Archive for the ‘Democracy’ Category

Why Democracy isn’t Perfect

April 8, 2011 1 comment

Her car took a lot longer to fill up than mine.

I really took this picture yesterday – I only felt bad enough posting this to blur her plate.


Categories: Democracy, Humor

Logically Consistant ≠ Rational

I stumbled on a 2006 paper from Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics that further confirms my attitude toward voters in general.

Most of the time, the voters are merely reaffirming their partisan and group identities at the polls. They do not reason very much or very often. What they do is rationalize. Every election, they sound as though they were thinking, and they feel as if they were thinking, as do we all. The unwary scholarly devotee of democratic romanticism is thereby easily misled.

This of course shouldn’t be too surprising to people who study how our brains work. Human brains make shortcuts by seeking patterns and putting things in categories. This is a useful and necessary tool so that we can make any sense of a complex and chaotic world. Often it’s hard to break those intuitive theories and stereotypes (and very easy to reinforce them). So as the Achen and Bartels paper helps us see, I’d argue that partisanship and group identity politics is a quick natural substitute, a mental shortcut, for rigorous and rational thinking. Steven Pinker writes in How the Mind Works

[The] mind has to get something out of forming categories, and that something is inference. Obviously we can’t know everything about every object. But we can observe some of its properties, assign it to a category, and from the category predict properties that we have not observed.

When something doesn’t fit our categories we tend to ignore the evidence or alter it to fit our preconceptions instead of the other way around.  Pinker writes,

A third reason we are so-so scientists is that our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes the truth is adaptive, but sometimes it’s not. Conflicts of interest are inherent to the human condition, and we are apt to want our version of the truth, rather than the truth itself, to prevail. 

Everyone else excited for the 2010 midterms!?

(photo from Wired)

Deficit in Seriousness

Voters want the deficit reduced but don’t want to raise taxes or cut enough spending… is there any doubt that voters are irrational? From Democracy Corps:

Despite these concerns, voters are reluctant to attack the deficit through tax increases or spending cuts on entitlements. In this economy, voters are wary of raising taxes, even if the revenue raised goes to something they deem important, like paying down the deficit. A majority (51 percent) say that even though the deficit is a big problem, we should not raise taxes to bring it down, while only 43 percent say that we might have to raise taxes to reduce the deficit. This rejection is even more acute among the least educated and lowest income voters, who are being disproportionately hurt by the recession and as such are even more strident in their rejection of a new tax to pay down the deficit. 

And by an even wider 2:1 margin, voters reject cuts in Social Security, Medicare or defense spending to bring the deficit down (61 to 30 percent). With nearly three-quarters of the federal budget devoted to these items, exempting them from cuts leaves little room to make realistic progress on deficit reduction. This rejection of spending cuts runs across the political spectrum, with even the most conservative wing of the Republican Party — voters who generally fancy themselves as “deficit hawks” — roundly rejecting the idea of cutting spending to pay down the deficit.

(via Matthew Yglesias

The Pull of Polls

March 24, 2010 Leave a comment

It seems the “observer effect” has an influence beyond the micro-world of quantum mechanics.  Don’t worry I’m not talking Deepak Chopra-style nonsense and making unwarranted claims about the nature of our universe.  I was discussing the passage of the healthcare bill with a coworker and he revealed the main reason he thought the plan should have been rejected was not due necessarily to its substance (although he wasn’t thrilled with that either) but because it didn’t receive a majority of the public’s support or a single Republican vote. He argued that by-definition that made the bill too extreme. Furthermore, he didn’t support it because those reasons. It may be one thing to think a democratic body should bend to public opinion, but for an individual’s opinion to change on the merit of the bill because of public opinion seems perverse. Once people like my coworker see public opinion their opinion changes, which further changes public opinion – in a crude self-reinforcing political version of the observer effect. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic explains why lack of Republican support also is poor indicator of anything other then the potential partisanship/extremism of the current Republican party. 

The Republicans’ second measure is the lack of Republican support. It’s true, no Republican supports Obama’s plan. Republicans like Bennett site this fact as ipso facto proof that the plan is extreme. This definition inherently rules out the possibility that Republicans are opposing a moderate plan out of some combination of partisanship and ideological extremism. Suppose Obama decided to embrace the Republcian proposal as his own, and then every Republican subsequently abandoned the proposal, making it a Democrats-only plan. (This may sound ludicrous, but it happened in 1994.) By the Republican definition, the lack of GOP support would prove that Obama was supporting an extreme proposal.

Moreover, public opinion and Republican Congressional support are also problematic measures of a bill’s moderation because the two can interact. As Mitch McConnell has explained, the fact of united Republican opposition has helped turn the public against the bill:

“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview

So I’d propose that the ideological character of the plan can only be determined by referring to its policy content.

This illustrates the problem of polling. It isn’t just a measure of public opinion but it shapes public opinion. We have the advantage of living in a constitutional republic which helps mitigate some of these problems. But only if our politicians don’t just act as mere proxy voters for majoritarian opinion. Madison didn’t promote elected representatives to simply save the nation the hassle of holding national votes on every issue. Our elected officials need to govern how they think best serves our interests – if we don’t like the results we vote them out. That’s the deal. 

The Founding Fathers and the Lack of Beeswax

February 3, 2010 2 comments

Andreas Kluth was kind enough to comment on my post on the parallels between democracy and religion; he linked to some of his writings on democracy to further enlighten our readers. I highly encourage everyone to visit his blog – I’ve found a number of his posts there and at The Economist absorbing. Particularly for the history lovers I know who read this blog, I recommend his post on Polybius where I learned (among much else) about the two Greeks who “gave us history.”

In many of the posts we find a more comprehensive view of what Kluth mentioned at the “failed state” debate.

