Dear New Yorker: I Want My Catch Phrase Back
By Bryan Caplan
I’m a firm believer that (a) all publicity is good publicity, (b) the more attention my memes get, the better – even if if I get no credit. And in the past, The New Yorker has done me nothing but good; its review of The Myth of the Rational Voter was more than fair. Yet despite my lackadaisical standards and pent-up goodwill toward his employer, John Cassidy has managed to aggravate me by calling his New Yorker blog “Rational Irrationality.”
I coined the phrase “rational irrationality,” over a decade ago to capture human beings’ tendency to be less irrational when the private cost goes up. My first publication with “rational irrationality” in the title appeared in 2000 and the concept was central to my 2007 book. Still, if Cassidy were merely adopting my concept without attribution, I’d consider it a favor: I want my memes to live!
Unfortunately, not only does his usage diverge sharply from mine; he strangely uses “rational irrationality” as a synonym for garden-variety collective action problems:
Unfortunately, the real causes of the crisis are much scarier and less
amenable to reform: they have to do with the inner logic of an economy
like ours. The root problem is what might be termed “rational
irrationality”–behavior that, on the individual level, is perfectly
reasonable but that, when aggregated in the marketplace, produces
My question: If Cassidy needs a sexier name for “collective action problem,” what’s wrong with “Prisoners’ Dilemma” – a phrase that he uses later in the article? Was it really necessary to mangle my catch phrase?
Update: In the comments, several readers point out some pre-2000 appearances of the phrase “rational irrationality.” Point granted, but these earlier uses were basically dead ends. When I was first publishing this work, I did my due diligence – and none of these references turned up on google or Jstor. If Cassidy had done the same, he would have found lots of references to my work – and avoided needless conceptual confusion.