The first casualty of the Iraqi elections was the phrase "cultural imperialism." Will institutions develop capable of supporting the Iraqi people's demonstrated desire for self-governance? It is not clear. People of good faith may disagree about whether the war in Iraq was wise. But immoral in its very purpose? An exercise in cultural imperialism? Anyone who watched the election footage, who had empathy, who had any inkling of the common yearnings that make us human, would find it hard to believe that the Iraqi people wanted no voice in determining their affairs. Was democracy "imposed" in Iraq? Was there some indigenous "culture," inimical to democracy--(a culture of enslavement?)--that sensitive persons in the West should have sought to preserve?
A second (and rather minor) casualty was the economics of voting. Economists argue that voting is irrational. The benefit to the individual of voting is almost zero. The chance that one's own vote will be decisive in a national election is so small as to be meaningless. But the costs are nonzero. In the hour or so it takes you to get to your polling place and punch holes in a ballot, you could do all kinds of things. You could make a ham sandwich! Forgoing the ham sandwich and deciding to vote makes you worse off. How, then, do we explain voters in Iraq and Afghanistan? In addition to giving up a potential ham sandwich, they appear to have risked their lives.
I was chatting with a group of economists about this a couple of weeks ago. Chief among their proposed answers was that the voters may have felt a social pressure to conform. Informal reputational effects within their communities induced them to vote. Something like that. I suggested that maybe the voters wanted to be a part of something larger than themselves. Maybe the thought of helping create a better world, for their children and their fellow citizens, gave them hope and joy. (More utility than a ham sandwich, even.)
Long silence from the economists. I wouldn't go that far, said one, at last.
You'd have thought I proposed that pink elephants in tutus were dancing around the room.
Most of the profession seems to believe that moral passion is a kind of insanity. The willingness to risk everything to create a better life for other people is something to be explained away or belittled. We have the intellectual freedom to look down on moral courage because someone, somewhere--or a great many someones--risked a great deal to create the institutions that make our smugness and condescension possible. Ironic, that. When we economists write down a general equilibrium model, we make assumptions about laws, structures, institutions. Voluntary exchange. Rights. In real life, the structures were not assumed into existence. People risked their lives to make these structures work. If human beings were what economists think we are, we would not vote, our institutions would not work, intellectual freedom would be minimal, and there would probably be no economics. Economists exist, then, because of the existence of mechanisms they deny, impugn, and belittle.
We are because we are wrong.