Will the bad voters please step forward? More from Jason Brennan

Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting created quite a stir here yesterday with his post on why most people shouldn’t vote, so I asked him to sound off on some of the comments he received, including the question of how to identify what some called the all-too-subjective “bad voter”. The burning question seems to be, how do you know if you’re a bad voter? Well, as Jason argues, you probably are. But read on for some interesting findings from political psychology that explain his views, as well as some practical advice on improving cognitive biases and becoming a good voter.

 

How Do I Know if I’m a Bad Voter

Jason Brennan

 

In The Ethics of Voting, I argue that most people have a moral duty to abstain from voting. See my previous posts, “Bad Government is Our Fault” and “Most People Shouldn’t Vote” for part of my explanation why. (Note that in “Bad Government is Our Fault”, I explain why I focus on bad voting even though bad voting is not the only thing that causes bad government.)

Here’s a problem: the people I describe as bad voters are unlikely recognize that they are bad voters.

To confirm this in at least one instance, as an unscientific experiment, I discussed my thesis with a person whom I believe exemplifies bad voting.  He agreed that other people should not vote.

More scientifically, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have shown that incompetent people systematically overestimate their own knowledge, competence, and mental acuity, while they systematically underestimate others’ competence. The less incompetent people know, the less they know it. In contrast, more competent people tend to be more modest about their abilities. They know much, but they also know how much they don’t know. They overestimate how much others know. (This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)

In chapter seven and in the afterword of The Ethics of Voting, I give an overview of some findings from political psychology, as well as other studies in voter rationality and knowledge. The upshot of those findings is, in my opinion, that any random person should assume she is politically incompetent until she has good reason to think otherwise. The issue is not “How do I know I’m a bad voter?”—you probably are.*

Instead, the issue is “How could I possibly become a good voter?” In the afterword to the paperback edition, I give some practical advice about becoming a good voter. Becoming a good voter takes significant knowledge of the social sciences and of some current events, but that’s not the first step. Getting information is not only useless, but downright harmful, unless you have disciplined your mind to process information in a dispassionate, scientific, unbiased way. So, in the afterword, I outline some of the main cognitive biases we suffer from, and describe practical steps one can take to overcome those biases.

Now, I freely admit that most bad voters do not recognize they are bad voters. If so, one might object, how can they have a duty not to vote? They do not know they are bad voters, so how can they have a duty to abstain?

I don’t find this objection persuasive. Here’s an analogy. Suppose Bob beats his children for any minor infractions. He refuses to educate them, holding that education corrupts the soul. He verbally abuses them because he thinks this builds character. Bob does all of this because he thinks it’s best for his children, even though it’s clearly not. Now, suppose Bob isn’t crazy. Rather, he’s just in the grip of some false, bad beliefs about child rearing. In this case, most of us would hold Bob responsible for his actions. Sure, he thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he should know better. He’s a bad parent and should act better.

I have often compared bad voters to drunk drivers—they are like people steering the state while intoxicated. Suppose I am driving drunk and a child is crossing at a crosswalk.  Because I am so drunk, I am unable to see the child, and so I am unable to recognize that I have a duty to stop.  Still, even though I don’t know that the child is there, I have a duty to stop. Though I am unable to know I have a duty to stop, I am not relieved of that duty, because I had a responsibility to make sure I only drove the car while competent to do so. Similar remarks apply to voters. Many of them are too biased and irrational to make wise choices. But it’s their fault that they’re like that in the first place. So, they aren’t excused when the vote badly.

*However, people reading the Princeton University Press blog are much more likely to be good voters than randomly selected US citizens. I’m not saying that to suck up to readers, but because it’s true. The demographic factors that positively correlate with reading this post are also positively correlated with being a good voter, as I define the term.

