Παρασκευή, Σεπτεμβρίου 12, 2008

democracy and irrationality - a response to a family member

Recently I received an email from a member of my family about an article in the Washington Post called "5 Myths About Those Civic-Minded, Deeply Informed Voters". I was going to respond via email but thought that perhaps we could have a discussion here in public as well. The question raised in the article is that of voter ignorance and irrationality, and of the effect this has on our democratic system of government.

The link was accompanied in the email by a rather pessimistic comment, made by my family member:


Alas, I fear this article is right on. Not very promising news for the progress of the American nation, is it. But i've read several related articles from various sources and they report similar statistics. As a teacher, I must admit feeling some amount of shame - if teachers can't inspire students to take an interest in the world, who will? Maybe we should turn to the rock stars and sports heros. (But who will educate them?)
Tough problems...


For starters I'd like to point out that back in 2006 there was an issue of Cato Unbound titled "Majority Fools? Irrationality and the Limits of Democracy". I think many interesting opinions are expressed there about the subject I'm going to talk about so check it out if you have the time.

To the point, I personally would take a more optimistic stance than my family member above. While the electorate is constantly being proven ignorant or unable to rationally pick between policies, it frequently can and will give different policies a chance to prove themselves. Even if electoral competition does not make politicians adopt the views of a supposed average rational voter, it is still the case that ideology and policies compete for adoption by the political or intellectual elite by proving their efficacy when they are "sworn into office", even if that happens "by accident" by a irrational electorate. The frequent changeover of government permits an evolutionary-style competition by giving differing policies a chance to be tried out, even if this chance is not given on the merits of each policy but on the emotional and irrational grounds that usually sway the average voter. In the end it's good enough™ that democracy gives an equal chance to the proponents of different policies, even if they compete via demagoguery to some extent (see also Friedrich Hayek's ideas on Cultural EvolutionPDF).

Perhaps an example could come from Great Britain, when after the war voters threw out the conservatism of the time in order to try the policies of labor governments, then later threw labor out in favor of Margaret Thatcher's style of conservatism with a liberal economic twist and then threw that out in favor of Labor with a liberal twist of Tony Blair etc (I'm using 'liberal' in the European sense, not the American). Even if these changes were not the result of rational choices made by the average voter I think that the failure and success of the different policies that were adopted, changed the kinds of policies amongst which the electorate would choose, because it changed the kinds of policies that the politicians and intellectuals considered worthy of adoption. Even if Thatcher was not chiefly elected because of a rational expectation on behalf of the average voter that her economic liberalism would outperform the socialist planning policies that preceded her, but because a certain type of majority voter sentimentally appreciated her steadfast social conservatism, nevertheless, her economic policies affected mostly everyone in the elite, including her political and intellectual opposition, since the Labor governments of today have remarkably liberal economic policies (at least in comparison to historical Labor governments).

So, yes, the average voter cannot be trusted to choose rationally, but in the end it is enough that he does get to choose between political opponents, who will differ at least somewhat in their political proposals (otherwise they would not be opponents), and also that he frequently chooses to oust the incumbents, since that will give an incentive to newcomers to enter the political market. There are grounds to believe that this frequent interchange and the evolutionary competition that it induces in the field of political ideas can perform as well as rule by Philosopher Kings, which we might call "Scientific Experts" today, and that it will be more stable, although probably much slower to bring about change. Experts always have an important role in interpreting and evaluating what has happened in the past and shaping the opinions of intellectuals in the future, but it is democracy that must choose from amongst the available proposals. It is not to either the expert or the intellectual who has authority to command changes because that would amount to a dictatorship and would frequently involve violence, aimed both at the average joe and towards the experts or intellectuals that happen to have differing opinions than of those in power. And, in the end, that is were the great advantage of Democracy lies, since, in the words of Karl Popper, Democracy is "the type of government which can be removed without 
violence".

(feel free to respond in Greek as well as English, I wrote the above in English because it is mainly a response to English-speaking members of my family)

12 σχόλια:

Dimitris είπε...

I think that you make a serious mistake. The political system today (at least in the United states) is Republicanism and not Democracy. This is one main reason that government eventually works pretty well and the whole system is stable.

Γεώργιος Ιακ. Γεωργάνας είπε...

Κακή και ψυχρή είναι η δημοκρατία. Έλα όμως που κάθε εναλλακτική πρόταση έχει αποδειχθεί χειρότερη ...

Panagiotis Atmatzidis είπε...

The following statement:

"While the electorate is constantly being proven ignorant or unable to rationally pick between policies..."

is false in my opinion.

I can't be sure about the USA electorate body but I can tell you how it works in Greece in Italy and I believe elsewhere as well. It's a matter of local culture more than an erroneous way of thinking as most of us would like to believe.

