Ethicist Jason Brennan on why smart politicians say dumb things

Jason BrennanEthicist Jason Brennan, whose posts on the ethics of voting for our 2012 Election 101 series were enormously popular, will be writing a series of posts for the PUP blog offering unique perspectives on ethics, voting, not voting, democracy, public policy and strategy. He is currently Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and is writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press. We’re excited to have him back, and to kick it off with his first post. –PUP Blog Editor

Saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

The Onion jokes: Donald Trump is “an eccentric, megalomaniac billionaire still more relatable to average Americans than anyone willing to dedicate life to politics”. Every other day, he says something outrageous or blatantly false, and yet he continues to grow in the polls. He seems to be getting by on empty slogans, with no well thought out policy ideas.
 When you see a politician saying something outrageous or blatantly false, you might be tempted to decry the quality of our politicians. If only someone better came along.

But there’s a reason we have the kind of politicians we do, and it’s not because no one better is willing to step up to the plate. Nor is it because great and evil villains (insert the Koch Brothers or George Soros, depending on your political predilection) are keeping our saviors down. Donald Trump may or may not be an eccentric megalomaniac, and he has indeed said many substantively stupid things. But he’s not a stupid man, and saying stupid things to would-be voters is a very smart thing to do.

Politicians are trying to win elections. To win elections, they need to get the most votes. To do that, they need to appeal to as many voters as possible. In an election, what every smart politician is trying to do is behave in ways that he or she hopes will appeal to the typical voter. Politicians are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates.

 If voters were well-informed, dispassionate policy-wonks, then political campaigns would resemble peer-reviewed economics journals. But few voters or potential voters are like that. As I’ll document at greater length in future blog posts here, most voters are poorly informed, passionate, biased, overconfident, and tribalistic. Most non-voters are not dispassionate truth-seekers; rather, they just don’t care much at all.

Voters are like this because they respond rationally to the incentives democracy creates. The problem is that our individual votes count for very little. Economists and political scientists debate just how to calculate the probability that your vote will make a difference. Still, even on the most optimistic estimate in the literature, your vote (in a presidential election) has a 1 in 10 million chance of making a difference, but only if you live one of handful of swing states and vote Democrat or Republican. Otherwise, your vote has no real chance of mattering. Polls show that citizens more or less realize this.

Voters do not consume much information, nor do they discipline themselves to think rationally about the information they consume, because their votes make little difference. As economists like to say, voters are rationally ignorant. Consider, as an analogy. Suppose a billionaire offers you a million dollars if you can ace the Advance Placement Economics and Political Science exams. You’d probably be willing to learn basic economics and political science for that price. But now suppose the billionaire instead offers you a 1 in 20 million chance of earning that million dollars if you ace the exams. Now it’s not worth your time—it doesn’t pay to learn economics or political science.

Indeed, it’s not clear that voters are even trying to change the outcome of the election when they vote.  One popular theory of voter behavior is that voters vote in order to express themselves. Though the act of voting is private, voters regard voting as a uniquely apt way to demonstrate their commitment to their political team. Voting is like wearing a Metallica T-shirt at a concert or doing the wave at a sports game. Sports fans who paint their faces the team colors do not generally believe they will change the outcome of the game, but instead wish to demonstrate their commitment to their team. Even when watching games alone, sports fans cheer and clap for their teams. Perhaps voting is like this.

When you see politicians saying dumb things, remember that these politicians are not fools. They are responding rationally to the incentives before them. They say dumb things because they expect voters want to hear dumb things. When you see that voters want to hear dumb things, remember that the voters are only foolish because they are responding rationally to the incentives before them. How we vote matters, but for each individual person, how she votes does not. Thus, most individuals vote as if very little is at stake.Trump’s popularity is an indictment of democracy, not a conviction (yet). Democracy may make us dumb, but that doesn’t mean that in the end, democracies always make dumb decisions.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief Hisotry of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Politics, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.