ELECTION TUESDAY

FACT: “In his farewell address of 1797, George Washington warned against the dangerous ‘spirit of Party,’ which he said ‘serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration. It ignites the Community with ill founded Jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot & insurrection.’ Yet in opposing the formation of political parties, Washington was voicing a vain hope. During Washington’s first term as president, his treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, had already formed the Federalist Party and his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, had founded the opposition Democratic-Republic Party.”

The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American
Political History

Edited by Michael Kazin
Rebecca Edwards & Adam Rothman, associate editors

With 150 accessible articles written by more than 130 leading experts, this essential reference provides authoritative introductions to some of the most important and talked-about topics in American history and politics, from the founding to today. Abridged from the acclaimed Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, this is the only single-volume encyclopedia that provides comprehensive coverage of both the traditional topics of U.S. political history and the broader forces that shape American politics–including economics, religion, social movements, race, class, and gender. Fully indexed and cross-referenced, each entry provides crucial context, expert analysis, informed perspectives, and suggestions for further reading.

Contributors include Dean Baker, Lewis Gould, Alex Keyssar, James Kloppenberg, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Lisa McGirr, Jack Rakove, Nick Salvatore, Stephen Skowronek, Jeremi Suri, Julian Zelizer, and many more.

Entries cover:

—Key political periods, from the founding to today

—Political institutions, major parties, and founding documents

—The broader forces that shape U.S. politics, from economics, religion, and social movements to race, class, and gender

—Ideas, philosophies, and movements

—The political history and influence of geographic regions

We invite you to read the Preface here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/p9518.pdf

Be sure to check in every Tuesday for a new tidbit from our great selection of politically-minded books.

‘Free Market Fairness’ author John Tomasi discusses economic liberty and social justice with Glenn Loury on Bloggingheads.tv

John Tomasi, author of Free Market Fairness, was interviewed by his Brown University colleague Glenn Loury on bloggingheads.tv. He discusses his new book, the philosophies of John Rawls and Friedrich Hayek, and whether or not the two might have agreed on certain fundamental principles of justice. Watch the video here or embedded below.

Hélène Landemore on why we’re all in this together

When it comes to elections, much worry goes into whether or not voters are truly ‘qualified’ to head to the polls. According to Jason Brennan, many are simply as bad as drunk drivers. But do we make “smarter” decisions politically as a group than as individuals? Hélène Landemore thinks the answer is yes. An assistant professor of political science at Yale university, she is also the author of Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence and the Rule of the Many, forthcoming in January 2013. Recently she took part in a Q&A about her book, explaining the concept of collective intelligence, its superiority over individual decision-making, and why democracy is the best way to make decisions for the common good. Read her interview here:

 



What is “democratic reason”? How does it relate to the concept of collective intelligence in your title?

I call democratic reason the collective intelligence of democratic citizens as it is expressed through various democratic mechanisms. In my book, I study the collective intelligence of the people as it emerges from public deliberation and voting on issues of common interest, but it could also be channeled through other venues for democratic participation that I’m not considering. The concept of collective intelligence is broader than that of democratic reason and has been conceptualized and studied by various disciplines since at least the 1980s. I am simply extending it to politics.

The term “democratic reason” itself was meant as an echo to the famous Rawlsian concept of “public reason.” Democratic reason is distinct from John Rawls’ public reason in at least two ways. First, democratic reason is a descriptive, rather than a normative concept. Whereas Rawls’ public reason is meant to serve as a standard of public justification, a filter for what can be said in the public sphere, democratic reason is an ideal-type of the collective intelligence of the people as it emerges in the political domain. Second, to the extent that both concepts have a descriptive content, democratic reason is meant to be more inclusive than public reason. For Rawls, the people who typically voice public reason are representatives, official candidates, or judges. By contrast, any citizen or group of citizens can be a part of democratic reason.

Your book argues that democracy is a smart decision rule. Can you explain?

