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Pareto and the Roots of Politics

The great Italian public intellectual Vilfredo Pareto died 100 years ago, in August 1923, after witnessing the liberal order’s demise and the travesty of World War I. During his storied and wide-ranging career, he developed insights into economic, social, and political behavior that resonate powerfully today.

MILAN – Many political disputes in recent years have been framed as battles between economic rationality and eruptions of irrationality that we label populism. But cognitive psychologists and economists would point out that political irrationality is hardly confined to populist insurgents. As a general matter, most political leaders are focused on practical matters and do not necessarily think deeply about the ideas they expound.

Among the early modern cartographers of political irrationality was Vilfredo Pareto, who died one hundred years ago, on August 19, 1923. Born in 1848, that year of liberal hope (and revolution) across Europe, Pareto died after witnessing the liberal order’s demise and the tragedy of World War I. Nowadays, his name pops up most often in references to “Pareto optimality” (when no further action can be taken to benefit someone without harming someone else) or the “Pareto principle” (the idea that around 80% of outcomes stem from only 20% of causes).

It is hard to imagine Pareto betting that he would be remembered for these ideas. His father, an engineer, had bequeathed him a scientific and mathematical education, and he had applied that to a managerial career that kept him busy into his 40s.

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