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Romance and Realism in Politics and Markets

In today’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson observes that

American politics caters to people’s natural desire to think well of themselves.  But in so doing, it often sacrifices pragmatic goals and sows rancor….

He’s correct.

Because no single vote determines an election’s outcome – that outcome will be what it will be no matter how any individual votes – each voter can express his or her moral sensibilities free of charge.  No need to weigh carefully the costs and benefits of invading Iraq; no need to ponder the practicalities of how government will actually deliver health-care coverage.  Realism need never intrude upon any voter.  One’s identity (e.g., “conservative”) and one’s fantasies about government and society, regardless of how far-fetched, become the bases on which too many votes are cast.

A great advantage of the private sphere is that, unlike in the voting booth, each choice has direct and often immediate consequences for each chooser.  Such personal feedback encourages the same person who is dreamily unrealistic while in a voting booth to be matter-of-fact practical in his or her private affairs.

The two definitive works on this topic are Geoffrey Brennan & Loren Lomasky, Democracy & Decision (1993), and Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter (2007).

In this article, in the Summer 2003 issue of The Independent Review, Eric Crampton and I discuss “expressive voting” further.


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