Bad choices in the polls can lead to bad realities for all of us, and no one has explored the potentially disastrous results that can ensue when everyone exercises their civic duty, regardless to how uninformed and irrational they are, more than Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting. As the election season heats up, and the finger pointing escalates on all fronts, I asked him to comment on the extent to which we the people can and should take responsibility for bad government. Read his thoughts after the jump:
The debt continues to skyrocket. We seem stuck in wars with no clear objectives and no exit strategy. The economy recovery is weak. The housing market remains a mess. The jobs we lost haven’t come back. The government continues to intrude upon our civil liberties.
Everyone wants to blame someone else. We the People are quick to point the finger at inept and corrupt government leaders and powerful special interests. And so we should, a bit.
Yes, there is a revolving door between Goldman Sachs and high-level government offices. Yes, Archer Midland Daniels and big agribusiness are good at lobbying, and this explains why the government subsidies corn even though economists left and right think corn subsidies are bad. Yes, it’s worrisome that Republicans and Democrats pretend that shaving $38 billion off a $3.7 trillion budget is a big accomplishment. (Fun fact: The 2012 US federal deficit––$1.7 trillion—is bigger than the entire economy of Canada.) Yes, perhaps our political leaders are too willing to compromise on some issues and too unwilling to compromise on others. Yes, perhaps a lot of congressional representatives are more concerned with posturing and politicking than solving our problems. So, go ahead and point a finger at corrupt leaders, corporations, unions, and special interests.
Just don’t put your blame finger away yet. We must point the finger at ourselves. Our government is defective, and that’s in large part our fault. Not yours and not mine, as individuals, but ours, as We the People.
When it comes to politics, We the People make bad choices, and we get what we ask for. We want good outcomes, but we vote for (and thus reward) candidates who produce bad outcomes. We ask for bad policies, and so that’s what winning politicians give us. Our politicians posture and politick because We the People reward them for posturing and politicking. We get bad government because We the People are bad at governing ourselves.
Think of how we react to candidates. Imagine we’re in a recession, and the recession was in fact caused by a complicated set of factors few people understand. Imagine there are two candidates for the next election, Candidate Wisdom and Candidate Scapegoater.
Candidate Wisdom says, “I have read the peer-reviewed articles in the leading economics and political science journals on this topic. I have spoken with every economic expert in the world, but I have also spent time talking with the man on the street. In light of this, I believe factors A, B, and C caused the recession. To get out of the recession quickly, we need to do X, Y, and Z. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s the data. Let me show you.” Imagine the best available evidence indicates Candidate Wisdom is right.
Now imagine Candidate Scapegoater says, “The recession was caused by Big Oil, immigrants, and the Public Sector Unions in cahoots. We need to take back the American Dream for real Americans.” Suppose Scapegoater has no evidence for these claims—he’s just making it up.
Which candidate do you think is more likely to win an election in the US< Wisdom or Scapegoater? Candidate Wisdom’s story is true, but it’s boring. She seems like an egghead. Candidate Scapegoater’s story is bunk, but it’s exciting and he plays to our prejudices.
Let’s add the following: Imagine Wisdom is an overweight woman and Scapegoater is a tall, regal man. Which candidate do you think would win the election?
Now you see why We the People are to blame for bad government.
Here’s a brief lesson in political science. Many political scientists claim that the “median voter” decides elections. (In fact, the story is more complicated that this, but it is a good first pass at how elections work.) The basic idea: Suppose you’re a candidate. To win in the general election, your best bet is to move toward the center of public opinion among the voters in your district.
When you move closer to the center, you are unlikely to lose many extreme voters. If you’re the right-wing candidate, the extreme right-wing voters still prefer you to left-wing candidate. They’d prefer you’d be more extreme, but you’re still better than the alternative. As you move toward the center, you pick up the swing voters, independents, and the so-called “median voter”—the voter who falls in the dead center of public opinion. If you can get the median voter and everyone to his right, you win the election. And so, according to the Median Voter Theorem, the candidates who agree with the median voter tend to win. In that sense, the median voter has unusual power—her opinion matters most.
The economist Bryan Caplan asks, what happens if the median voter is has bad ideas about politics? The economy is a major concern in most elections. Caplan asks, what happens if the median voter would fail ECON 101? What if most voters are not only uninformed but misinformed about how the economy works? In any given election, foreign policy is a major issue. What happens if the median voter has mistaken views about international relations? In any given election, candidates will spout statistics to defend their views. What happens if the median voter would fail Introduction to Statistics? In any given election, candidates will complain about social issues. What happens if the median voter has silly views about sociology?
Well, two things happen:
1. We the People make a bad choice among the candidates on the ballot.
2. All the candidates on the ballot are bad choices anyways.
If We the People had bad ideas about politics, we’ll tend to make bad choices among the candidates on the ballot. That is bad, but it is not even the worst part. The quality of the candidates who make it on the ballot depends upon the quality of the electorate. The politicians who make it on the ballot are low quality because they appeal to the median voter. If the median voter has silly views, then smart, well-informed, intellectually honest, forthright politicians don’t stand a chance.
Many people complain that we’re always stuck choosing the lesser of two evils. The Comedy Central show South Park compared the 2004 presidential election to a school mascot election between a Turd Sandwich and a Douche. Why are we often stuck choosing between a Republican Turd Sandwich and Democratic Douche? It’s not because the system is broken or corrupt. It’s because the system works. It gives We the People what We the People want. We have to choose between “two evils” because these two evils best appeal to the median voter.
If we want to fix our democracy, then we need to fix ourselves. We need to become smarter, less biased, and more intellectually honest when it comes to politics. We need the median voter to be a virtuous voter.
There’s a flip side to this message. Bad government is mostly our fault. But we can take credit for good government, too. Democracies rarely make optimal choices. But they also rarely produce disastrous policies. For instance, as the Nobel Laureate economists Amartya Sen has observed, democracy seems to cure famine—we never have mass starvation in democratic societies. From a humanitarian standpoint, democracies are clear winners.
Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University.