… is from page 303 of the 1999 Liberty Fund edition of James M. Buchanan’s and Gordon Tullock’s seminal 1962 book, The Calculus of Consent:
The modern critic of constitutional democracy who calls for more direct operation of majority rule cannot, at the same time, rationally condemn modern man for his attention to selfish and short-run interests in the nation’s market place. If modern man is unduly interested in the emoluments of the affluent society (in creature comforts), he is not likely to shed this cloak merely because he is placed in a slightly different institutional complex. A shift of activity from the market sector cannot itself change the nature of man, the actor in both processes. The individual who seeks short-run pleasures through his consumption of modern “luxury” items sold in the market is precisely the same individual who will seek partisan advantage through political action.
DBx: In the late 1970s, as an undergraduate, I read an essay from the Wall Street Journal that my great teacher and mentor Bill Field posted on his office door in Powell Hall at Nicholls State University. That essay was by Herbert Stein. As I recall, 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 my colleague Bryan Caplan’s 2007 book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. I do indeed generally trust each adult to make choices that are for him or her sound – or, at least, I trust each adult, (say) Smith, to make such choices more consistently for Smith than I trust other persons, (say) Jones or Williams or both, to make those choices for Smith. 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 choices, but each of us gets to have a say for free, in the ways 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.