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Myth of the Rational Lobbyist

December 27, 2009

Reviewing Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter today, stats-prof Andrew Gelman writes,

It is too much to expect any player in the political system to be entirely rational–Ansolabehere and Snyder (2003) argue that even lobbyists are not particularly rational in their campaign contributions.

That’s an obtuse non-sequitur. If lobbyists aren’t rational, then it’s too much to expect the public to be? Strange moral reasoning, professor!  Still, I hadn’t really thought about irrational lobbyists. Because they have a stronger motivation, are highly coordinated, are more highly educated, and more likely to track the consequences of their vote-buying, I would assume that the irrationality of special interests is less than that of the public’s.  I’ll have to look more closely at Ansolabehere and Snyder.

But Gelman misses something more important here. It’s not simply that voters are irrational. It’s that they’re inveterately irrational in predictable ways. If they were randomly irrational, then we would expect their votes to cancel each other out. Some of the irrational would vote poorly, and some would mistakenly vote well. But because their idiocy is random, we would expect these two groups to cancel each other out, leaving the remaining five percent of the well-informed electorate to settle the matter.

Alas, that’s not what happens.  Sadly, people aren’t randomly irrational in the voting booth.  In fact, they’re irrational in roughly four ways–the four biases Caplan mentions: anti-market bias, xenophobia, make-work bias and pessimistic bias.

So to go back to the lobbyists, it’s not enough to say that they’re irrational, too. Because, mutatis mutandis, the lobbyists aren’t randomly irrational either. Insofar as they are poorly skilled at achieving the goals they aim to achieve, we should expect lobbyists to act in line with the same biases Caplan mentions.  Gelman completely skips over that.

  1. December 29, 2009 5:38 am

    Strange moral reasoning, professor!

    What does the word “moral” add to that sentence?

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      December 29, 2009 6:49 am

      Umm, yeah, one more word?

  2. December 29, 2009 3:28 am

    In John Lott’s “Freedomnomics” he argues that there is little evidence that campaign contributions change how legislators vote (those retiring with no need for them vote the same) or even have much of an effect on their probability of victory (self-funded candidates have horrible track records). He concludes that donations and votes probably have the same motivations.

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