My conception of democracy is that it is a collective decision procedure combining two mechanisms: deliberation and majority rule. Deliberation allows the group to identify problems and come up with potential solutions. Majority rule maximizes the chances of picking the better solution. I argue that democracy, understood as such a collective decision procedure, can turn the lead of individual judgments into something like gold: a collective output that no individual within the group could have come up with on his own.

The argument is also comparative. At the heart of the book is the claim that the inclusive nature of democratic decision-making—giving everyone a voice on matters of common concern—ensures that our decisions are probabilistically smarter than if we delegated them to a dictator or a group of oligarchs. I make that claim assuming that the dictator and the oligarchs would be both smart and benevolent, which certainly stacks the deck in favor of these non-democratic forms of rule. And yet, in my theory, democracy still comes out on top, in terms of producing good political outcomes more often than these alternative rules.

Can you explain how the inclusiveness of democratic procedures ensure their superiority over less inclusive ones, such as a dictatorship or an oligarchy?

Here I need to introduce the work of Scott Page, on which I build. In his book The Difference (2007), Page argues that there are two components to collective intelligence: the individual intelligence of the members of the group and the cognitive diversity of the group. This concept of cognitive diversity is crucial. It refers to the difference in the ways in which people see the world and interpret it. Page shows that when it comes to collective problem solving, it is more important to have enough cognitive diversity in the group than to have very smart people in it. In other words, if you want to maximize your chances to solve a given problem, you are better of with a group of moderately smart but diverse thinkers, rather than a homogeneous group of even very smart people. That’s what he calls the “Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem.”

What I do in my book is build on this theory to argue that to the extent that politics is about problem solving, the great advantage of democratic decision-making over alternative decision rules is its inclusiveness, which naturally maximizes the cognitive diversity of the group of problem-solvers. That’s what I call the “Numbers Trump Ability Theorem.” The more people you include in the decision process, all things equal otherwise, the smarter the group is likely to be.

What do you mean by “smart” outcomes or “right” political choices?

I think everyone would agree that some political decisions are better or worse. By “right” choices, I mean that democratic decisions tend to be better rather than worse in at least that minimal sense. The domain of questions where such better or worse answers can be assumed to exist—what I call the “epistemic” domain—can be contrasted with the domain of coordination issues and the domain of pure value or interest conflict. Coordination issues, such as “Should we drive on the left or on the right of the road?,” do not have better or worse solutions. The right or left side of the road will do as long as we all agree on the same side. As to pure value or interest conflict, it is the domain of questions where we estimate that the point is not to seek the truth but simply to settle disagreement fairly. Epistemic questions, by contrast, are questions where disagreement is a result of ignorance. Examples of such epistemic questions could include: Is austerity the right policy to solve the economic crisis? How do we lower crime or the number of college dropouts? Was going to war in Iraq a mistake? More controversial epistemic questions, which some would perhaps phrase as pure value conflicts, would be: Should same sex couples be granted the right to marry? Should euthanasia be legalized?

Assuming your theoretical claim about the superiority of democratic regimes lends itself to an empirical test, what do you make of the success of autocratic or oligarchic regimes like China or Singapore?

Here you have to remember that my argument is probabilistic. I claim that on average and all things equal otherwise, democratic decision making can be expected to perform better than non-democratic decision making. But in some cases, non-democratic decision making will do better. So one or even a few exceptions (assuming that your examples are well-chosen) do not refute my view. I’m not denying that, occasionally, an oligarchy will outperform a democracy or that some autocratic decisions will turn out to be better than democratic ones. I’m just arguing that the probability of something like this happening is lower than the reverse probability of a democracy outperforming an oligarchy. The safer gamble is democracy.

 

Hélène Landemore is assistant professor of political science at Yale University. She is the author of Hume: Probability and Reasonable Choice.

David Vogel at the LSE

David Vogel was in London earlier this month and gave a public lecture at the London School of Economics where he discussed the issues he raises in his new book The Politics of Precaution.  A podcast of the event is now available to listen to.

