Doug Campbell's Five-Page History of Public Choice
By Bryan Caplan
Doug Campbell’s written a great short history of public choice for Region Focus, the newsletter of the Richmond Fed. Or at least that’s what my Inner Megalomaniac thinks, since 50% of this short history is about my work! One highlight:
To Caplan, his work adds up to something in between a reorientation and a debunking of public choice theory. “I can still accept 75 percent of [public choice theory], but with a big asterisk,” Caplan says. “It’s not so much about sneaking bad policy underneath the radar as it is tapping into public opinion.”
Campbell also describes some critical remarks from Cato’s Bill Niskanen:
The weakness in Caplan’s premise, Niskanen says, is his reliance on a survey with open-ended questions. It may be that the general public believes that raising the minimum wage is a good idea while economists disagree. But if you extend the question with the information that raising the minimum wage may decrease employment for the least-skilled workers, the public may be less enthusiastic. And if so, then that is evidence against systematic irrationality. It is, quite plainly, rational ignorance.
I have a whole chapter (“Chapter 4: Classical Public Choice and the Failure of Rational Ignorance”) on this point, but to give the quick version:
1. Rational ignorance doesn’t explain why the ignorant make the same kind of errors.
2. Rational ignorance doesn’t explain why people are not agnostic about fields – like economics – that they haven’t studied.
3. Rational ignorance doesn’t explain why most people resist and even get angry when economists explain the negative side effects of popular policies.
Niskanen’s right that people would favor different policies if you changed their minds about the facts. The problem is that changing their minds about the facts is like pulling teeth.