Monday, May 14, 2007

Great food for thought

I am greatly enjoying Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.

Democracies have some well known problems, as we have known ever since the first democracies. "Rationality" is a quirky idea but one that has meaning to economists. And the idea of rational voters has been qualified by the public choice idea of rational ignorance.

But Caplan elaborates and starts with the important idea that voter irrationality is widespread; economic thinking is not second nature or even of interest to very many people.

Teachers of economics know that non-zero-sum outcomes are seemingly exotic for many. Zero-sum is fundamental in most cultures and some say that it is part of out evolutionary heritage; trust extended to anyone outside the immediate group was for eons a risky strategy.

Politicians understand this and veer to what we call "populism." It is then a race to test which flavor of populism works best at any time. This is tempered by the fact that there is complex voter selection in many directions -- including toward those who are slightly more economically literate.

This is one book where the tumbnail sketch is not adequate. It is chock-full of ideas and insights.