 

John Tomasi at the RSA

Tomasi_Free Market Fairness

John Tomasi has been in London discussing whether libertarians care about social justice. In his new book Free Market Fairness he argues that they can and should.

On Wednesday 3 May he spoke at The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). You can listen to the podcast here.

 

 

 

Our love-hate relationship with Compromise

Do citizens value compromise? Americans are ambivalent about it. That is the most striking pattern revealed in surveys of public opinion in recent years. The ambivalence shows itself in public attitudes toward politicians who compromise and also toward compromise itself. In a typical survey, the vast majority of Americans said they prefer leaders willing to compromise, but at the same time two-thirds of all the respondents also said that they “like politicians who stick to their positions, even if unpopular.”

For the complete excerpt, please visit Salon.com

Are these conflicted feelings about compromise to blame for Senator Lugar’s upset in Indiana?

Some news reports have suggested that Lugar’s openness to compromise may have played a factor in his stunning loss to challenger Richard Mourdock (“Mr. Mourdock’s campaign was fueled by Tea Party groups and national conservative organizations that deemed Mr. Lugar too willing to compromise” writes the New York Times).

And Mourdock, for his part, is already trumping his unwillingness to compromise in places like The Hill:

Mourdock, who won in part on the strength of the Tea Party, also predicted there won’t be much compromise in the next Senate.

“I recognize that this is one of those times where there is great polarization between the two parties, and frankly the ideas for which the parties are working are really at opposite ends of the spectrum — I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of successful compromise,” Mourdock said on CNN’s “Starting Point” Wednesday.

“You never compromise on principles — if people on the far left have a principle they want to stand by, they should never compromise. Those of us on the right should not either,” he said.

 

Yet, history tells us that successful government requires compromise, so where does this leave us?

For a more circumspect take on the role of compromise in government, check out this exclusive excerpt at Salon.com from The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson.

 

 

This Week’s Book Giveaway

Did you know that May is Zombie Awareness Month? We’re celebrating by offering one lucky winner a copy of Zombie Economics! In the graveyard of economic ideology, dead ideas still stalk the land. . .

Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us
by John Quiggin
With a new chapter by the author

The recent financial crisis laid bare many of the assumptions behind market liberalism—the theory that market-based solutions are always best, regardless of the problem. For decades, their advocates dominated mainstream economics, and their influence created a system where an unthinking faith in markets led many to view speculative investments as fundamentally safe. The crisis seemed to have killed off these ideas, but they still live on in the minds of many—members of the public, commentators, politicians, economists, and even those charged with cleaning up the mess. In Zombie Economics, John Quiggin explains how these dead ideas still walk among us—and why we must find a way to kill them once and for all if we are to avoid an even bigger financial crisis in the future.

Zombie Economics takes the reader through the origins, consequences, and implosion of a system of ideas whose time has come and gone. These beliefs—that deregulation had conquered the financial cycle, that markets were always the best judge of value, that policies designed to benefit the rich made everyone better off—brought us to the brink of disaster once before, and their persistent hold on many threatens to do so again. Because these ideas will never die unless there is an alternative, Zombie Economics also looks ahead at what could replace market liberalism, arguing that a simple return to traditional Keynesian economics and the politics of the welfare state will not be enough—either to kill dead ideas, or prevent future crises.

In a new chapter, Quiggin brings the book up to date with a discussion of the re-emergence of pre-Keynesian ideas about austerity and balanced budgets as a response to recession.

“Entertaining and thought-provoking.”—Philip Coggan, Economist

“Lucid, lively and loaded with hard data, passionate, provocative and . . . persuasive. . . . (Zombie Economics) should be required reading, even for those who aren’t Keynesians or Krugmaniacs.”—Glenn C. Altschuler, Barron’s

The random draw for this book with be Friday 5/11 at 3 pm EST. Be sure to like us on Facebook if you haven’t already to be entered to win!

