Pathologies of Democracy

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Pathologies of Democracy: 

Pathologies of Democracy Alexander Tabarrok George Mason University December 2005

A Note on Methods: 

A Note on Methods Central to the idea of modern political economy is that everyone is modeled similarly. We assume that voters, politicians and bureaucrats, just like consumers, entrepreneurs and managers, all act in their self-interest. Self interest does not necessarily mean greedy or materialistic. Eg. Politicians as vote-maximizers. All of this may seem obvious but at the time these ideas came into play with Buchanan and Tullock’s Calculus of Consent (1962), William Riker’s Theory of Political Coalitions, and Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action (1972) this was quite radical. Even today it is common for economists to put forward ideas that would work only if government were a benevolent despot.

Rational Ignorance: 

Rational Ignorance Who is your Senator? Representative? Mayor? How did they vote on road construction, bank regulation, farm subsidies? The average American “spends” more on taxes and regulation than on food, clothing or transportation yet knows much less about the price, quality and providers of government goods than about other goods. Why? When you spend time comparing food prices and quality at Safeway and Wegmans You get the benefit. When you spend time comparing Democrats to Republicans you benefit only if your vote decides the election! It doesn’t pay to be informed about politics – hence, rational ignorance. Can democracy work well when voters are ignorant?

Implications of Rational Ignorance, 1: 

Implications of Rational Ignorance, 1 The secret to political success: Concentrate Benefits, Diffuse Costs. Concentrating benefits insures that special interests will vote for you, give campaign donations and be informed. But when costs are diffuse the public won’t bother objecting and due to rational ignorance may not even know about special interest favors. e.g. the U.S. Sugar Quota, tariffs, the import-export bank. Why are tax brackets progressive but tax loopholes regressive? Regulatory Capture Burning sugar cane field in south Florida.

Implications of Rational Ignorance, 2: 

Implications of Rational Ignorance, 2 Political campaigns will be based on hoopla, symbolism, and trivia not on serious, substantive, discussions of the issues. Parties will work to build brands like “family values”, “tough on defense,” much like Coke and Pepsi and regardless of realities. The news media will seek to entertain. It’s no surprise that most people get their political information from the Daily Show. On the whole this may be a good thing, at least some information is communicated, but it does change who succeeds and who fails in the political marketplace.

From Rational Ignorance to Rational Irrationality: 

From Rational Ignorance to Rational Irrationality We all have ideas about ourselves that we like to tell. But in ordinary markets these ideas press up against reality. E.g. Charity. Politics removes the cost of expressing our ideas about ourself. E.g. Voting on Welfare. The quantity demanded of a good increases the lower the price. Thus we are likely to be more charitable when voting than when giving personal donations. This may seem like a good thing but the quantity of all goods increases the lower the price – this is true even of stupidity. Suppose Joe is biased against Asians. Is he likely to express his bias by not buying goods from Wal-Mart? What if he is asked to vote on restrictions on immigration? Further, let us suppose that the bias is mixed with a belief that immigration lowers wagers, a potentially true fact. Now suppose studies show that immigration does not reduce wages. Will Joe be convinced? We all have biases. A bias against foreigners/strangers, for example, is probably a natural inclination from evolutionary times. In many ways civilization is about overcoming these biases. But we are not likely to overcome our biases if the price of holding those biases is low. Joe may have all kinds of ideas about how the minimum wage helps the poor, free trade is bad for economic growth, the Chinese can’t be trusted. Why would he ever question, confront or think carefully about these biases? So long as the biases do not affect personal decisions then Joe is free to hold these biases at low cost even though these biases may generate very bad political outcomes.

Rational Ignorance and Rational Irrationality as Political Pollution: 

Rational Ignorance and Rational Irrationality as Political Pollution Suppose there are 1 million voters and the nation is debating whether to go to war. Each individual wants to believe that their cause is just and “One patriot can lick twenty foreigners, so victory is assured!” Note that the contrary belief will put you out of step with your fellow citizens and exposes you to a charge of being unpatriotic. Thus, suppose the value of this belief is $100. If the individual believes s/he will vote for war. If a war if declared, however, it will be bloody and will cost each individual on average $100,000. Will the nation smarten up or will the nation vote for war?

It’s War!: 

It’s War! The belief has positive value so long as: 100 - p*100,000>0 where p is the probability that the voter’s vote changes the outcome. But with 1 million voters p is very, very small so the belief has positive value and the voter votes for war. Since the probability that changing your belief changes the outcome is near zero, the nation is going to war (or not) whatever you believe so is it better to have the nice belief that the cause is just and we will win or the not-so-comfortable belief that we are unjust and may lose? Sometimes delusion is rational! But note that the net per-capita benefit of going to war is -$99,900! How is this possible? Rational Irrationality is like a pollution externality. The costs to each voter (polluter) of a foolish belief (a little exhaust) are near-zero but netted over the entire population the costs are very large.

Rational Ignorance versus Rational Irrationality: 

Rational Ignorance versus Rational Irrationality Rational ignorance explains why people don’t know about the sugar quota. Rational irrationality explains why if you explain the idea to them, “Protect Florida’s Family Farmers!”, they are in favor!

More Pathologies: 

More Pathologies Evaluate this argument: You can’t take it with you. A private owner of a natural resource, like a forest, therefore, will want to clear-cut the forest before he dies in order to maximize his consumption stream (assume the owner has no children or other bequest motive). True or False. Explain. False: The owner can sell the forest. As a result, the owner of a forest has an incentive to continue to seed it even if seeds planted today won't produce trees until after the owner is dead. The same idea applies to any long-lived productive asset. Beautiful insight. It's precisely the fact that the forest is owned that gives the owner an incentive to take into account how other people value the forest.


Private investors take into account future costs and benefits when making investment decisions today. What about politicians? A politician is likely to have myopia, an excessive focus on present benefits at the expense of ignored future costs. Why? Can a politician sell his office? Typically no. Exceptions? A politician needs to be reelected and is likely to focus on benefits that the voters will see now. This will be especially true if the voters find it difficult to evaluate future costs and benefits. Applications: Deficit financing either with tax cuts or spending increases. Political business cycles. Inflation to juice the economy. Rent controls.


Bureaucracy The larger a bureaucracy the more opportunities for promotion. As the bureau expands so does the power, prestige and salary of the typical bureaucrats. Thus, as a first approximation, we can think of bureaucracies as budget maximizers. Note that this is perfectly consistent with honest bureaucrats who believe in their mission. Politicians have some incentives to rein in bureaucracies but this is very difficult to do because there are no profit and loss calculations. Bureaucracies are the major sources of information on which politicians must base their calculations. The reverse evolution of bureaucracies. Bureaucracies, interest groups and the committee system.

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