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The Impartial Spectator Goes to Washington: Toward a Smithian Theory of Electoral Behavior

  • Geoffrey Brennan (a1) and Loren Lomasky (a2)

When economists pay homage to the wisdom of the distant past (not the most common of professional exercises) it is more likely that a work two decades old is being admired than one two centuries old. Economics is a science, and the sciences are noteworthy for their digestion and assimilation of the work of previous generations. Contributions remain only as accretions to the accepted body of knowledge; the writings and the writers disappear almost without trace. A conspicuous exception to this rule of professional cannibalization is Adam Smith. Since 1776 he has not lacked for honors that have escaped even his most illustrious peers. Who, after all, wears a David Ricardo necktie? So to the author of The Wealth of Nations, all praise!

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1. Winch Donald, Adam Smith's Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978, p. 85.

2. Stigler George J., “Smith's Travels on the Ship of State.” In Essays on Adam Smith, edited by Skinner Andrew S. and Wilson T.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

3. An issue that is central to much economic policy analysis in orthodox public finance, for example.

4. We have, severally and jointly, developed elsewhere in far greater detail a model to comprehend voting behavior in large number electorates and have examined some of that model's predictive and normative implications. See Brennan Geoffrey and Lomasky Loren: “Institutional Aspects of Merit Goods Analysis.” Finanzarchiv. Heft 41/4, (1983), and our book-length treatment Democracy and Decision (forthcoming). See also Brennan Geoffrey and Buchanan James, “Voter choice: Evaluating Political Alternatives.” American Behavioral Scientist 28: 185201, 11/12 (1984).

5. We do not need to claim that the investment aspects of a vote are entirely nonexistent, only that they are dominated by considerably stronger consumption payoffs.

6. The notion that voting ought properly to be considered as an act of consumption is not new. See, for example Ferejohn John and Fiorina Morris, “The Paradox of Not-voting: A Decision Theoretic Analysis.” American Political Science Review 68:525536 (1974); Goodin Robert and Roberts K.W.S., “The Ethical Voter.” American Political Science Review 69:926929 (1975); Meehl Paul E., “The Selfish Voter Paradox and the Thrown Away Vote Argument.” American Political Science Review 71:1130 (1977); Riker William and Ordeshook Peter, “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting.” American Political Science Review 62: 2542 (1968).

7. We have set out the implications of our argument for the normative underpinnings of democracy at some length in our paper “Large numbers, small costs: The uneasy foundations of democratic rule” (mimeo).

8. This antipathy too may be the result of sympathy with those feelings of resentment that others have-perhaps those who have, in one way or another, suffered at the boss's hand.

9. The political status of the Social Security program is examined more fully by Lomasky Loren, “Why Social Security is Untouchable.” Cato Journal. Forthcoming.

10. Or reasons; another complicating factor is the possibility of overdetermination.

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Economics & Philosophy
  • ISSN: 0266-2671
  • EISSN: 1474-0028
  • URL: /core/journals/economics-and-philosophy
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