“In Praise of Moderation,” an original op-ed by Aurelian Craiutu

 In Praise of Moderation

By Aurelian Craiutu

Moderates have not fared well lately in American politics. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has recently announced that she will not seek a fourth term because of the growing political partisanship in the Senate. An iconic figure of moderation in American politics, she will be remembered for having played a key role in the passing of the $787bn stimulus package proposed by the Obama administration in 2009 that was opposed by the majority of her republican colleagues on ideological grounds. In the current republican primaries, Mitt Romney has been working very hard to defend himself against accusations of being a “moderate.” This label has made him unappealing in the eyes of many Republican voters whom he has tried to sway by calling himself “a severely conservative governor.” Politicians who are running for office in the upcoming elections are strongly advised to distinguish themselves from those who practice moderation and pursue their agendas while looking to—and even drawing from—both the left and the right.

For all the strategic considerations surrounding all political campaigns, this should surprise us since political moderation is the touchstone of democracy which cannot function without compromise and bargaining. Yet moderation remains a concept that challenges our imagination and appears as a fuzzy virtue which defies universal claims and moral absolutes. Not surprisingly, we often tend to misrepresent or distort the true meanings of moderation. The latter has often been regarded as the virtue of tepid, middling, shy, timorous, indecisive, and lukewarm individuals, incapable of generating heroic acts or great stories. A few decades ago, Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed (before losing in the presidential elections of 1964): “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Our current political culture seems to have embraced again his skepticism toward moderation and, perhaps, has taken it a notch further. Among other things, the impending retirement from the Senate of six moderates (two Republicans, four Democrats) underscores the little stock many voters seem to place in this virtue. Not surprisingly, many of us find it difficult to be enthusiastic about something that seemingly lacks charisma and carries the connotation of small-mindedness, opportunism, or dullness. Instead, they are often fascinated by firm and stubborn politicians who stand uncompromisingly on principle and whose universe is a one-dimensional, black-and-white one.

As I argued in a recent book on this topic*, moderation is a difficult virtue for courageous minds, and one that cannot be studied in abstract, but only as instantiated in various historical and political contexts and discourses. In other words, there is no objective theory of moderation outside of particular situations. There is something about the nature of moderation that can only be captured through embodiment in the specific political and historical context and actors. The principles chosen by moderates have been—and will always be— inseparable from their concrete choices and decisions regarding certain actions performed in specific political, social, and historical contexts. What is moderate in one context and period may significantly differ from another. More importantly, moderation has many faces connected to each other. It is much more than a simple trait of character, a certain state of mind, or a disposition. In addition to its ethical meaning, moderation also has a distinctively political and institutional dimension, being linked to balance (and separation) of powers, social and political pluralism, and mixed government. As Montesquieu and the authors of The Federalist Papers demonstrated, political moderation rests on a bold constitutional vision based on a complex institutional architecture. As such, moderation requires great skills, strong determination, a great deal of courage, and (often) a good dose of non-conformism. That is why the majority of moderate politicians are not moral chameleons who seek personal advancement. They are “trimmers” who try to adjust the cargo and sails of the ship of state to keep it on an even keel. These adjustments may be small and unheroic, and they may not always fit the “party” line (as in the case of Senator Snowe, for example), but they often save the state from anarchy or ruin.

Although radical or extreme gestures create bold and colorful narratives which are often much more attractive than moderation, searching for the middle and the mean (as attributes of moderation) is always more difficult than making one’s journey along the margins. Moderate political action requires balancing and weighing various principles in each situation rather than merely resorting to a single set of universal principles or values. Moderation presupposes reasoning and deliberation, but it also demands intuition, foresight, and flexibility for which there is no single or simple formula. That is why moderation is a difficult and eclectic virtue which is not for all seasons and all people. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would not have been successful in challenging the Soviet communist system had he adopted a more moderate approach. Sometimes, only immoderate voices like his can successfully oppose tyranny.