While we all know that mathematically the current social, economical and political system in Greece will black out if we keep wasting resources in bribery and unneeded services (i.e. forest guards), no one really wants to change the current system. In Greece you don't vote the far and away leader of the right or left government. You vote your local senator. If the local senator does you a "favour" you return the favour back by voting him. That's how the system goes. So, it doesn't matter if the power party brings back awful results. People will usually vote the party again as long as they are happy.

The favours people ask for themselves are usually against the system: Job's that offer much higher salaries than the free market in Greece, but less risk and of course productivity. That's why everyone, not ironically, want's to work for the state.

In the long run of course the problems with raise. Public insurance can make a fine example. But, for now and for the "single", everything will change, so why bother?

The 2-party democracy that exists in Greece is the proof of what's written above. Although PASOK is not on power, I assure that his senators all over Greece have almost the same power in favour-making as their counterpart. So when things went really bad with party1 people switch to party2 because they know that they have only these two options.

This is the main reason we usually ready wrongly the pools. At a public questioner people will tell you that both big parties sucks etc. One it comes the time to throw the vote, he of course blesses the current or the other party because of his personal, little, local interest. That's why Synaspismos will never go above the 16% in the elections even if the pools show otherwise.

So, given the system, the single operator in our democracy, perceives the danger of things going wrong, but he chooses the short, personal interest over the public interest because it will change his life immediately, given the security and assured salary, while doing "the right thing", given the current situation wont do any good.

So people choose who to vote, on a basis of a personal interest, over the public interest.

kouk είπε...

@dimitris: I wouldn't want to get involved in a debate over definitions. If it is Republicanism then just assume I'm talking about that. I agree that it works "pretty well" but then that is just a matter of standards. Some people have higher standards and expectations of government than others. The problem is that, according to a prevalent theory, this system, whatever you may call it, is based on the idea of the informed and rational voter. Since we don't actually observe this 'voter' the question arises, in respect to the theory, if the system should work at all and why?

@panagiotis atmatzidis: granted, there are countries like Greece where government is so "corrupt" that it doesn't make any sense to apply the theory of the voter who is informed about what is at stake nationally and chooses rationally. But what the greek system is doing is rather less ambitious than what is supposed to be the model, because it is easy for a person to rationally pick a short-term local solution (pay a favor, get one back) than it is for him to pick a long-term solution on a larger scale. The problem is not what people will do when presented with an opportunity to engage in tit-for-tat, that is straighforward.

Alex είπε...

I take this to be the essential point of your argument - "the average voter cannot be trusted to choose rationally, but in the end it is enough that he does get to choose between political opponents, who will differ at least somewhat in their political proposals."

First, I don't think it's a question of rationality, but rather, perhaps, intelligence or awareness of the system itself. Sure, there may be times when voters make a vote with disregard to how the candidates will perform, but I assume that most vote with the belief that their candidate will perform best.

The issue of intelligence and awareness, matters, then, because it creates incentives for politicians to lie. Looking at economics as an example, there is great incentive for a politician to be dishonest in order to gain power. Even though economics has much more to do with the way the world works, relevantly for most people (in my opinion), than calculus or chemistry, it's not a required course. The ability to be a convincing liar has no correlation (I assume) with the desire to enact effective economic policy. This, combined with the (possibly) unique nature of economic policy being best when it's hands off (and therefore easily criticized as a lack of appropriate action, etc.), may lead to differing political proposals. Due, however, to the reasons above, there is no reason that any of these proposals have to be a step in the right direction.
This assumes that politicians don't desire positive change for voters. But even without that assumption, an assumption that a good liar can make bad proposals sound better than good proposals, leads to the same conclusion.

kouk είπε...

alex, my argument is what you quoted plus the proposition that as differing political proposals are chosen by voters, their real-world effects influence the beliefs of intellectuals and therefore future politicians, and that somehow there is an evolution. No matter how much politicians lie, it will happen that they must be succeeded by other politicians whose views and beliefs are founded in newer and different intellectual climates.

Alex είπε...

"... influence the beliefs of intellectuals and therefore future politicians" - I think it's a stretch to say that politicians are influenced by intellectuals. Information costs are high, and if the gains from deception are high enough, politicians have no need for much truth about economic policies that won't be accepted by a poorly educated (on average) population. Even if politicians are influenced (in terms of their beliefs and level of knowledge), it's also a stretch to say that their beliefs about truly effective policy influence the policy they choose to offer voters and ultimately enact (assuming, again, uneducated voters and therefore high gains to deception).

For similar reasons as above in this comment, I wonder about this statement: "No matter how much politicians lie, it will happen that they must be succeeded by other politicians whose views and beliefs are founded in newer and different intellectual climates." There is an inverse relationship between the returns to deception and the incentive to be knowledgeable of good economic policy.

