Rational irrationality sounds like an oxymoron, but is actually a perfectly sensible concept. Roughly speaking, to be rationally irrational is to rationally choose to have certain irrational beliefs. People have preferences about which beliefs to hold—some beliefs are more comforting than others—so people may in some instances be happier holding irrational beliefs. Some false beliefs are very costly to hold—such as believing that cyanide is nutritious and water poisonous—but many generally are not, such as believing that Christopher Columbus discovered that the Earth was round.
The concept of rational irrationality was popularized by American economist Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter to explain why people are much more irrational in their capacity as voters than they are in their capacity as consumers. Having correct beliefs about which products one likes is instrumental in choosing how to spend one’s money. The consumer directly decides which products he wants to buy and is immediately rewarded or punished through being satisfied or dissatisfied with the purchased item. Being wrong about politics, on the other hand, is largely costless, since a single vote is exceedingly unlikely to sway the result of an election. Hence, a voter can indulge in irrationality and vote for the party or candidate with the strongest emotional appeal.
Thus, Caplan casts irrationality as a consumption good. Like with any economic good, the amount consumed depends on price and expected benefit. If an error is cheap, people will consume more irrationality. Similarly, if the expected benefit is high, this will also raise consumption, i.e. people will be more irrational when it comes to emotionally powerful topics, such as religion, and more rational when it comes to practical matters such as how to repair a car. Of course, Caplan isn’t suggesting that people consciously choose to be irrational, but rather that they fail to make the mental effort of critical thinking on certain topics and instead just go with their natural prejudices.
I believe this model can also be applied to examine feminism. Feminists (and to a lesser degree most people in modern Western society) want to believe flattering things about women and they want to believe negative things about men. They also want to see men as patriarchal oppressors and women as their innocent victims. They are irrational insofar as they exaggerate the importance of evidence and arguments which support their prejudices (gender pay gap, low representation of women in parliaments and boardrooms, high beauty standards, unwanted male advances, “rape culture,” etc.), and ignore or downplay evidence and arguments which point in the opposite direction (lower male life expectancy, higher incidences of violent crime against men, harsher criminal sentences for men, biased education system, etc.).
This conforms well with the rational irrationality model. Views about sex, gender, and gender relations are highly emotionally charged. Feeling like an innocent victim of unjust oppression who is finally fighting back against her abusers can be downright intoxicating. For male feminists, there could hardly be a higher calling or a more righteous task than to resist the patriarchy that is perpetuated by all those other, unenlightened men.
Having these beliefs is not costly for feminists. Among many circles, espousing such views, especially in a moderate form, is socially rewarded.
Given this high emotional benefit and low cost, it is hardly surprising that most feminists and feminist supporters drink long and deep from the heady wine of irrationality—or perhaps more accurately, they fail to apply their rational faculties in favour of keeping intact their comfortable prejudices.
This irrationality manifests itself in most everything feminism does. Even if the goal of feminism would be solely to promote women’s welfare at the expense of everyone else, many of the means employed by feminists are unfit to attain this end. Take for instance maternal leave. Feminists favoured maternal leave because they irrationally believed it would help women. Laws forcing employers to grant their female employees maternal leave obviously help some women, so it is easy to see why an irrational or partially rational thinker could come to the conclusion that such a law helps women.
But a dispassionate analysis of the economics involved shows a very different picture. Employers are not charities, so an employer hires an additional worker only if he believes that the added productivity of the worker will bring in greater revenue than her cost (primarily in the form of wages). If employers are punished for hiring female workers through a law forcing them to reserve a job for years on end whenever the worker becomes pregnant, this means that the cost goes up. Hence, the demand to hire women of child-bearing age will go down, leading to reduced wages. Moreover, employers will be less willing to promote women into leadership positions. After all, the higher up an employer is in a firm’s hierarchy, the more difficult it will be to find a temporary replacement for her during maternal leave.
What happens in effect is a redistribution of wealth from childless women to mothers. Women who don’t have children and have no plans of having children are unfairly punished. Those who do have children and take advantage of maternal leave receive this privilege at a discounted cost. But even they do not necessarily benefit from this arrangement, because some of them would have actually preferred getting full wages even if it meant giving up a right to maternal leave. There is also a general loss of efficiency that always accompanies such governmental intervention in private contracts. Instead of being free to work out whatever contract is acceptable to both parties, the state limits the range of alternatives, which means that some mutually agreeable arrangements cannot be legally made. This also hurts employers and indirectly also male employees and older female employees.