Presenting Richard Bourke’s new video discussion of “Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke”

Bourke jacketEdmund Burke was arguably one of the most captivating figures in turbulent eighteenth-century life and thought, but studies of the complex statesman and philosopher often reduce him to a one dimensional defender of the aristocracy.

Richard Bourke, professor in the history of political thought and codirector of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London, has written a multifaceted portrait that depicts Burke as a philosopher-in-action who evaluated the political realities of the day through the lens of Enlightenment thought. The book also reconstructs one of the most fascinating eras in the history of the British empire, a period spanning myriad imperial ventures and three European wars. PUP is excited to present this new video in which Bourke discusses Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke:


New Politics 2015 Catalog

Our Politics 2015 catalog is now available.

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k10627 In Sailing the Water’s Edge, Helen V. Milner and Dustin Tingley analyze how the different tools of foreign policy, including foreign aid, international trade, and the use of military force, have been used by the US since World War II. They shed light on the different forces at play that have helped to shape our foreign policy, particularly the relationship between the president, Congress, interest groups, and the public.
k10423 Be sure to check out The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece by Josiah Ober. Ober brings to the table new sources in making his argument that ancient Greek superiority was no accident—it can be explained by innovations in politics and economics. You can read chapter one here and a Q&A with the author here.
k10567 Finally, don’t miss Empire and Revolution by Richard Bourke. At 1032 pages, this ambitious work cuts through many misconceptions about Edmund Burke and his ideas using a wide range of sources. Readers will be left with a thorough understanding of one of the preeminent statesmen of the late 18th century. We invite you to read the introduction here.

For more information on these and many more titles in political science, scroll through our catalog above. If you would like to receive updates on new titles, you can subscribe to our email list.

Book Fact Friday – The Few vs. The Many

From chapter 1 of The Birth of Politics:

The elites in ancient Greece called themselves hoi aristoi, or the best men. It is from this term that we get the word ‘aristocracy.’ They also called themselves hoi oligoi, or the few, as opposed to hoi polloi, the many. The assumption was that there would only be a few rich families and the rest of the people would be poor, an idea that we can see playing out today.

The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter
Melissa Lane

k10422In The Birth of Politics, Melissa Lane introduces the reader to the foundations of Western political thought, from the Greeks, who invented democracy, to the Romans, who created a republic and then transformed it into an empire. Tracing the origins of our political concepts from Socrates to Plutarch to Cicero, Lane reminds us that the birth of politics was a story as much of individuals as ideas. Scouring the speeches of lawyers alongside the speculations of philosophers, and the reflections of ex-slaves next to the popular comedies and tragedies of the Greek and Roman stages, this book brings ancient ideas to life in unexpected ways.

Lane shows how the Greeks and Romans defined politics with distinctive concepts, vocabulary, and practices—all of which continue to influence politics and political aspirations around the world today. She focuses on eight political ideas from the Greco-Roman world that are especially influential today: justice, virtue, constitution, democracy, citizenship, cosmopolitanism, republic, and sovereignty. Lane also describes how the ancient formulations of these ideas often challenge widely held modern assumptions—for example, that it is possible to have political equality despite great economic inequality, or that political regimes can be indifferent to the moral character of their citizens.

On This Day – Galileo forced to cede to Church

k10498On June 22, 1633, the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo Galilei to renounce his view that the Earth rotates around the Sun. By doing so, he avoided death and was instead placed on house arrest. The Church opposed the heliocentric model, proposed by Copernicus a century before, because it directly contradicted biblical passages that assumed a geocentric system.

In Ideas of Liberty in Early Modern Europe: From Machiavelli to Milton, Hilary Gatti argues that the early modern period laid the foundations of our modern ideas of liberty, justice, and democracy. The “Galileo affair” is one example of this process that she highlights. Gatti argues that this moment in history has become “the historical pivot around which one of the most heated discussions of our time is developing—that is, how far religious doctrine can, if at all, determine the inquiries of the scientists and the ways in which they are accepted by society and taught in its academies and schools” (104). We see this debate continuing in our own time surrounding the study of the Theory of Evolution in schools.

