April 20, 2011 at 9:14 pm


DG Lesvic April 20, 2011 at 11:29 pm

According to my dictionary:

Psychology is the science of the human mind or soul and its activities and capacities. It is mental science, mental philosophy, the science of the human mind, of states of the mind, the soul, spirit, self, ego.

What else was Mencken talking about, and Buchanan and Tullock?

But that is not what an economist, as such is talking about. He is talking not about the motivationf for action but of action itself, and asking not men act as they do but whether their actions will further or thwart their own ends.

He asks not whether the policy was well intended or not, but will work or not. His point was not that of Mencken, and the Public Choice theorists, that politicians are a bunch of charlatans, but that even if they were the most intelligent and virtuous persons on Earth, their policies would still fail. For the fault lies not with the actors themselves but the actions. The actions must fail even when carried out by the most estimable actors.

The low character of politicians as described by Mencken and the others is irrelevant to economics, and, if not relevant to psychology, to what?

DG Lesvic April 20, 2011 at 11:32 pm

And by the way, I too am constantly amazed at the brilliance of Prof Boudreaux, and deeply grateful for his guidance and fairness.

But he’s wrong about Public Choice.

Don Boudreaux April 20, 2011 at 11:35 pm

No I’m not. And, yes, I’ve spoken to Richard Ebeling lately and he agrees with me that public-choice has absolutely nothing to do with psychology.

DG Lesvic April 21, 2011 at 2:55 am

If not economics, and not psychology, what is it?

While I can’t see that character, motivation, and sincerity is about anything but psychology, let’s not quibble over the meaning of a particular word.

What matters is that Public Choice is about something other than what economics is about, whatever you call it, psychology or any other term you might prefer. But the one thing you cannot call it is economics.

Economics is about the action itself, not the sincerity of the actor. It doesn’t matter whether he’s sincere or not. Either way, his actions to improve upon the market can only make things worse from the standpoint of his own valuations and goals.

St Peter himself could only make a mess of things.

So, if sincerity doesn’t matter, why talk about it? And if you are talking about it, and don’t think you are, you simply don’t know what you’re talking about.

And, after my conversations with him about this, I believe that Ebeling does.

Harold Cockerill April 21, 2011 at 7:52 pm

The snakes promise knowledge and offer the apple. Humanity is stupid enough to believe the lie. Too many will always be willing to believe the lie. The snakes are laughing because we did gain knowledge. Unfortunately we learned too late that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

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