Why Be Well-Informed?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Ilya Somin of The Volokh Conspiracy considers the interesting question of how the ignorance of the electorate might affect poll results. Somin cites some pretty staggering data and has some interesting thoughts of his own on the subject, which he elaborates upon in an academic paper. The level of ignorance of the average voter, even setting aside public policy minutiae, is certainly appalling.

Arguing that judicial review reduces what he calls the "information burden" of voters, Somin cites a difficulty posed by the enormous size of today's welfare state:

Obviously, the problems caused by the combination of a large and complex government and severely limited public knowledge of and attention to its activities cannot be solved by judicial review, nor should the judiciary even attempt a comprehensive solution. However, judicial review can sometimes alleviate the problem by limiting the scope of government activity. For example, if judicial review blocks government from undertaking content-based restriction of speech or from intervening in the internal affairs of religious groups, this means that voters need not devote time and effort to learning about government activities in these areas and can focus their severely limited attention on other issues. At least at the margin, the information burden on voters has been reduced, and their ability to pay adequate attention to the remaining functions of government increased.

... To take an extreme case, the information burden on voters would be vastly reduced and their ability to control remaining functions of government would be vastly increased in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court were to adopt Richard Epstein's position that most post-New Deal economic legislation is unconstitutional.
Although I would not hold that a favorable court ruling is necessarily cause for ignoring the government activities in question, this is an interesting idea which is true in one respect, but false in another.

It is true in the sense that if the state is going to attempt to run the economy (and be held accountable by the people), that the government (and hence the people) would have to be near-omniscient, because the government is attempting to do the economic planning of all individuals rather than allowing them to do so for themselves. Andrew Bernstein once quoted George Reisman on that score in The Capitalist Manifesto:
The overwhelming majority of people have not realized that all the thinking and planning about their economic activities that they perform in their capacity as individuals actually is economic planning. By the same token, the term "planning" has been reserved for the feeble efforts of a comparative handful of government officials, who, having prohibited the planning of everyone else, presume to substitute their knowledge and intelligence for the knowledge and intelligence of tens of millions, and to call that planning. (345) [bold added]
In short, to the extent that the government runs the economy, the information required of voters to have it run the economy properly is so enormous as to make that impossible. That early American saying, "Mind your own business," is revealed to be quite wise.

And the problem lies not just in economic affairs. Consider the ongoing debate about the so-called Global War on Terror, which is a needlessly complicated amalgam of military action, foreign aid, and appeasement. Even the binary choice between John Kerry and George Bush was complicated by the fact that while one was pacifist by inclination (but would be under public pressure to do something militarily), the other claimed to be pro-war, but had adopted a policy quite different from that employed by the United States when it fought the Japanese theocracy in World War II.

In the delimited sense that when government takes on tasks it has no business being involved in, choosing between candidates becomes more complicated than it ought to be, Somin is correct. But past a certain point, the value of more information diminishes.

For example, consider one issue listed on the poll posted at Volokh Conspiracy: Education. The state should get itself out of the business of education, and yet there will be no serious proposal to do so in any election any time soon. The various candidates will most likely offer proposals that differ only in unimportant ways. One will do well simply to make sure there is nothing horrendous, like a mandate that Creationism be taught in the public schools, then data dump the remaining minutiae. At the end of the day, the chance of substantially improving freedom in the field of education in the next election is nil, and time spent studying up on, say how much Mike Huckabee or Barack Obama want to throw down the rathole of public education is wasted.

So I suspect that I disagree with Somin on one thing: Being a "well-informed" voter -- at least in terms of the concrete details of every position in every political debate -- is is not inherently a good thing. Knowing what the proper role of government is, and thereby knowing which public debates aren't a complete waste of time is infinitely better -- although at the current level of agreement on all sides that education must be publicly funded, knowing that it should not be will not help one achieve his ends by voting.