To learn more about how events surrounding Galileo, Machiavelli, Milton, and others contributed to our modern ideas of liberty, check out Gatti’s book. You can read the introduction online.

Ai Weiwei exhibition at Blenheim Palace: Our UK publicity assistant investigates!

Visitors can expect to experience something different this autumn at Blenheim Palace. Tradition meets modernity as the 18th century baroque architecture of Blenheim, the birthplace of wartime British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, is host to an exhibition of the artwork of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.Ai weiwei sign

This exciting exhibition is especially relevant to Princeton University Press for two reasons: not only is Blenheim Palace a stone’s throw from Princeton University Press’s European office in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, but Princeton University Press published Ai Weiwei’s ‘Little Black Book’, Weiwei-isms, last year.

Weiwei-isms is a collection of quotes demonstrating Ai Weiwei’s thoughts on key aspects of his art, politics and life, carefully selected by Larry Warsh from articles, tweets and interviews.

“Everything is art. Everything is politics.” — Weiwei-isms

Like Weiwei-isms, the exhibition at Blenheim Palace clearly demonstrates Ai Weiwei’s commitment to art as a powerful political statement, as a means of reacting against injustice, and inspiring others to do the same.

Blenheim chandelier“I want people to see their own power.” — Weiwei-isms

This certainly becomes clear as you enter the exhibition. You are given a leaflet which serves as a guide to Ai’s artwork, dispersed throughout the rooms of the palace. Despite this, none of the artwork is signposted and it becomes the visitor’s responsibility to seek it out and take meaning and inspiration from what they see.

The collection brings together pieces created by the artist over the past 30 years. It is especially impressive given that it was curated remotely, Ai Weiwei having been under house arrest since 2011. The old and new are often brought together, with artefacts from the past being reimagined in novel ways. Take, for example, the Han Dynasty vases transformed beyond recognition by car paint or by being ‘rebranded’ with the Coca Cola logo.

Blenheim zodiacHis ‘Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads’ (2010), previously displayed at a year-long exhibition at Princeton University, is also at Blenheim. This work is an ironic interpretation of the bronze zodiac head statues that were looted from the Emperor’s summer palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) in Beijing in 1860.

Other highlights include ‘He Xie’ (2012), a work comprised of 2,300 porcelain crabs on the floor of the Red Drawing Room (‘He Xie’, meaning ‘river crabs’, puns on the Chinese phrase for ‘harmony’).

While some pieces are the first thing you see when you walk into a room, other pieces are integrated more subtly into the sumptuous interiors of Blenheim Palace. The Wave Plate (2014) is seamlessly integrated into the lavish table decoration as the centrepiece in the Salon, and a pair of handcuffs made of Huali wood (2012) – a reminder of Ai Weiwei’s current situation – placed suggestively on the bed in Churchill’s birth room might escape your attention due to the large number of visitors moving from room to room, all engrossed in the same treasure hunt as you.

Blenheim crabsAll in all, the collaboration between Blenheim Palace and Ai Weiwei really does merit a visit. Ai Weiwei’s work is all the more interesting and thought-provoking for being situated in the context of Blenheim Palace and its grounds.

The exhibition at Blenheim Palace highlights the ‘clash’ of the old and new, which is indeed something that is key to much of Ai Weiwei’s work.

“If a nation cannot face its past, it has no future.” — Weiwei-isms

In years to come, the Ai Weiwei exhibition at Blenheim Palace is sure to become part of the artist’s legacy and a poignant reminder of his struggle for justice and truth.

“The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.” — Weiwei-isms

The exhibition runs until 14th December.

Rahul Sagar’s Secrets and Leaks wins 2014 Louis Brownlow Book Award

secretsThe National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) recently announced its decision to award Rahul Sagar with the 2014 Louis Brownlow Book Award–the top book prize in the field of public administration.

