… is from page 186 of George Stigler‘s 1971 essay “Can Regulatory Agencies Protect the Consumer?” – which is reprinted as Chapter 11 of Stigler’s 1975 collection, The Citizen and the State: Essays on Regulation:
The ultimate, inescapable fact of life for the consumer is that he must beware – as much today as in the past…. [U]nder the earlier regime of caveat emptor, the consumer was protected basically by his own care and intelligence, and by the most powerful of allies, competition. Public regulation weakens and sometimes destroys these defenses against fraud and negligence, without replacing the protections they used to afford.
Back in the late 1970s, as an undergraduate, I read an essay from the Wall Street Journal that my old and great teacher and mentor Bill Field posted on his office door in Powell Hall at Nicholls State University. That essay was by Herbert Stein. Stein said something there to the effect that a peculiar modern belief is that the same ordinary man or woman believed in the voting booth to be unquestionably capable of wisely choosing government officials is believed outside of the voting booth to be incapable of wisely choosing a refrigerator.
This peculiar, incongruous set of presumptions has ever since then struck me as being especially strange – which likely is one reason that I’m so taken with Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter. I do indeed generally trust each adult man and woman to make choices that are for each of them sound – or, at least, I trust each adult man and woman to make such choices more consistently for themselves than I trust other men and women to make those choices for them. That is, I trust you to generally know better what is best for you than I trust me to generally know better what is best for you. And vice-versa.
But in the voting booth – as in most political settings – not only does each chooser not bear any direct material costs, or receive any direct material benefits, from his or her actions, but each of us gets to have a say, for free, in the way that other people (most of whom are strangers to us) lead their lives. It’s a crazy system, one that survives in large part because people have romantic delusions about the nature of voting and collective choice.