And with that last sentence we begin to get to the heart of the matter. Substantive debate does not happen only during elections if it happens during elections at all. If one wishes to achieve lasting, meaningful change in politics, he needs more than one vote cast between two unacceptable choices. He needs others to be predisposed to vote as he does -- enough others that politicians notice the demand for a pro-freedom position on any given issue. As a genuine appreciation of freedom requires one to understand the nature of individual rights as the freedom of all in a society to act in accordance with their own best judgement, this means that to start having elections that don't require near-omniscience to make almost meaningless choices, those who appreciate freedom must work towards a more rational culture.

-- CAV


Burgess Laughlin said...

I see this sequence of decisions to be made:
1. In general, should I bother to vote, given the investment of time required?
2. If "yes" to question 1, then should I vote in this particular election?
3. If "yes" to question 2, then in which races should I vote? For example, in the last election I saw on the ballot the names of candidates who were running for the local position of "Soil Conservation Manager."
4. If I vote in a particular race, then should I vote "wholesale," by party, or should I investigate each of the candidates as if they were independent?

I have decided to vote only when the outcome one way or the other will adversely affect my life more than I would expect from the statist average we usually get. The problem is, how do I estimate the consequences of one candidate compared to another?

I welcome any guidelines for deciding whether to vote, and how to vote wisely--in the most economical manner. I do have a life to live, and politics isn't the center of it.

Gus Van Horn said...

The only guideline I would offer would be to do exactly as you have. One thing thinking about Somin's piece helped me understand more deeply is that you can easily waste enormous amounts of time nitpicking about a meaningless race or ballot issue.

If a commentator you trust takes an interest in such a thing, you can use his opinion in the sense of a division of labor. And then , of course, some elections offer clear-cut alternatives, although these are almost always between horrendous and run-of-the-mill awful,

On the bright side, it often doesn't hurt things to blow off elections.

Kyle Haight said...

Robert Heinlein once observed that if one lacks the time for the necessary thinking to exercise the vote properly, one can still do OK by finding a well-meaning idiot -- something of which there is never a shortage -- ask them how they're voting, then do the opposite. I find the teachers' unions to be particularly useful for this, as they are almost invariably on the wrong side of any issue I have studied in depth.

Less tongue-in-cheek, I thoroughly endorse Gus' point that proper political activism does not start with the question "do I vote for X or Y?" That's the last question. The real work of political activism takes place between elections, as the intellectual framework is laid down that will structure future campaigns.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of voting. I found a good site that lays out all of the Presidential candidates stands on various issues. Here it is, a nice little issue matrix.

John Kim

Gus Van Horn said...

That issue matrix is illustrative of the problem.

We should have already incinerated Iran or Saudi Arabia and moved on, but instead, we have four subdivisions of the "issue" of Homeland Security, a "yes" or "no" on which may or may not really help the cause of stopping terrorists from attacking us or preserve freedom at home.

It is as if the state is forcing us not to think in terms of principles, but to examine each issue in isolation.

Burgess Laughlin said...

John Kim,

Thanks for the issues matrix. These questions arise for me:
1. Now that I have it, what will I do with it? E.g., should I pick one issue as a "litmus" test?
2. Is there some combination of issues, and a system of "weighting," that I can set up?
3. How will I know that the official position of the candidate is the position he will actively support once he has power?
4. How do you resolve the ambiguity of a candidate's position on a particular issue--e.g., though I am now a reluctant opponent of the death penalty for normal "civilian" crimes, I am at least empathetic with calls for its use. Honest, objective people can disagree on this issue. It is a particular conclusion, not a fundamental.

Isn't there some more fundamental approach to deciding for whom to vote? Based on what I studied in his 2004 walkthrough sessions for the DIM Hypothesis, I would say Dr. Peikoff is on the right track: Looking for a fundamental indicator, that is, one that is causal and therefore explanatory on a large scale.

I have many questions and some doubts about the 2004, roughly cut, implementation of that approach, but the basic approach is the best I have seen.

If anyone has an alternative to that approach, an alternative written up in an extended essay, book, or series of recorded lectures (and not scattered through hundreds of posts), I would very much like to see it.