Maternal leave is one of the many reasons for the oft-bemoaned wage gap. This gap, seen through the eyes of feminist irrationality, is just the sort of thing to justify fantasies of patriarchal oppression. Sober analysis of the situation would of course lead to the conclusion that the gap is primarily due to women’s choices, but accepting this sobering reality would not be emotionally fulfilling. And so the explanation must be misogynistic discrimination.
Seen in this light, the gap must of course be challenged. This has led feminists to clamour for laws which ensure “equal pay for equal work,” never mind the fact that there is no objective way of measuring what equal work is. If the story of patriarchal oppression were actually true and the wage gap were the result of misogyny, then there could be nothing more destructive to women than a law mandating equal pay. In such a patriarchal fantasy land, the only thing that entices sexist employers to hire women at all is that they can get away with paying them less. If you then managed to mandate equal pay, then no employer would continue to hire women because now discrimination is free.
Reality is of course a different matter. Most employers are not sexists and are quite happy to employ women who have the right skillset. However, such laws lead to women becoming less attractive to employers as they must fear litigation if they don’t promote their female employees often enough or if they pay them less than their male colleagues, even if such pay differences are justified by different performance. All of this stifles economic output, which hurts everyone in the economy, including women.
Thus we can see that many programmes promoted by feminists which were aimed at helping women, are actually harming them. Rational irrationality gives us a good explanation of this phenomenon. Individual feminists and feminist-friendly voters want to help women and have certain pre-conceived notions of what could be done to help women. When such a policy is proposed, they want very much to like it and support it. They prefer believing that the plan will be effective. Deeper questioning and analysis would reveal the plan to be misguided, but the beliefs of any individual feminism-supporter have a negligible influence on whether the proposed policy will be implemented, so the individual cost of irrationality is low, while the collective cost is high. Hence it makes sense for every supporter to be ignorant, even though everyone would be better off if all feminism-supporters faced uncomfortable truths with all of their rational faculties engaged.
So if this explanation is true, what can be done about this sorry state of affairs? Unfortunately, the rational irrationality model doesn’t give us cause for hope. It suggests that feminists are not merely incidentally irrational, but are irrational for good reason (hence the label “rational irrationality”). Throwing arguments and facts at feminists will not work, since it’s not in their interest to engage in a rational examination of the counter-evidence. Neither will we have much luck convincing politicians. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Once we have an anti-feminist society, we will have anti-feminist politicians, and no sooner.
Instead, we need to focus on the underlying economics of feminist irrationality. We need to raise its price or lower its benefit. I don’t see any effective way of achieving the latter. We can’t control other people’s feelings. But there are a number of ways to raise the price of feminist irrationality. Ultimately what we need is to make expressing feminist opinions socially unacceptable. We’ve won once society treats feminism similarly to racism. There would still be feminists out there, but at least they’d keep their bigotry to themselves.
We are still far away from that point, but we we’ve already seen first signs of this on the internet. Increasingly, feminists are called out on their hatred and irrationality in comment sections, forums, and blogs. There are also many things we can do in ordinary life to make feminism costly. We can refuse to associate with people who are vocal about their feminism. In particular, we should avoid any and all romantic involvement with feminists. We should also advise our family and friends to stay away from dating a feminist. No matter how much feminists rant about needing a man like a fish needs a bicycle, at the end of the day, most of them still seek male companionship (and male resources!). If being a feminist significantly narrows down the pool of available men, this may get some feminists to re-evaluate their positions.
Lest we get too smug, we should realize that the rational irrationality model also applies to us. We, too, are vulnerable to believing comfortable myths, especially when it comes to emotionally charged topics where there is little or no punishment for error. We must be especially vigilant in these areas. We want to think the worst of feminism and feminists, so it is of particular importance to always second-guess our knee-jerk reactions.
In summary, the lesson of the irrational rationality model is this: combating feminist irrationality through political means or through appealing to feminists’ better nature is unlikely to work. Rather, we should take a market-based approach to raise the price of irrationality.
This article is also available in Romanian.
For a shorter (and free) introduction, see Wikipedia and Bryan Caplan – Rational Ignorance versus Rational Irrationality