It may just be that I have a cynical view of politicians during this year's presidential elections in the US. If people on average were well educated, I would agree that we would see evolution of thought, clearly.

kouk είπε...

I agree about the twisted incentives that political life offers. But I think I haven't made myself clear: you don't have to be spectacularly knowledgeable about good economic policy in order to have different economic policies than other politicians. All you need is to be influenced by a different intellectual and political sphere. For example, it needn't be the case that Ron Paul would have invested more in political-economic studies than say Barak Obama in order for his economic policies to be better (IMHO). All that is needed is that they each came in contact and were influenced by a different intellectual sphere (say the Austrians vs some neo-Keynesian school of thought). Why, for example, did Andreas Papandreou become a socialist while Konstantinos Mitsotakis not? My answer is that it might be somewhat irrelevant as long as they both got a chance to apply their, honest or dishonest, political proposal. Intellectuals today are influenced by what went good and what went bad during the application of each type of policy and they do influence politicians, no matter what their motives are.

Of course when I say that this is "good enough" I don't mean to downplay the negative sides of the current political system, nor to discourage anyone (like myself) from trying to improve the situation. But I am saying that we must be very aware that even this far from perfect political system we have is better than past historical alternatives. I also want to say that most proposed improvements of the current system, propounded from right or left, would amount to backpedalling. Those, for example, who thought to improve "bourgeois democracy" have usually ended up proposing what amounts to old-style dictatorship, not with something new and better. I believe that we should be very carefull not to break what works, even if it means advancing slowly.

Alex είπε...

I think we disagree on the motivations of politicians. I'm assuming that politicians are doing only that which gains them power. This would be whatever sounds the best to the majority of voters. Because it's an issue of what sounds best, and not what is actually best, any political theory that the politician believes to be actually best (based on whatever intellectual theory has influenced him) doesn't matter, for practical purposes. This would explain why we won't see politicians advocating policies that allow thousands of workers to lose there jobs in the name of free market, even if a candidate truly believes the free market with all its pains is economically best. My above assumption may be untenable, though, at least as a statement for all politicians. Further, as you say, this isn't necessarily in conflict with your idea.

I think that the need for politicians to differentiate themselves from their opponents can bring about substantial variation, and therefore allow for evolution. And certainly, a politician may be more efficient to pick from existing intellectual theories in choosing a policy rather than devising one one his own (though, again, here I would say he's not choosing on merit, but appeal to uneducated voters). As long as voters can see policy success and failure and realize it as such (maybe they can, maybe not), then we'd see evolution.

Though sometimes I wonder if a benevolent dictator couldn't do better, my assumption of politicians motives (which would have to apply to any dictator) would make that impossible.

kouk είπε...

agreed, if actual voters were more informed and rational then political evolution would be faster. But one goes into politics usually with a preconception of what is the best thing to do (nevermind if it is for himself, special interests or the public) and the dishonesty is usually only used in order to sell that to voters. So the evolution I'm thinking of is on the level of preconceived notions in the heads of the small percentage of the population that will be politicians one day. Their views certainly change over time and, while they can sometimes be terribly wrong (think totalitarianism), they are formed with perhaps more recourse to argument than those of the general electorate. This is not in anyway intended to imply that this small part of the population should get more of a say in decision making. On the contrary it is impossible to know who will be the next person to have a profound influence on politics, and in order for political evolution to work there must be as level and open a playing field as can be.

Alex είπε...

"the evolution I'm thinking of is on the level of preconceived notions in the heads of the small percentage of the population that will be politicians one day" ... notions "of what is the best thing to do (nevermind if it is for himself, special interests or the public)". Sounds good; politicians have an idea of what is best based on their set of values.
Given the cyclical nature of economic policy strategies (a bold assumption, I don't know that I could back it up if asked to), I don't know that this evolution is moving (or able to move) beyond a single politician or a handful of politicians (who's understanding dies away when they do). This makes me think of this evolution more as just "learning" on a personal level. The relative short life of political structures in any one place prevents us from collecting a whole lot of evidence of learning or evolution that has be transferred across time and persons.

A fact that might have played into this discussion is that we don't often see politicians changing political or, especially, economic rational (as presented to the public and implemented). This suggests a number of possibilities. For example, perhaps politicians' thoughts don't evolve (I doubt this is the case). Perhaps politicians are the type of people who happened to me be most motivated and devoted to an ideology (which could be one of personal enrichment or not), and the political process either selects those of such a motivation that they are unwilling to accept logical interference in their deepest core ideological beliefs or prevents those who have attained power from maintaining if they display a change of thought, or both.

Good discussion.

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