Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on June 18, 2017

in Myths and Fallacies, Politics, Reality Is Not Optional

… is from page 392 of Gary Becker‘s August 1983 Quarterly Journal of Economics article “A Theory of Competition Among Pressure Groups for Political Influence” (original emphasis):

I believe that voter preferences are frequently not a crucial independent force in political behavior.  These “preferences” can be manipulated and created through the information and misinformation provided by interested pressure groups, who raise their political influence partly by changing the revealed “preferences” of enough voters and politicians.

DBx: Information and knowledge are scare.  (Proof: you’re reading these words.)  Also scarce are human cognition and attention.  (Proof: all else equal, you’re more likely to watch in full a two-minute-long YouTube video than a 22-minute-long YouTube video.)  The fact that the range of the activities undertaken by modern governments is so vast combines with each voter’s awareness that his or her individual vote is insignificant to make it practically impossible for any voter to become “fully informed” – or even to become adequately informed.

A great deal of language about democratic processes and outcomes conveys the illusion that collective choices – chiefly, majoritarian voting – are for collections of individuals fully analogous to individual choices each made by an individual.  Smith chooses to order a tuna roll rather than a California roll; California chooses Smith over Jones to serve as Governor.  The impression is that the second choice is pretty much the same as the first choice; it’s just scaled up from one person to many persons.

But for a large number of reasons discovered and explained by public-choice analysis, the second choice differs fundamentally from the first.  None of these reasons is more crucial than the fact that, unlike the case with individual choices, in popular elections no individual’s choice – that is, no individual’s vote – is decisive.  When choosing privately, your decision to buy that new car or not results in you getting or not getting that new car (and, of course, also your having or not having a legal obligation to pay for the car).

This individual decisiveness is absent in elections.  Although it’s a (literally) politically incorrect truth to trumpet, your individual vote is utterly insignificant beyond whatever satisfaction you personally derive from casting it.  As far as the outcomes of elections and political processes go, your vote affects nothing at all.  And because what is true for you is true for every other voter, no voter – not you, not your neighbor, not any other voter – devotes the time and mental effort necessary to make yourselves adequately informed about what’s at stake in any election.  People as voters are therefore both rationally uninformed and (to use my colleague Bryan Caplan’s term) rationally irrational.  In contexts where people are uninformed and irrational – even when these conditions are themselves the consequences of rational behavior, and when each of the individuals is highly informed and rational when making private choices – the people are easy targets for peddlers of political mysticism and economic snake-oil.

Idiotic fantasies continue to thrive in political thought.  This reason alone makes laughable the claim, common among many economists, that government action is necessary to make private choices (or the outcomes of private choices) more rational.


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