The recent growing partisanship in the Congress has silenced moderates on both aisles and weakened their appeal and base. Moderates’ willingness to compromise and work with the other side has put them out of step with their own parties and decreased their chances of being (re)elected in the upcoming elections. The moderate middle has become a very lonely place in American politics—and a very insecure one. Therefore, we must take a new look at this elusive and difficult virtue, one that, in Montesquieu’s words, represents the supreme virtue of the legislator. Moderation is neither a fixed ideology (party platform), nor a merely positional virtue depending on the vitality and agenda of the extremes. Defined as the antonym of fanaticism and single-mindedness, moderation is particularly relevant today. Through their actions, moderates remind us that in politics we do not have to choose between good and evil, but between what is preferable and what is detestable.

Moderates perform a vital balancing role in our society. Without moderation, John Adams once wrote, “every man in power becomes a ravenous beast of prey.” Defined as that virtue which allows us to see things in the right proportions and prevents us from resorting to hyperbole and violence, moderation blends measure, spirit, and reasonableness and makes one’s mind at once firm and flexible, full of common sense and vivacity. Moderation can be a fighting and combative virtue, and it should not be equated with indecision, shyness, and submissiveness. Moderates may sometimes benefit from partisanship and polarization insofar as the exposure to the crossfire of radicals can stimulate their imagination by encouraging them to develop original political and institutional responses to their problems. Paradoxically, like poisons taken in small dosages, various forms of extremism that act in the framework of legality can have healing effects if they trigger much-needed course corrections. By adopting the soundest attitudes and principles of all parties, moderates seek to facilitate agreements for the common good, and prevent the country from slipping into atomism, anarchy, or civil war. As members of a “party without banners,” they help preserve the fragile balance between various social forces and political interests on which pluralism, order, and freedom depend in our society.

*Aurelian Craiutu is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His most recent book is A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830 (Princeton University Press, 2012) on which this short essay is based.

Amy Gutmann on the necessity of compromise in government

 

 

Some links to explore this subject further:

John Tomasi in the UK

 

John Tomasi, author of the recently published Free Market Fairness, will be in London for the week of 30 April. He will be talking at the Legatum Institute on 1 May, IPPR on 2 May, the Royal Society of Arts on 3 May, and the Adam Smith Institute on 3 May.

Please follow links for more information or to sign up for any of these events. If you have any queries about his visit please contact Julia Hall on jhall@pupress.co.uk

ELECTION TUESDAY

FACT: “The presidential election of 1844 between the Democrat James K. Polk and the Whig Henry Clay was pivotal to the Second Party System. This election was the last contest in which different states held elections on different days. In 1845 Congress passed a law establishing Election Day as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.”

The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia
of American Political History

Edited by Michael Kazin
Rebecca Edwards & Adam Rothman, associate editors

With 150 accessible articles written by more than 130 leading experts, this essential reference provides authoritative introductions to some of the most important and talked-about topics in American history and politics, from the founding to today. Abridged from the acclaimed Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, this is the only single-volume encyclopedia that provides comprehensive coverage of both the traditional topics of U.S. political history and the broader forces that shape American politics–including economics, religion, social movements, race, class, and gender. Fully indexed and cross-referenced, each entry provides crucial context, expert analysis, informed perspectives, and suggestions for further reading.

Contributors include Dean Baker, Lewis Gould, Alex Keyssar, James Kloppenberg, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Lisa McGirr, Jack Rakove, Nick Salvatore, Stephen Skowronek, Jeremi Suri, Julian Zelizer, and many more.

Entries cover:
—Key political periods, from the founding to today
—Political institutions, major parties, and founding documents
—The broader forces that shape U.S. politics, from economics, religion, and social movements to race, class, and gender
—Ideas, philosophies, and movements
—The political history and influence of geographic regions

We invite you to read the Preface here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/p9518.pdf

Be sure to check in every Tuesday for a new tidbit from our great selection of politically-minded books.