I recently learned that Anthony Downs, one of the greatest political economists of the twentieth century, passed away on October 2. As Tyler Cowen (George Mason University), I don’t understand how this news got so much attention. This is the only obituary of Downs that I can find. It was published by Downs’ funeral home. Because there’s so much going on in news, scholars and commentators may not have noticed his death. Whatever reason it may have been, Downs deserves better. He was the most important political economist of the 20th Century and laid the foundations of public choice theory.
His 1957 book was Downs’s most important work. A Theory of Democracy Economic TheoryThe groundbreaking application of economic theories to the study and analysis of democratic political system was made in. Downs’ theory of rational ignorance was developed to explain the lack of knowledge that most voters have about politics and policy. Downs suggested the cause of their ignorance was not stupidity. Instead, they had little motivation to invest more time and effort in seeking political information.
Every since the beginning, rational ignorance has been central to analyses of voter information, both by economists as well as political scientists, philosophers, lawyers, and other scholars. This is my book. Democracy and Political IgnoranceDowns is also a contributor to many other works such as. Similar is true of my earlier work “voting using your feet”, such as Moving freely: Migration and Foot Voting
Economic Theory of DemocracyThere are many other innovations as well, such as the insightful discussion on information shortcuts to overcome voter ignorance and crucial advancements in applying the median voter theory to analysis of electoral competition. Downs did more in just one book, published shortly before his 27th birthday.
He didn’t end there. Later, Downs turned to urban and housing policy and produced influential analysis of traffic congestion, rent control and housing shortages. Downs, who was an advocate for peak-hour congestion pricing (which, in part, thanks to him), is now considered the best solution to traffic jams.
Downs, a prominent Washington, DC think tank of liberals, was associated with Brookings Institution for many years. That position enabled him to combine economic theory with policy-relevant research.
Downs was quite a ways to my left, and I disagreed with him about some implications of rational ignorance. I believe he believed that information shortcuts could mitigate the adverse effects of ignorance. Many of his policies on transportation and housing were more my style.
It doesn’t matter if you agree with Downs, but it is clear that he was a significant contributor to our understanding the political economy democracy and an important scholar in the area of housing policy and transportation policy. His memory will be deeply missed.
As a final thought, I’d like to send my condolences out to Anthony Downs’ family, friends and colleagues.