Why Not Irrationality?

In his original reply, Jeff faulted me for failing to pay attention to how people actually form beliefs and fall into error. But now he’s switched to the much stronger claim that the very idea of irrationality is somehow philosophically incoherent:

To call people’s emotional attachment to religious beliefs irrational, then Caplan has to assume that these beliefs are incorrect—and that the religious believers know that they’re incorrect.


Nobody needs an incentive to believe in what he thinks is true; believing in what one thinks is true is simply coextensive with believing anything, period. Conversely, even perverse incentives can’t explain perverse beliefs, because the very notion of “perverse beliefs” is self-contradictory, despite its popularity (and the popularity of the twin notion of “willful ignorance”). There are plenty of false beliefs, but nobody can “believe” to be true what he knows is false. Therefore, false beliefs must be unwittingly false.

So, Jeff, how would you classify the beliefs of someone who hastily and uncritically accepts conclusions that he would like to be true, but skeptically resists conclusions that he would like to be false? This isn’t literally a case of believing what you know to be false. But it is a case of relaxing intellectual discipline to get to the beliefs you’d like to have. I think that’s enough to qualify as “perverse belief,” “willful ignorance,” or “irrationality.” Why don’t you?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan argues that voters are not just ignorant, they’re irrational. According to Caplan, when the cost of holding irrational beliefs is low–as it is in religion and politics–we should expect a lot of irrational belief. “Even when his views are completely wrong,” Caplan writes, “[the voter] gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price.” But the low personal cost of irrationality has a high social cost. Caplan provides statistical evidence of voters’ “systematically biased beliefs” in economics, and argues this undermines the electorate’s ability to implement good policy. Caplan suggests we should rely “less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets,” in addition to several other provocative reforms sure to make civics teachers blanch.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Bryan Caplan’s lead essay, Brown University political philosopher David Estlund argues that neither of Caplan’s proposed alternatives to democracy, markets and experts, satisfactorily correct for the problem of voter irrationality. With respect to experts, Estlund observes that political questions are moral as well as empirical: “[M]aybe … my morally wise mother would perform better overall than the economists. That settles nothing, since there is no entitlement to rule others based simply on the fact that you know what is best.” As far as markets go, Estlund says “Voters and market actors are the same people, so we should expect the charges of ignorance and irrationality to be leveled against people in both guises… In the aggregate many market mistakes, like voting mistakes, affect everyone.”

  • University of Virginia political philosopher Loren Lomasky compares Caplan’s criticism of democracy and defense of expertise with Plato’s argument in The Republic, while noting that in a modern system of representative democracy, voters choose among candidates, not policies. “If voters are as intellectually maladroit as Caplan suggests,” Lomasky writes, “then they are incapable of mastery of their elected representatives,” who are thus left with a fairly free hand to set policy. “What [voters] can do, though, is ‘throw the rascals out,’” and that, Lomasky argues, is good enough.

  • Jeffrey Friedman argues that Caplan’s charge of voter irrationality relies on the unrealistic idealizations of economic theory and that “[v]oters who don’t understand economics because they haven’t been exposed to it, or because they’ve been exposed to it but have found it tough going, aren’t irrational; they’re just ignorant.”