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Politics’ rationally irrational nature

A political ad that ran on TV in Alabama during the fall of 1982 featured a candidate earnestly promising “More Jobs and Less Crime.”

What a courageous statesman! Only the bravest of the brave would promise such outcomes.

The candidate never bothered to explain in his ads just how he’d go about creating more jobs and fewer criminals; apparently, he felt no need to do so. It was enough merely to explain that he was not among the presumably numerous other candidates who support fewer jobs and more crime.

Every political season I think of this ad. It captures well the vacuity and silliness of politics.

I write these words a few days before this year’s midterm elections, so I have no idea which candidates won and which lost. But I do know that during the campaign, the losers, no less grandly than did the winners, proclaimed their sincere and selfless devotion to all that is noble, good and glorious. Everywhere are the candidates who pose as uniquely able champions of “working Americans,” as well as devotees of fairness, decency, higher wages, more jobs and less crime.

Nowhere is the candidate who states his intention to ignore working Americans in order to carry political water for “non-working Americans.” Never to be heard is the politician who promises to act unfairly and to push only for legislation that is indecent or that lowers wages, destroys jobs and is guaranteed to increase the crime rate.

In short, political campaigns are stupid and boring. Almost never do candidates say anything substantive and, hence, interesting. The chief exceptions occur only when candidates slip up, such as when Hillary Clinton recently said that businesses don’t create jobs. Without such faux pas , modern American campaigns would be duller (and even less informative) than are the contents labels of bleach bottles.

Yet the American public gobbles up this pabulum. Why else would candidates continue to serve up such infantile idiocy?

Economics has a compelling answer to this question — an answer that turns on a fact that is simultaneously so obvious as to be indisputable and so politically incorrect as to be virtually unmentionable in public. But I’ll mention it: No individual vote matters. Each vote is counted , but no vote, by itself, matters . Your vote never has and never will determine the outcome of any election. The same is true for the vote of any other individual. Knowing this fact, each and every voter treats elections frivolously.

The typical voter devotes more time to learning how to program his TV’s remote control than how to assess how each candidate’s likely actions while in office will affect society. Voters’ inattentiveness to the substance of public-policy questions is rational: If public policies will be whatever they will be regardless of how, or even if, you vote, why spend your valuable time learning the details of public-policy issues? Better that you spend that time learning about matters that you can individually control.

Most voters are therefore rationally uninterested in the substantive details of public policies. So, voters instead pay attention only to the most superficial aspects of political questions. And politicians — whose expertise is in campaigning and winning elections — cater to this disinterest by serving up only brainless campaign ads.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.


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