Friday, August 21, 2009

Welcome to Social Science

. Friday, August 21, 2009

A pundit and an economist are baffled by rational-choice theory:

At the same time, I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree [of] cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics. For example, Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. But it’s impossible to imagine these same Senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark DC alley to steal his shoes. And what’s more, the entire political class would be (rightly!) shocked and appalled by the specter of a Senator murdering someone for personal gain. Yet it’s actually taken for granted that “my selfish desires dictate that I do x” constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation.

Making it all the odder, the level of self-interest at stake isn’t all that high. Selling the public good down the river to bolster your re-election chances isn’t like stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving children. The welfare rolls are hardly stocked with the names of former members of congress. Indeed, it’s not even clear that voting “the wrong way” poses particularly serious threats to one’s re-election. But even if it did, one might assume that people who bother to dedicating their lives to securing vast political power did so because they actually wanted to accomplish something and get in the history books, perhaps, as one of the big heroes of their era.

I don't intend any particular point about cap and trade, but viewed more generally it's stunning how true this is. (In fairness, note that the title of this post is my framing, not necessarily Matt's.) Many people -- especially those who become politicians -- really do want fame and power and it is amazing what they will talk themselves into to get there and to stay there. They don't even want fame in the sense of being recognized, in the longer run, for having done the right thing. They want more personal influence and power now.

Call me cynical, but I'm really surprised that they are surprised. I would've expected them both to be more, er, realistic.


Welcome to Social Science
There was an error in this gadget




Add to Technorati Favorites