Sagar’s book, Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy “examines the complex relationships among executive power, national security, and secrecy,”  and was chosen by the award committee for its “provocative and compelling arguments” and “for excellence in public administration literature, having provided new insights, fresh analysis and original ideas that contribute to the understanding of the role of public institutions and how they serve the public.” Sagar will receive his award (and give a plenary address) at the NAPA fall meeting in Washington, DC on Thursday, November 13th.

Congratulations Rahul Sagar on the awesome accomplishment!

New Politics Catalog!

Be among the first to browse and download our new politics catalog!

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Of particular interest is The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions by Christopher F. Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg. This book shows how the gender composition and rules of a deliberative body dramatically affect who speaks, how the group interacts, the kinds of issues the group takes up, whose voices prevail, and what the group ultimately decides. It argues that efforts to improve the representation of women will fall short unless they address institutional rules that impede women’s voices.

Also be sure to note Currency Politics: The Political Economy of Exchange Rate Policy by Jeffry A. Frieden. Despite the critical role of exchange rate policy, there are few definitive explanations of why governments choose the currency policies they do. Filled with in-depth cases and examples, Currency Politics presents a comprehensive analysis of the politics surrounding exchange rates.

And don’t miss out on Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk. In this bracing appraisal of the politics of penal reform, Gottschalk exposes the broader pathologies in American politics that are preventing the country from solving its most pressing problems, including the stranglehold that neoliberalism exerts on public policy. She concludes by sketching out a promising alternative path to begin dismantling the carceral state.

More of our leading titles in politics can be found in the catalog. You may also sign up with ease to be notified of forthcoming titles at (Your e-mail address will remain confidential!)

If you’re heading to the American Political Science Association annual meeting in Washington, DC August 28th-31st, come visit us at booth 301. See you there!

A special summer reading round-up from Executive Editor, Rob Tempio

Dear Friends, Book Lovers, and Knowledge Seekers:


A recent government-issued report on the security threats posed by climate change warns of the potential for widespread conflict due to food shortages and competition for resources. The fragility of our interconnected and interdependent global civilization is at stake. An unprecedented event? Not at all. In the 12th century B.C., the great civilizations of the late Bronze Age came tumbling down one by one wracked by war, famine, drought and numerous other calamities which in part may have been caused, recent evidence indicates, by an apparent change in climate. The archaeologist Eric Cline tells the story of this collapse in his fantastic and best-selling new book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. The book is part of a brand new series just launched here at the press: Turning Points in Ancient History, edited by ancient historian Barry Strauss. Professor Cline’s book is one the most exciting I have ever published (if you don’t believe me, watch this trailer).


The collapse of the Bronze Age is, as the ancient historian Ian Morris put it, “one of history’s greatest mysteries.” And yet so few people are aware of this pivotal event in human history. Eric Cline’s book is going a long way to remedy that. And so far, readers like it—they really like it.

Would the inhabitants of the Bronze Age World have seen it coming if they had an oracle like the famous one at Delphi? Probably not. As Michael Scott points out in his new book, Delphi: The History of the Center of the Ancient World, the oracle’s pronouncements were almost always cryptic and open to the interpretation those seeking answers wanted to give it—often with disastrous empire-ending results (see Croesus, King). Yet people from around the ancient world flocked to the site for nearly a thousand years for religious, political, and even financial reasons as Delphi was also the banking capital of the Greek city-states. A sacred site indeed. Michael Scott tells the full story of this magnificent site from its founding to its archaeological rediscovery in the 19th century. It truly was the center of the world in ancient times. In fact, the Greeks called the site the omphalos or “the belly-button of the ancient world” (which I guess is better than being “the armpit of America” like us here in NJ).

Speaking of seeing it coming, I recently came across a peculiar ad in the New York Subway system for the Manhattan Mini Storage reminding (warning?) New Yorkers that in 1789 the French aristocracy failed to see the revolution that was in their midst—a revolution which would end with many of them headed to the guillotine.