Madison was undoubtably skeptical of democracy over republicanism, as Kluth points out. Accordingly, many of the lessons and warnings about democracy Madison and other founders remind us of should be remembered. Yet, those who would find refuge in our Constitution to temper any overly democratic zealotry should be careful. A pitfall (also a strength in many cases) of democracy even trapped the Founders. However much any Founder distrusted democracy, the fact that they had to ratify the document ensured that it would lean toward more democracy rather than less. In his essential history, America’s Constitution: A Biography, Akhil Reed Amar reminds us of the republic/democracy dynamic.

First Amar informs us that Madison’s use of “republic” was “swimming against the tide of standard eighteenth-century usage. Thus in [Federalist] No. 10 he stipulated his own definition: ‘A republic, by which I mean…’ (as opposed to ‘a republic, by which is generally meant…’). Amar goes on to highlight that “at the same time that Madison was drawing his fine linguistic distinction, other leading Federalists were obliterating it, proclaiming that a “republican” government could be either directly or indirectly democratic.” Most users saw ‘republican’ and ‘democratic’ as distinct not from each other but from ‘monarchy’ and ‘aristocracy’. (p. 276-77)

In an awfully substantial footnote, Amar wades into the debate between scholars on how democratic the constitution is. He sifts out that the relevant question is not “whether the framers themselves were all zealous democrats/republicans” or not, but “whether the Constitution itself as finally enacted (and amended early on) was strongly democratic/republican when viewed in its legal and historical context.” Going on, he asks, “Why would men with less than fully democratic instincts propose a strongly democratic (in context) document?” As I mentioned earlier, the framers had to make a document that was acceptable to the wider public. (p. 279-80)

The Founders clearly applied many lessons from ancient Rome, yet they were unable to fully heed the warnings of the Greek myths. The siren’s song of populism, a hazard in any democracy, endangers liberty. We shouldn’t tie ourselves to the mast like Odysseus, but we must muffle our ears a little. Even from our beginning, the need to appease populist sympathies in any type of democracy is real. This acts as a strength in probably most cases, but Kluth reminds us of Fareed Zakaria’s Foreign Affairs’ article where he demonstrates to us that illiberal democracy and liberal autocracy aren’t oxymorons. In the balancing act between our democratic and republican ideals and our liberty we must forever cautiously adjust.

Final note. Don’t let any of these posts make you think this author disapproves of democracy – it’s just the liberty stifling aspects of it that I wish to mute. Of course, the fact that others and I need to remind readers that we don’t hate democracy every time we criticize it probably proves my original point.

The Great American Taboo: Democracy is Overrated

January 31, 2010 1 comment

Democracy is a morally necessary tool for a legitimate state and social contract, but the reality is that it is also a mechanism for choosing irrational policies. As Andreas Kluth, a correspondent for The Economist, said about democracy in a debate on if California is failed state, “James Madison didn’t want [the word] even used in the constitution of the country, because he was afraid—they had studied ancient Athens which was a failure because of direct democracy. They had studied Republican Rome, which was very stable, they wanted Rome, not Athens.”

In America, it is probably more blasphemous to criticize democracy than even religion. The founders recognized the need for a constitutional republic with limited state powers over a pure and far-reaching democracy for many reasons. In a book I read about a year ago, Bryan Caplan nails up his own version of the ninety-five theses. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies merges economic analysis with political science to explain why voters often act against their own (and the country’s) economic interests. I encourage everyone to read what I think is one of the most important and counter-intuitive studies of our political system.

Among all the fascinating data and analysis, in one of my favorite chapters Caplan explains the phenomenon of “rational irrationality” in voters. Any one person’s vote is astonishingly unlikely to sway an election. Therefore since an individual’s vote has more emotional effect on the individual than electoral effect it may be rational to vote in a way that makes the voter feel better than to vote for a policy that may be materially better for the nation. After all it is a lot of work to research and discover the most effective policies. Aside from effort, social costs can be high to hold unpopular beliefs regardless of their veracity. Also, even think of the politician for whom it makes more sense for him to vote for policies that get him elected over policies that might better the country. Human self-interest is an insight that doesn’t only apply to economics.

I imagine this is part of the reason politics can rarely be looked at dispassionately – people so often take offense if you criticize their preferences for a particular candidate or policy.
Voters see themselves as validating their own values so to criticize democracy one is seen, by extension, to be judging the integrity of the voter himself.

This is too similar to religion to ignore. In 2007, philosopher Dan Dennett gave a talk at the Atheist Alliance International convention where he outlines “good reasons” for belief in religion. He doesn’t mean reasons for beliefs in the doctrines of religion, but reasons for acting as though you believe in those doctrines. Watch his whole talk but it boils down to the social costs being very high for not being religious.

What Bryan Caplan argues for voters applies to the religious, “If agents care about both material wealth and irrational beliefs, then as the price of casting reason aside rises, agents consume less irrationality (p. 123).” The price for an individual consuming irrationality, whether it is in the voting booth or the church pew is often small, but in aggregate for society the cost can be very high. Although Caplan’s book is about political beliefs he, to his credit, spots the connection with religion. He writes, “Human beings
want their religion’s answers to be true. They often want it so badly that they avoid counterevidence, and refuse to think about whatever evidence falls in their laps[…] Once you admit that preferences over beliefs are relevant in religion it is hard to compartmentalize the insight (p. 15).”

Understanding that voters can be irrational and the reasons for it tempers enthusiasm for democracy (and often increases appreciation for markets). A balance obviously has to be found between giving citizens the power to make their own decisions as voters and limiting the influence that a group of potentially irrational voters can have over another group of citizens. But an important step is to break the taboo that democracy always good.
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