A Biased and Ignorant Electorate

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Megan McArdle writes a very thought-provoking column about the question of whether voters should place much weight on Carly Fiorina's tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard when considering her presidential candidacy. One point, which I alluded to yesterday is McArdle's consideration of the current enthusiasm for "outsiders" vis-a-vis a common bias, often known as fundamental attribution error:

[T]here's another point to be made, too, which is that I'm simply not sure how much this matters. Fiorina could be the best CEO in the world, or the worst, and that wouldn't give us much insight into how she'd do as president.

We're in the midst of a great outsider boom, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump, to populist parties in Europe and the election of a far-left Labour backbencher as leader of the party in the U.K. Much of the appeal seems to be that we need someone to shake things up who's not beholden to the same tired, focus-grouped, compromised, corrupt political culture. On the left, this appetite seeks out radical firebrands who promise they won't sell out to the neoliberal consensus; on the right, it looks to business leaders (or maybe surgeons), who have proved they are competent in a competitive domain utterly unlike the political system.

This is another way of committing the fundamental attribution error. Politicians are the way they are because they operate under serious constraints. Every time I talk to fed-up voters, they name some problem -- the cost of health care, the bacteria-like growth of regulations, the stagnation of middle-class wages -- and opine that politicians could easily fix it if only they weren't hostage to special interests. In almost every case, subsequent conversation reveals that the voter in question has made no deep study of the issue, and merely feels that it ought to be easy, because after all, they have observed a striking difference between our situation and that of some other time or place. [bold added]
I partially agree with this: Even the most principled, pro-individual rights politician would, if elected, find himself greatly slowed down by what would be politically possible, and needing to explain why he may look less ambitious than he really is. Where I disagree starts with that big little word, "if," in my previous sentence. Such a politician would be exceedingly rare today since the part of the electorate that favors individual rights is quite small, and hardly as vocal as it would need to be, even if it were larger.

The vast majority of today's voters are collectivists of one kind or another, who like the fruit of the American tree, but don't know how to care for it. This means that a real individualist is highly unlikely to be elected and that no matter who is elected, we will (at least for a time) see the very same kinds of problems we have now, like the pressure group warfare of the mixed economy (and the "special interests" who will fight it). And all that is a direct consequence of the very policies so many voters favor. That said, I think today's fascination with "outsiders" is partially accountable to the logical fallacy McArdle mentions, but it is also due to widespread ignorance of the nature of the problems currently plaguing our political system.

-- CAV

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