A loyal MR reader asks…

by on November 6, 2006 at 5:59 am in Political Science | Permalink

What do you think the world would look like if everyone knew as much about Economics as you do?

I imagine many facets of the world would remain the same.  For example, demand curves would still slope downward and to the right.  But what of politics?  Would politics change?  Would libertarianism remain a defensible political position?  It seems to me that much of what makes libertarianism so desirable is the public choice problem.  We’re rationally ignorant, and probably somewhat irrational as well.  Would a moderate left-leaning position such as Matt Yglesias’s suddenly become much more tenable?

With all due respect to myself, I doubt if politics would improve much.  To flesh out the scenario a bit, it can’t be that everyone is a clone of me.  Sex aside, who would fix my computer, leave comments on this blog, or do all the talking at cocktail parties? 

Once a reasonable degree of human diversity is introduced, coalitions need to be built.  Building coalitions requires politics.  That includes compromises, horse-trading, shading the truth, and so on.  "Me as politician" is not an especially wonderful vision.  If I acted like Tyler the blogger, I would lose power very quickly.  Even if I stayed in office.  Having some "me’s" in the voting booth wouldn’t much change this.

We might avoid a few total bonehead policies, if only by shifting the bargaining point.  But government wouldn’t become much more efficient, at least not as long as coalitions need to be built.

The costs of building coalitions are also a neglected element in the theory of organizations.  Even in the private sector, once we consider cohesion and morale, businesses have many fewer degrees of freedom than we might think.  That is why merit pay and prediction markets are not as common as an economist might expect.  Too often those institutions put people at odds with each other.

So don’t even think of voting for me, for Alex, or for whomever you might think of as smart.  Vote instead for someone who shares one or two core values with you, and is a good coalition builder.  And then make sure that their coalition doesn’t violate those core values.

Addendum: Matt Yglesias chips in.

Dave Meleney November 6, 2006 at 9:15 am

A Cobden and Bright situation? Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Madison etc.?

Instead of the apparently mind-bending task of imagining Tyler as one who blabs at cocktail parties and loves “horse trading,” why not try imagining a world in which some media stars had become enraptured by Ronald Reagan’s vision … which led to a lot of young politicians, musical artists, news reporters and brilliant academics openly and enthusiastically embracing various positions ranging from traditional Regains to Harry Brownies to David Friedman… and among the throng were plenty who loved to chat at parties and loved to do the horse trading and coalition building necessary.

Such a world would create space for a lot more Sam Waltons, Thomas Edisons, and Melinda Gateses.

theCoach November 6, 2006 at 12:58 pm

Am I totally off, or is the loyal MR reader off on what public choice theory is? I was unser the impression that it has nothing to do with irrationality, but rather to do with the units of interest –i.e. is the the Minister of Public Welfare making decisions in the interest of public welfare or in the interests of the Minister of Public welfare (and his/her family, etc.) In this sense it has strong parallels in Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene (and for that matter the Extended Phenotype).

Paul N November 6, 2006 at 8:41 pm

I think that if people were much smarter on average, the world would be a much better place.

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