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Econlib QuickPicks- The Economics of Politics


Before economics was, well, economics, it was better known as political economy. While a formal discipline would not emerge until after the time of Adam Smith, the relationship between men, markets, and the state has concerned thinkers since ancient times. And since November is an election month in many places, we figured this would be a good time to explore that same relationship here. 

We hope you find this month's collection useful for sparking conversation. We'd love to get your feedback. Stories, photos, and anecdotes are always welcome. Please share with us on social media or via

(P.S. If you want to learn ever more about the history of political economy, check out John Kells Ingram's classic text at our sister site, the Online Library of Liberty, which takes you from the ancients to the Austrians.)

(P.P.S. For more on the not always honorable history of economics, you won't want to miss this early Econlib series by Sandra Peart and David Levy.)

Democracy is a Means, Not an End
Everyone loves democracy. Ask an American if there is a better form of government, and they’ll be insulted. You believe in democracy, don’t you? And what exactly is it that you believe in? What people mean by “democracy” is some vague combination of good government, protection of individual rights, extremely broad political participation, and widely shared economic prosperity.
Pigs Don't Fly: The Economic Way of Thinking About Politics
Pigs don’t fly. Politicians, being mere mortals like the rest of us, respond to incentives. They’re a mixture of selfless and selfish and when the incentives push them to do the wrong thing, albeit the self-interested one, why should we ever be surprised? 
What is Seen and What is Not Seen
Writes F.A. Hayek in the Introduction to this collection of essays by Frederic Bastiat, "No one has ever stated more clearly in a single phrase the central difficulty of a rational economic policy and, I would like to add, the decisive argument for economic freedom."
The Myth of the Rational Voter
What sorts of biases do voters bring into the voting booth? Listen to this EconTalk episode with Bryan Caplan, and use the complementary questions to start a class discussion or as an assignment.
Public Choice
Public choice applies the theories and methods of economics to the analysis of political behavior, an area that was once the exclusive province of political scientists and sociologists... Public choice has revolutionized the study of democratic decision-making processes. 
Podcast: The Three Languages of Politics
Arnold Kling, author of The Three Languages of Politics, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in the book. Kling argues that Progressives, Conservatives, and Libertarians each have their own language and way of looking at the world that often doesn't overlap. The result is ideological intolerance and incivility. Understanding the language and mindset of others can help us do a better job discussing our disagreements and understand why each group seems to feel both misunderstood and morally superior.
Can Liberalism Survive in a Democracy?
“Democracy has arrived not as the fruit of consideration and controversy, but almost as a moral axiom around which no supporting argument is necessary.” 

Jonathan Rodden on The Geography of Voting
How does aggregate voting behavior in rural and suburban areas compare to that in urban areas? What are the differences between proportional representation systems and winner-take-all political systems? Use this EconTalk Extra as an assignment or as the basis of a classroom discussion. 

Voting with Ballots versus Voting with Your Feet
Millions of black people in the Jim Crow South were prevented from voting. That’s the bad news. Fortunately, there’s some good news. They were able to vote with their feet and millions of them did... What happened in the United States in the last century is dramatic evidence that voting with one’s feet is much more powerful than voting at the ballot box. 
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