Does Manhattan Mini Storage know something we don’t? What exactly were the signs of the coming revolution that those decadent aristocrats missed (and which apparently should have had them heading for their storage lockers)? To find out more about the animating ideas of the French Revolution (and possible signs for our own times) read historian Jonathan Israel’s major new intellectual history of the French Revolution, Revolutionary Ideas.

As we head into Memorial Day weekend, I can heartily recommend any of these books for reading at the beach (or the shore if you live in New Jersey), especially if you’d like to impress your fellow beachgoers with your intellect, if not your tan. Our Bronze Age is better for your skin anyway. But as you work on your tan, it would do you well to remember that vanity has its drawbacks, as the philosopher Simon Blackburn reminds us in his wonderful meditation on the use and abuses of self-love, Mirror, Mirror.

It’s been a great pleasure to work on these books and so many other important and fascinating books this past year. I hope you’ll find one you like. Or why not more than one? After all, you’re worth it.

Happy reading this summer!

Rob Tempio, Executive Editor of Philosophy, Political Theory, and the Ancient World

Untranslatable Tuesdays – Politics


To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. For week seven in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present politics, policy (excerpted from the full entry by Philippe Raynaud):

In French, the noun politique refers to two orders of reality that English designates as two different words, “policy,” and “politics.” In one sense, which is that of policy, we speak in French of la politique to designate “an individual’s, a group’s, or a government’s conception, program or action, or the action itself” (Aron, Democracy and Totalitarianism): it is in this sense that we speak of politiques of health or education or of Richelieu’s or Bismarck’s politiques in foreign affairs. In another sense, which translates as the English word “politics,” la politiques designates everything that concerns public debate, competition for access to power, and thus the “domain in which various politiques [in the sense of “policy”] compete or oppose each other” (ibid.). This slight difference between French and English does not generally post insurmountable problems, because the context usually suffices to indicate which meaning of politique should be understood, but in certain cases it is nonetheless difficult to render in French all the nuances conveyed by the English term, or, on the contrary, to avoid contamination between the two notions that English distinguishes so clearly. On the basis of an examination of the uses of the two words in political literature in English, we will hypothesize that their respective semantic fields are not unrelated to the way in which scholarly theories (and academic institutions) conceive what French call la politique.



Princeton authors speaking at Oxford Literary Festival 2014

We are delighted that the following Princeton authors will be speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival in Oxford, UK, in the last week of March. Details of all events can be found at the links below:images5L8V7T97

Jacqueline and Simon Mitton, husband and wife popular astronomy writers and authors of From Dust to Life: The Origin and Evolution of Our Solar System and Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe respectively, will be speaking  on Monday 24 March at 4:00pm

David Edmonds, author of Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us  about Right and Wrong will be speaking on Monday 24 March at 6:00pm

Robert Bartlett, author of Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation will be speaking on Tuesday 25 March at 2:00pm

Michael Scott, author of Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World will be speaking on Wednesday 26 March at 10:00am

Simon Blackburn, author of Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love will be speaking on Wednesday 26 March at 4:00pm

Roger Scruton author of the forthcoming The Soul of the World will be speaking Thursday 27 March 12:00pm

Alexander McCall Smith, author of What W. H. Auden Can Do for You will be speaking about how this poet has enriched his life and can enrich yours too on Friday 28 March at 12:00pm

Averil Cameron, author of Byzantine Matters will be speaking on Friday 28 March at 2:00pm

Edmund Fawcett, author of Liberalism: The Life of an Idea will be speaking on Saturday 29 March at 10:00am

In addition, Ian Goldin will be giving the inaugural “Princeton Lecture” at The Oxford Literary Festival, on the themes within his forthcoming book, The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to Do about It on Thursday 27 March at 6:00pm


Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood discuss the Dictionary of Untranslatables [VIDEO]

Earlier this week, close to one hundred humanities lovers gathered for a discussion around the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon with editors Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood, due out this month from Princeton University Press.

Please enjoy this video of the entire event, the first in this season’s Great New Books in the Humanities series co-sponsored by the Humanities Initiative and by the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University: