Schumpeter’s Picture of Economic and Political Institutions in the Light of a Cognitive Approach to Human Behavior


Abstract: Schumpeter’s theory of democracy can be read through the lens of the cognitive approach to rationality. Schumpeter himself constructed his theory on the basis of his (neglected) conception of conscious rationality, which considers the process of thinking as composed of conscious/deliberate and unconscious/automatic components. The prevalence of the deliberate over the automatic component can occur in different degrees; as a consequence, individuals exhibit different levels of conscious rationality. Schumpeter makes clear that an essential attribute of democracy is its being a system of government capable of working notwithstanding a low degree of conscious rationality among its citizens. Given this condition, the process of political communication and persuasion can lead to two very different outcomes: a fair social construction of the democratic institutions, in which the struggle for the vote is achieved through a critical debate among leaders and citizens; and an unfair construction, based on the prevalence of emotive forces of persuasion over rationality and on cheating of the leaders at the expense of their citizens. Schumpeter suggests that the main element that fosters a fair construction is the effectiveness of competition, which can advance the rational elements in the political debate and the self-determination of the citizens’ will: a slow process that – he warns – may be effective only in the long run, and does not preserve democracy from the risk of decline.