On Being Rational

ON BEING RATIONAL….In The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan argues that although people are rational in the marketplace (which is a good thing, since this assumption is required to make classical economics work), they become foolish and incoherent when they step into the voting booth. Chris Hayes lays it out:

The idea is this: People are rational when they pay for the consequences of their decisions. But in elections, the odds of your vote determining a given election are so slim that the price of voting your irrational whims is nil. This gives people the freedom to indulge delusional notions about the economy. And that results in a populace who are capitalists in the market place and socialists in the voting booth.

Needless to say, Caplan thinks we’re at our best in the former case and quotes legendary economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the latter: “[T]he typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.”

There’s way too much to unpack here for a single blog post, but allow me to make one wee point: there’s a distinction between “rational” and “good,” and most of us know it when we see it. Thomas Jefferson, for example, kept slaves because it was, after all, a rational thing to do. He needed the money his slaves brought in and he was too weak-willed to forego that money and free them. However, he also argued that slavery was wrong and should be banned — a position that’s usually presented as an unfathomable paradox. But it’s not. Jefferson wanted slavery banned because he understood that individuals often lack the willpower to do individually what they know is right. Sometimes it takes the power of community action to force ourselves to do good things that we can’t (or won’t) do on our own.

In the marketplace we are competitive, selfish, meanspirited, and xenophobic, so it’s no surprise that left to its own devices that’s the kind of society a free market will produce — in fact, has produced at various points in history. But although we’re seldom strong enough to personally sacrifice our own immediate economic self-interests (yes, that means you too), we often recognize as a society that we ought to do better. And so, as long as the rules apply to all of us, we occasionally allow our better natures to be shamed, cajoled, or inspired into insisting on it. And civilization slowly progresses because of it.

So slavery and child labor are gone, even though both were efficient means of production in their time. We went to war against Nazi Germany even though Hitler was as good a trading partner as the Weimar Republic. We pass minimum wage laws because our guts tell us that it’s wrong to expect an adult in a rich country to work like a dog seven days a week for subsistence wages. And some of us continue to press for national healthcare not simply because it addresses known market failures (though it does), but because we think it’s fundamentally wrong to make people beg, plead, and scrape in order to receive decent medical care.

The free market rejects all of these things. But in the voting booth, sometimes the better angels of our natures take wing for a moment and persuade us to try to make ourselves into better people. The free market pushes back, of course, and warns us that we can’t always have everything we want. Thankfully, though, it doesn’t always win. Rationality is a high virtue, but it’s not the only virtue.