The Problem Of Political Irrationality

Economics relies on the assumption that individuals make rational choices. But if that’s the case why do so many of those choices seem irrational? Michael Huemer makes a distinction between epistemic rationality and instrumental rationality.

Instrumental rationality (or “means-end rationality”) consists in choosing the correct means to attain one’s actual goals, given one’s actual beliefs. This is the kind of rationality that economists generally assume in explaining human behavior.

Epistemic rationality consists, roughly, in forming beliefs in truth-conducive ways—accepting beliefs that are well-supported by evidence, avoiding logical fallacies, avoiding contradictions, revising one’s beliefs in the light of new evidence against them, and so on. This is the kind of rationality that books on logic and critical thinking aim to instill.

David Friedman confirms that what Huemer calls instrumental rationality is indeed an underlying assumption of economics.

The rationality assumption in economics is that individuals have objectives and tend to choose the correct way of achieving them.

Huemer explains why instrumental rationality dominates politics and how it produces irrationality.

The theory of Rational Irrationality holds that it is often instrumentally rational to be epistemically irrational. In more colloquial (but less accurate) terms: people often think illogically because it is in their interests to do so. This is particularly common for political beliefs. Consider one of Caplan’s examples. If I believe, irrationally, that trade between myself and other people is harmful, I bear the costs of this belief. But if I believe—also irrationally—that trade between my country and other countries is harmful, I bear virtually none of the costs of this belief. There is a tiny chance that my belief may have some effect on public policy; if so, the costs will be borne by society as a whole; only a negligible portion of it will be borne by me personally. For this reason, I have an incentive to be more rational about the individual-level effects of trade than I am about the general effects of trade between nations. In general, just as I receive virtually none of the benefit of my collecting of political information, so I receive virtually none of the benefit of my thinking rationally about political issues.

The theory of Rational Irrationality makes two main assumptions. First, individuals have non-epistemic belief preferences (otherwise known as “biases”). That is, there are certain things that people want to believe, for reasons independent of the truth of those propositions or of how well-supported they are by the evidence. Second, individuals can exercise some control over their beliefs. Given the first assumption, there is a “cost” to thinking rationally—namely, that one may not get to believe the things one wants to believe. Given the second assumption (and given that individuals are usually instrumentally rational), most people will accept this cost only if they receive greater benefits from thinking rationally. But since individuals receive almost none of the benefit from being epistemically rational about political issues, we can predict that people will often choose to be epistemically irrational about political issues..

I could quibble with the formulation but I don’t think Huemer much overstates the case when he writes: “The problem of political irrationality is the greatest social problem humanity faces.

Huemer’s analysis is good but his prescriptions for alleviating the problem of political irrationality are not very helpful. They really amount to simply advising individuals to apply epistemic rationality consistently. But this does nothing to address the source of the problem which Huemer has already identified: “…it is often instrumentally rational to be epistemically irrational“. Huemer’s advice will only be marginally useful for those who already value epistemic rationality highly enough. It’s fruitless to attempt to persuade most people to use better judgment (to use epistemic rationality instead of instrumental rationality) when it is not in their immediate interest to do so.

It was always too late for a political solution. The problem of political irrationality cannot be addressed by political means.

6 thoughts on “The Problem Of Political Irrationality”

  1. Why isn’t Instrumental rationality simply a subset of Epistemic rationality?

    I would say that there is only one flavor of Logic (Epistemic rationality) and that any other alleged flavor is simply an artificial distinction.

    I mean … how “rational” is Instrumental rationality if it doesn’t avoid logical fallacies, avoid contradictions, and if its application doesn’t incorporate revising one’s beliefs in the light of new evidence against them?

  2. Someone needs to tell Billy Beck that his site is majorly screwed up right now, if he doesn’t know. When I try to go to the site, it’s bringing up admin login!

  3. Thanx, Virgnia. I’ve been wrangling with it all evening. My hosting company got hacked last night by e-mail spammers, and we’ve all been tearing our hair out trying to get it back together.

  4. The thing of it is that Americans and Englishmen enjoyed (and do enjoy) a kind of liberty that humans have not historically enjoyed. That liberty came through the political process: levellers and liberals wrote tracts, stood for office, and formed parties. Legislation was passed, kings were opposed, and so on.

    In America, liberal ideas were already well among the populace, but picking up the guns and winning independence, revolting against stiffling English taxation, and all the other civil disobediences and outright challenges were the product of men who wrote. Liberals wrote for the populace, and the populace heard them gladly.

    Obviously, England wasn’t always so free. It had to evolve things like habeas corpus and the right to keep and bear arms. And they came about because people agitated for them politically. And if it happened once, why can’t or won’t it happen again? I simply don’t understand your defeatist attitude in the political realm. It doesn’t line up with history.

    – Josh

  5. Just want to note that not all irrationality is of the kinds listed. There is systemic irrationality in how the human brain functions. Partly this is because evolutionary success does not necessarily involve rationality. Partly its because we take shortcut approaches to many of the difficult problems we encounter. Partly its because we have behaviors hardwired for the environment we evolved in and the goals of our genes, and we cannot easily change them for our current environment and goals.

    Not disagreeing with anything you’ve said, just wanted to point out that irrationality is more fundamental and pervasive than in this particular example.

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