Thursday, November 09, 2006

Redemptive Cynicism

Or Cynical Redemption, perhaps? Chris Masse has spurred me to engage my brain on voting, and I think the best thing I've read in a long time is what Glen Whitman said about Bryan Caplan's Irrational Voter. Caplan says:
But why are there some areas – like politics and religion – where irrationality seems especially pronounced? My answer is that irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap. If you underestimate the costs of excessive drinking, you can ruin your life. In contrast, if you underestimate the benefits of immigration, or the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, what happens to you? In all probability, the same thing that would have happened to you if you knew the whole truth.

In a sense, then, there is a method to the average voter's madness. Even when his views are completely wrong, he gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price. No wonder he buys in bulk.
And Whitman reflects:
Bryan focuses on economics as an area in which voters are particularly likely to be wrong, and he shows this by contrasting the opinions of voters and professional economists. I find the argument compelling – but then again, I’m an economist. Besides, as I argued in the post linked earlier, economists may be less vulnerable to psychological rent-seeking because their training imbues them with an awareness of trade-offs and a tendency to balance competing goals (since nearly any goal is subject to diminishing returns at some point). Thus, Bryan may be biasing the case in his favor by choosing an area in which the experts are less susceptible to the sort of bias we should be concerned about.

Arguably, one aspect of voters’ irrationality is their credulity about the claims of supposedly public-minded experts. As Bryan’s colleague Don Boudreaux points out, a candidate’s being “pro-teacher” is quite different from the candidate’s being “pro-education.” Similarly, “pro-union” does not necessarily mean “pro-worker.” Yet voters will often conflate the two. Although I agree with Bryan’s overall perspective, I wonder if his deference to the opinions of experts might exacerbate a prominent source of voter error.
You might call it Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle; I call it baggage. Voter baggage. We all have post-modern 3D Xray glasses on now.

That said, I think that Caplan's antireligious bias may cost him more than anything he is able to measure, at least, according to Pascal's Wager. In sum, Pascal reasons that a Bettor should Buy GOD.EXISTS and definitely not Sell Him. The downside of expiring the contract at 0 is very small (i.e. you aren't going to Heaven, no biggie), compared to the huge upside of ending up in the money--and the huge downside if you are caught short (i.e. you spend eternity surrounded by hot brimstone).

I have 3 words for trading futures contracts, and the same 3 words for the eternal soul:

Risk Adjusted Returns

By another Way: For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?


  1. God would not appreciate that you simply believe in him because of your aversion to risk.

  2. Sure, fear is not love. But there is something about the fear of God that is a catalyst to wisdom. Martin Lloyd-Jones might claim that the proper emotions arise only with the proper understanding.