June 14, 2005 by AK
“People do not necessarily vote in their self interest,” says a liberal-Democratic thinker making me wonder whether the largest feasible set of policy choices that would be in one’s self-interest is impossible to deduce for anyone except that one individual. One fundamental assumption in economics is that people have preferences that guide their consumer behavior. Yet there is no way to perceive these preferences except by observing consumer choices (and by conducting experiments with test groups). Ultimately, we may never know what people really prefer and how stable their preferences are. The same goes for politics: we can never know for sure what exactly is in other people’s self-interest.
Perhaps Lakoff means economic self-interest… but economic self-interest is terribly hard, impossible I’d say, to isolate. He probably has in mind an artificially constructed homo economicus — a homunculus whose meaningful preferences only span over a limited circle of easily identifiable, perhaps even tradable goods. This reduced version of homo economicus is probably hard to find in the real world, although many Russians think the West is populated by these types, indifferent to all things that transcend the consumption-saving dilemma. When properly understood, homo economicus is really a chooser driven by a complex set of preferences that make her sensitive to phenomena outside the realm of traditional economics. (Traditional may be a wrong word — Gary Becker used a standard microeconomic framework to study, qualitatively, classical music appreciation and drug addiction.) In other words, economic self-interest is basically impossible to ditinguish from (the individual’s) general self-interest, and general self-interest is incognizable in its entirety.
It has to be true that elites have a duty to guide; it is obvious that sometimes they lose the trust of the guided. The irritated elites try to blame it on the herd; the non-elite can respond by bringing forward their own counter-elite then.
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